After string of defeats, will 2016 be start of conservative comeback?

Conservative parties are on track to win the provincial elections in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in 2016. But will a conservative comeback be short-lived?

Prairies could deliver victories to right-of-centre parties, but the revival may be brief

Manitoba Conservative and opposition leader Brian Pallister, left, and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall have the chance to reverse a string of electoral losses by conservative parties, when voters go to the polls in the two provinces in 2016. (Canadian Press)

After eight consecutive provincial and federal defeats for their side, are Canada's conservatives poised to make a comeback in 2016?

Two provinces are heading to the polls in April, and in both cases the main right-of-centre party on the ballot is expected to win: the opposition Progressive Conservatives under Brian Pallister in Manitoba and Premier Brad Wall's governing Saskatchewan Party in Saskatchewan.

Both parties hold wide leads over their nearest rivals and look set to bring the losing streak of conservative parties in Canada to an end. But the comeback may be short-lived.

Another win for Wall?

The safest bet in the two provincial contests may be on the re-election of Brad Wall. He is Canada's perennially most popular premier, scoring an approval rating of 60 per cent in the most recent survey from the Angus Reid Institute.

And in the last poll to come out of the province, conducted in mid-November by Insightrix Research, the Saskatchewan Party garnered 54 per cent support, against just 25 per cent for the opposition New Democrats.

Though these are the lowest levels of support that Wall or his party has managed since his landslide victory in 2011, they're still numbers that any premier facing re-election in less than four months' time would gladly take. The biggest obstacle for the NDP may simply be that public opinion has hardly budged in the province in years.

Monthly provincial political polling averages in Saskatchewan, 2010 to 2015. (Saskatchewan Party dark green, NDP orange, Liberals red, Greens green) (ThreeHundredEight.com)

The performance of the Conservative Party in Saskatchewan in October's federal election also bodes well for Wall. Though the Conservatives took their lowest share of the vote in the province since 2004, their 48.5 per cent tally would be more than enough for Wall to secure victory. The federal New Democrats took 25 per cent of the vote, equal to the provincial party's standing in the latest poll.

Justin Trudeau's Liberals took 24 per cent of the vote, but the provincial party will have trouble getting anywhere near that level of support. It stood at just 14 per cent in the Insightrix poll, a score the Saskatchewan Liberals haven't managed in any election since 2003. In 2011, the disorganized party nominated only nine candidates in the province's 58 seats, and took just 0.6 per cent of the vote. 

But considering Wall's personal approval ratings, he is unlikely to need a division of the vote to his left in order to give Canada's conservatives its first victory in almost three years.

Unpopular Manitoba premier

In neighbouring Manitoba, however, Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives will be looking to benefit from a divided vote.

The results of the 2011 provincial election demonstrated the party's inefficient vote. Despite the gap between the PCs and the NDP decreasing by eight points compared with the previous election in 2007, the New Democrats actually increased the size of their majority government. This was partly due to new riding boundaries, but also to the Tories' weakness in Winnipeg and the over-abundance of its support in the rural parts of the province.

The rigidity of the PCs' support in Manitoba has also been a bit of an obstacle. The party's support has hardly budged since the last campaign, and with the exception of one election since 1981 the PCs have always taken between 38 and 44 per cent of the vote. The latest survey from Probe Research, taken in mid-December, put the PCs at 43 per cent.

Monthly provincial political polling averages in Manitoba, 2010 to 2015. (PCs blue, NDP orange, Liberals red, Greens green) (ThreeHundredEight.com)

So the fall in support for Premier Greg Selinger has been a blessing for the Progressive Conservatives. While Wall is Canada's most popular premier, Selinger is the country's least. The latest survey from the Angus Reid Institute put his approval rating at just 22 per cent, with his disapproval rating standing at 65 per cent. His New Democrats trail in the Probe poll by 21 points, putting them in third place with 22 per cent.

The Liberals, under Rana Bokhari, have been polling much higher than they have for a very long time, with 29 per cent support in the latest poll. The Liberals haven't taken that much of the vote in a provincial election since 1988.

But with most of that support coming from Selinger's New Democrats, it improves the odds that Pallister can give the Manitoba Tories their first win since 1995 — even if he takes no more of the vote than he did in 2011.

A brief comeback?

If the immediate future for conservative parties is looking bright, the longer term forecast is cloudier.

Next on the electoral calendar in 2017 is British Columbia, where the right-of-centre B.C. Liberals will be seeking re-election to extend what will be 16 years in office. Nova Scotia may also go to the polls in 2017, and the Liberals there, who will only be asking for re-election for the first time, are currently leading by a country mile. 

In fact, Saskatchewan and Manitoba may be the only reasonably likely bits of good news for some time. Conservative parties are at one of their lowest ebbs in Atlantic Canada, are divided in Alberta, and are unlikely to breakthrough in Quebec any time soon. The Ontario Liberals may be vulnerable in 2018, but they have defied expectations on numerous occasions, often aided by the political choices of the Ontario PCs.

With Saskatchewan and Manitoba being the only provincial elections scheduled for 2016, the year might go to conservative parties. But the euphoria may not last very long.

The poll by the Angus Reid Institute was conducted between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, interviewing 1,054 Saskatchewanians and 801 Manitobans via the Internet. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.

The poll by Insightrix Research was conducted between Nov. 10 and 12, 2015, interviewing 803 Saskatchewanians via the Internet. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.

The poll by Probe Research was conducted between Dec. 3 and 15, 2015, interviewing 1,000 Manitobans via the telephone. The margin of error associated with the survey is +/- 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


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.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?