Federal byelection has good signs for Conservatives and Liberals, but not NDP

The Conservatives won a stronghold riding in impressive fashion in yesterday's federal byelection in Medicine Hat–Cardston–Warner, while the Liberals increased their vote share. The NDP, however, dropped to just 1 per cent — and fourth place.

Conservatives retain support, Liberals increase theirs and NDP finishes 4th

The Conservatives' Glen Motz won Monday's federal byelection in Medicine Hat–Cardston–Warner. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Byelections rarely hold any wider political significance — one held in the reliably Conservative stronghold of southern Alberta doubly so. But Monday night's results in the Medicine Hat–Cardston–Warner federal byelection do provide some signals as to the states of the federal parties: resilience for the Conservatives, popularity for the Liberals, and deep malaise for the NDP.

The byelection, called to replace a vacancy following the death of Conservative MP Jim Hillyer earlier this year, was easily won by the incumbent party. And the Conservatives rightly deserve recognition for their creditable win.

Their candidate, Glen Motz, captured 69.9 per cent of the vote on turnout of 44.5 per cent — respectable for a byelection. While his raw vote total dropped by 10,917 compared to Hillyer's performance in the 2015 federal election, that was proportionate to the drop in turnout.

In fact, the Conservative share of the vote increased by 1.1 points. That was in line with the party's support over the last three federal elections — commendable considering the Conservatives were then in government and are now in opposition without a permanent leader.

Liberal vote up

The Liberals also have positive news to take from the byelection results, which seem to corroborate the national polls that have shown Justin Trudeau's support up since the last federal vote. There was no apparent blowback from the government's position on carbon pricing in this part of southern Alberta, as Stan Sakamoto improved the party's vote share by 7.7 points to 25.6 per cent.

That was the Liberal Party's best performance (in the predecessor riding of Medicine Hat) since 1974. Even that number was put up by Bud Olson, a former MP for the riding who had crossed the floor to the Liberals from Social Credit prior to the 1968 federal election. That 1968 vote was the last time the Liberals, thanks to their floor-crossing candidate, won the seat.

Sakamoto's raw vote total was just 307 votes short of Glen Allen's performance for the Liberals in 2015. To put that into context, the total amount of ballots cast for all parties in Medicine Hat–Cardston–Warner dropped by over 16,000.

The Liberals might have been hoping for better, however, after a visit from Trudeau, a rare appearance by a sitting prime minister in the midst of federal byelection campaign.

A visit from Justin Trudeau did not win the riding for the Liberals, though the party's vote share increased from 2015. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The most revealing result might be the poor showing of the New Democrats.

The NDP has never been much of a force in Medicine Hat, its high watermark being 15 per cent of the vote in 1988. But the party's support in this part of the province has been steady at between eight and 13 per cent of the vote since 2004. Last year, the New Democrats captured 9.7 per cent.

Behind Christian Heritage

Beverley Ann Waege, the NDP candidate this time, took just one per cent of the vote — the worst performance for the New Democrats here in the party's history. In 2015, 4,897 people in the riding voted for the New Democrats. Yesterday, only 353 people did.

That was just seven per cent of the vote the New Democrats captured a little over a year ago. By comparison, the Liberals retained 97 per cent of their vote and the Conservatives 69 per cent of theirs.

The NDP's score was so low that the party actually finished fourth in the riding. The third place showing went to the Christian Heritage Party and its leader, Rod Taylor. He received two per cent of the vote, or about twice as much as Waege.

In fact, the NDP just finished ahead of the Libertarian and Rhinoceros Party candidates. The Green Party did not run a candidate.

While the future of the NDP — which is currently without a permanent leader, just like the Conservatives — will not hang on the results of this byelection, there is no sugar-coating for the New Democrats that a national party put up numbers similar to or worse than a number of fringe parties. 

Not necessarily bad portent

And that the byelection occurred in a normally unfriendly part of the country cannot entirely explain the NDP's results. In May 2015, the provincial NDP won the riding of Medicine Hat. Waege was the provincial NDP's candidate in the riding of Cypress–Medicine Hat, which makes up most of the rest of the federal seat. She received 3,201 votes there little over a year ago.

Nevertheless, the New Democrats have performed poorly in recent byelections that have primarily been contests between the Liberals and Conservatives. So the results do not necessarily portend dark times ahead for the NDP. But one of the reasons the party is struggling in the polls is because the Liberals have hoovered up a large proportion of the NDP's support among progressives.

The byelection results in Medicine Hat–Cardston–Warner are emblematic of how big of a problem that could be for the NDP going forward.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.