Justin Trudeau's Liberals win byelections again where it matters most

The Conservatives picked up support in three of four byelections, but the Liberals won the kind of seat that will decide the next federal election in 2019.

Conservatives gain vote share in 3 of 4 byelections, but lose the only seat that was really up for grabs

Gordie Hogg won the seat of South Surrey–White Rock for the Liberals in beyelections on Monday, the first time the party has won the area since 1949. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's Liberals would win another another majority government in 2019 if the party gains enough seats in Quebec and British Columbia to make up for losses in the rest of the country. A demonstration of how that would work was made, for the second time in less than two months, in federal byelections on Monday.

Despite losses in vote share in three of the four byelections, the Liberals came out as winners with their breakthrough victory in the hotly contested B.C. seat of South Surrey–White Rock, a riding that had been held by the Conservatives for more than 40 years.

The Liberals held on to their two seats in Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador, while the Conservatives retained their seat in Saskatchewan.

Across the four ridings, the Conservatives were the only party to increase their overall vote share. But the loss of a second seat is another knock against party leader Andrew Scheer. 

Things might have turned out better for him had the night not been so disappointing for the NDP's newly minted leader, Jagmeet Singh. NDP support dropped in all four ridings, dashing any hopes the Conservatives might have had that Singh could peel voters away from the Liberals, particularly in suburban Toronto and the Greater Vancouver region.

Liberals winning where it counts

Not since 1949 have the Liberals represented the part of the country now occupied by the riding of South Surrey–White Rock. Since becoming leader in 2013, Trudeau has made a net gain of four seats in byelections. The last Liberal leader to accomplish that was Mackenzie King.

The Liberals picked up six points in South Surrey–White Rock, taking 47.5 per cent of the vote. With the Conservatives dropping 1.9 points, that was more than enough to overcome the 2.5-point margin the Conservatives won by in 2015.

Much of the victory can be chalked up to Liberal candidate Gordie Hogg, who was a B.C. Liberal MLA for 20 years. He was also both a former provincial cabinet minister and mayor of White Rock. 

His win follows the blueprint the Liberals established in their victory in the Quebec riding of Lac-Saint-Jean in October, when local Mayor Richard Hébert was able to steal away a formerly Conservative seat. But good candidates only run for parties they think they have a chance of winning, and right now the Liberals are recruiting the better candidates.

The results help confirm the Liberals' stronger polling numbers in B.C., as the win in Quebec confirmed their polling gains there. But the results Monday night also corroborate the party's poorer polls in the rest of the country.

The Liberals dropped vote share in the other three ridings, putting them down an average 3.8 points across all four despite Hogg's gain in South Surrey–White Rock. They were down 2.6 points in Scarborough–Agincourt, 6.1 points in Battlefords–Lloydminster and 12.6 points in Bonavista–Trinity–Burin.

But the Liberal losses came where they could afford them. The party had won Scarborough–Agincourt by 14 points and Bonavista–Burin–Trinity by by 72 points in 2015. The Conservative loss, on the other hand, came where they could afford it the least.

Trudeau on byelection win

5 years ago
Duration 0:29
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters as he arrived for his weekly cabinet meeting

Conservatives losing where it hurts

The Conservatives and their predecessor parties had held the area making up present-day South Surrey–White Rock since 1974 and had a high-profile candidate of their own in Kerry-Lynne Findlay, a former Conservative cabinet minister.

The Conservatives did make gains in vote share in the other three byelections, picking up 2.5 points in Scarborough–Agincourt, 8.6 points in Battlefords–Lloydminster and 12.8 points in Bonavista–Burin–Trinity. But this follows the pattern the party has followed in byelections held so far in this Parliament.

The Conservatives have averaged a six-point gain in byelections where the outcome was never in doubt. In the byelections that were even marginally competitive, however, the Conservatives have not averaged any gain whatsoever. Instead, they have lost two of their own seats.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, left, with defeated South Surrey–White Rock candidate Kerry-Lynne Findlay. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Those seats losses mar what have otherwise been good byelection results for the Conservatives. The party averaged a 5.5-point gain across the four byelections and has picked up an average of 3.6 points in the 12 byelections held since the 2015 general vote. 

The party closed the gap in Scarborough–Agincourt, a region of the country where the Conservatives need to make gains in 2019. It was their best result in the riding since 1988, while the party put up its strongest results in Battlefords–Lloydminster since the riding was created before the 1997 election.

But gains need to come where they will translate into seats. The Conservatives' biggest increase in Bonavista–Burin–Trinity, for example, would still not win the party a single seat in Newfoundland and Labrador if it were replicated across the province. 

Scheer has now dropped two seats since becoming Conservative leader. The last party leader to do that was Stéphane Dion before he led the Liberals to defeat in the 2008 election.

NDP support drops in Singh's 1st real test

The New Democrats haven't yet had to defend one of their own seats in byelections. But Monday's vote posed the first real test for Singh, who became leader after the kickoff of the last set of byelection campaigns in October.

The party dropped an average of 3.8 points across the four ridings, a worse result than the NDP's 2.2-point decrease in four byelections in April when the party was in the midst of its leadership campaign.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh saw his party's support drop in all four ridings on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The 2.8-point loss in Scarborough–Agincourt, in the city where Singh was born, and the 5.5-point slide in South Surrey–White Rock, in a province that is key to the NDP's electoral hopes in 2019, should be disappointing for the party as the Greater Toronto and Vancouver areas are where Singh has the most promise for NDP gains in the next election.

Though the NDP retained its second-place showing in Battlefords–Lloydminster, the only silver lining for the party on Monday, it was with its worst result there in its modern boundaries. The party's scores in South Surrey–White Rock and Scarborough–Agincourt were the lowest since 1993 and 2000, respectively, the two worst elections in the party's history.

Scheer and Singh still have almost two years to rebound. The results of these four byelections won't decide the outcome of the next general election. But after falling short when put to the test by real voters — not by polls or pundits — the two opposition leaders might be worried about how successful Trudeau's Liberals could be in scaling up these byelections wins, where they matter most, in 2019.


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.


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