Analysis

Voters want something new, campaigns (sometimes) still matter — and other political lessons of 2018

Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and the U.S. midterms: Change was in the air in 2018's elections. And that could hold a few broader lessons for the eventful election year to come.

Change was in the air in elections north and south of the border

On June 7, Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives secured a majority government in Ontario's provincial election. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

If one word could describe the theme linking the many elections of 2018, it would be "change."

Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec all saw provincial governments shift from Liberal red to various shades of conservative blue. In the United States, voters also changed the hue of their House of Representatives, with the Democrats taking control of one of the two chambers of the U.S. Congress.

It was an election year with a few broader lessons for the eventful election year to come. Alberta, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are all expected to go to the polls before 2019 is up — while minority governments in British Columbia and New Brunswick could fall over little more than a flu outbreak on the government benches.

There's also that federal election, to be held on Oct. 21.

Looking back on the last 12 months is a good place to start as we peek around the corner at the new year. After all, the electoral lessons of 2017 were on full display in 2018.

Candidates mattered in 2018 — something the Conservatives' Richard Martel demonstrated when the former junior hockey coach won a federal byelection in the Quebec riding of Chicoutimi–Le Fjord, stealing a seat away from the Liberals. Small parties continued to defy the limits of the first-past-the-post electoral system. And a year of largely solid election polling — in Ontario, New Brunswick and the U.S. midterms — was marred by one miss in Quebec.

Campaigns still matter ...

The old yarn that campaigns matter held true in 2018, as parties waited until the writs were dropped before making significant gains in the polls.

At the outset of the Ontario campaign, the New Democrats and Liberals were virtually tied. But by the end of the campaign, centre-left voters tired of the 15-year-old Liberal government and concerned about the prospect of a Premier Doug Ford had flocked to the NDP.

Support for Andrea Horwath's party ballooned by seven points, allowing her to end the campaign with 33.6 per cent of the vote — the NDP's best election performance since it last formed government in 1990. The Liberals under Kathleen Wynne plummeted by 6.5 points over the course of the campaign, ending at 19.6 per cent.

Andrea Horwath's New Democrats formed the Official Opposition in Ontario's provincial election in June - the party's best showing since it formed government in 1990. (David Donnelly/CBC)

That was a historic low for the provincial Liberals: an election that looked to be a tough one for the party turned out to be a disaster.

In New Brunswick, voters disillusioned with the Liberal-PC duopoly in the province tried something new. The Greens saw their support increase by about four points during the campaign, while the People's Alliance nearly doubled its support to 12.6 per cent.

Both parties ended the campaign with three seats apiece, producing a minority government — the first in New Brunswick in nearly a century — instead of the majority that looked to be in the cards over the summer.

... except when they don't

But while campaigns still matter, they don't always matter more than everything else. Two party leaders survived lacklustre campaigns to emerge as premiers commanding big majorities in the Ontario and Quebec legislatures.

Following a whirlwind leadership contest that kicked off the year and resulted in Doug Ford taking over the Ontario PCs, Ford launched a general election campaign that stumbled from one blunder to another.

There were stories about actors hired to attend PC rallies, Ford's lack of a policy platform, controversies related both to candidates nominated by former leader Patrick Brown and to those selected or supported by Ford himself (Andrew Lawton and Kinga Surma, to take two examples). There was a shaky first debate performance at the beginning of the campaign and, at the end, the news that Renata Ford, Rob Ford's widow, would be suing her former brother-in-law.

On Oct. 1, François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec formed a majority government in the Quebec provincial election - the first time since 1966 that a party other than the Liberals or Parti Québécois won. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

In Quebec, François Legault was knocked off message by his handling of the immigration file. The Coalition Avenir Québec leader betrayed a lack of familiarity with the immigration system and came under fire from Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, who charged that Legault would take immigrants who failed to learn French and abandon them on the Quebec-Ontario border.

But despite these hiccups, both Ford and Legault won solid majority governments — just as they were both projected to do months before their respective provincial election campaigns had even started.

Voters are shopping around

The year also saw the bonds between voters and establishment parties continue to break down. This trend has potentially significant ramifications for the elections to come in 2019, as the Alberta Party, the P.E.I. Greens and the People's Party of Canada under Maxime Bernier look to take advantage of the disruption.

The CAQ's breakthrough smashed the traditional back and forth between Liberal and Parti Québécois governments that had dominated Quebec for nearly half a century. The last time a party other than those two had won an election was in 1966, when the Union Nationale — a centre-right nationalist party much like the CAQ — formed its last government.

In the Quebec provincial election on Oct. 1, Manon Massé led Québec Solidaire to its best performance ever with 10 seats. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press )

The success of the left-wing sovereignist Québec Solidaire was another notable development. The party went from three seats to 10, tying the PQ in the seat count and nearly beating the party in the popular vote. More importantly, QS expanded out of its downtown Montreal core to win seats in Quebec City, Sherbrooke and western Quebec.

In New Brunswick, too, the old parties took a step back due to the gains of the Greens and People's Alliance. The Liberals and PCs captured just under 70 per cent of the vote, their lowest combined share since 1991. As recently as 2006, their combined total was 95 per cent.

You can't defy the odds when people don't like you

Some beleaguered politicians spent much of 2018 hoping to pull off the sort of electoral upset they or their parties had engineered before. But in the end, their own unpopularity proved too much to overcome.

There was Wynne and the Ontario Liberals, trailing in the polls but banking on pulling off the kind of comeback that former premier Dalton McGuinty had managed in previous elections. It never happened. Instead, Wynne conceded she was going to lose before the votes were even counted.

In Quebec, some observers were convinced that the Liberals would out-perform their polls — pointing to previous elections where that had happened, while ignoring the ones where it didn't. In the end, the Quebec Liberals significantly under-performed their polling by levels never seen before.

U.S. President Donald Trump saw the Democrats make their biggest midterm gains since the Richard Nixon administration in the Nov. 6 elections to the House of Representatives. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

And in the run-up to the midterm elections in the United States, President Donald Trump's backers looked with hope to the misunderstood polling miss in the 2016 presidential election — when the polls turned in a fairly normal performance, except in the handful of states that made the difference.

While the Republicans beat their polling in a few Senate races, the party lost the popular vote by nearly nine points in the battle for the House of Representatives — on par with, or even worse than, what the polls suggested.

Trudeau: agent of change or its future victim?

Change was clearly in the air in 2018, and more may be in store in 2019. Rachel Notley's New Democrats are trailing badly in the polls in Alberta and Wade MacLauchlan's Liberals are running neck-and-neck with the P.E.I. Green Party

The question for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals, however, is whether their last win was a leading indicator of the desire for change that was just beginning to sweep across the country, first marked by Notley's NDP in Alberta and then carried through in provincial changes of government in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2015, Manitoba in 2016 and British Columbia in 2017.

If it was, then Trudeau might stand a good chance of being re-elected in October. Otherwise, the Liberals might find themselves pulled back out to sea by the same wave that brought them to power in 2015.

About the Author

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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