Few losing opposition leaders get a second chance — and fewer still succeed if they get it

Only two Canadian opposition leaders defeated in their first election became prime minister on their second try. Andrew Scheer wants to be the third.

Andrew Scheer points to Stephen Harper's 2004 defeat for inspiration, but Harper's accomplishment was rare

Only two opposition leaders defeated in their first election became prime minister after their second campaign: Wilfrid Laurier and Stephen Harper. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants to be the third. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

"Remember 2004, Stephen Harper's first election," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told his audience on election night after the results showed his party with fewer seats than the Liberals.

"He erased Paul Martin's majority and then went on to lead a Conservative government that lasted for nearly 10 years."

Scheer, facing a leadership review by party members in April, has good reason to hope Conservatives remember Harper's experience in 2004. There's a much longer list of first-time losers that history has been content to forget.

It's not unusual for an opposition leader to lose an election the first time out. Excluding former leaders who had been prime ministers previously, Scheer is the 15th opposition leader to lose his first election. This list includes some of the country's most storied prime ministers — names like Wilfrid Laurier and Robert Borden.

But it also includes a lot of people who never won the top job.

Of the opposition leaders who lost their first elections, seven were given a second chance to lead their parties into general elections. (We're excluding the case of Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe after the 1997 election; he was the incumbent opposition leader but was never in the running to become prime minister).

Six were not given (or did not take) another kick at the can: Robert Manion (1940), John Bracken (1945), Stockwell Day (2000), Stéphane Dion (2008), Michael Ignatieff (2011) and Tom Mulcair (2015).

Five of the seven opposition leaders who were given a second chance went on to a second consecutive defeat: Edward Blake (1882 and 1887), Robert Borden (1904 and 1908), George Drew (1949 and 1953), Lester Pearson (1958 and 1962) and Robert Stanfield (1968 and 1972).

The third time was the charm for Borden and Pearson, who both won power in their third elections as party leaders in 1911 and 1963. Stanfield didn't; he resigned after his final defeat in 1974.

That leaves just two former opposition leaders who followed the two-step path that Scheer is pitching to Conservative voters today. Harper lost in 2004 but defeated Martin's Liberals in 2006. Laurier lost his first election as leader in 1891 (defeated by John A. Macdonald in his last election before his death) and was swept to power in 1896.

But the situation facing Scheer is quite different from the political climates surrounding the sophomore efforts of Harper and Laurier. Harper was given another chance after his defeat — but the Liberals had been in power for 11 years at that point. Laurier also stuck around after 1891 — but that was the end of an era in which the Conservatives had governed for all but four years since Confederation.

Scheer gained more seats than most defeated first-timers

Scheer is hoping that Conservative Party members will add his name to the list that includes Borden and Harper, rather than sending him off to join historical footnotes like Manion and Bracken.

He does have some results to back up his argument. He pointed to them in his election night concession speech, highlighting how the Conservatives gained in both seats and the popular vote — and won more of the popular vote than the Liberals did.

The Conservatives gained 22 seats and 2.5 percentage points over their performance in the 2015 federal election. The fact that Scheer won more seats than his predecessor does put him in more elite company among defeated first-time opposition leaders — only five others have ever pulled it off. On average, defeated first-time opposition leaders have lost 12 seats.

After losing the 2004 federal election, Stephen Harper stayed on as leader of the Conservative Party. He subsequently won the 2006 election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Only two other opposition leaders who lost their first elections picked up as many seats as Scheer did. Harper captured 21 more seats in 2004 than the combined performance of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives in 2000 — and he stayed on as leader. But Bracken picked up 28 seats in 1945; he still ended up resigning.

Scheer also has been reminding everyone that the Conservative opposition of 121 MPs is the largest in Canadian history. This is true — but the number of seats in the House has increased along with the Canadian population. As a share of seats in the House of Commons, Scheer's Conservative opposition is the largest since 1980.

It's where you win that counts

Despite the gains made by the Conservatives under Scheer, he has come in for some criticism over the lack of progress the party made in the two largest provinces.

The Conservatives took just 33.2 per cent of the vote in Ontario, down nearly two points from 2015's losing effort. The party captured just 16 per cent of the vote in Quebec, down almost one point.

It was the Conservative Party's worst performance in both provinces since Harper's first election as leader in 2004 — though that was in the context of the party still shaking off the image of the Reform and Canadian Alliance brands, which never had much appeal in either Ontario or Quebec.

Harper also increased his merged parties' number of seats in Ontario to 24 from just two. Scheer only found a few more seats for his party in Ontario, increasing the size of that caucus to 36 from 33 seats.

This might prove to be Scheer's biggest problem with the Harper comparison. Like Scheer, Harper reduced the Liberals to a minority government and made significant seat gains for his party.

But Harper's gains came where the Conservatives needed them the most — a net gain of 22 seats in Ontario, compared to just two in Western Canada. Scheer, on the other hand, put the Conservatives up three seats in Ontario and 17 in the West.

Scheer has shown he can win where his party's base is strongest. But he has yet to prove that he can deliver in the electorally decisive parts of the country. In the end, Scheer isn't asking only Conservative members to give him a second chance. He needs voters in Ontario and Quebec to give him another shot, too.


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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