As Ottawa mulls shorter election campaigns, here's how they would have changed history

The Liberals are considering limiting the length of election campaigns, which could have caused big differences in the results of some recent votes.

On average, races that defeated governments have been longer, for instance in 2015

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould is considering legislation that would impose shorter election campaigns. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Liberals, elected at the end of one of Canada's longest election campaigns, are considering imposing a 43-day limit on future races.

Had the 2015 election period been limited to just over six weeks, however, the Liberals might not be in power today.

Karina Gould, minister of democratic institutions, is considering adopting the recommendations of the Commons procedure and House affairs committee to limit the writ period to 43 days, following the chief electoral officer's suggestion that lengthy campaigns "can compromise the level playing field by favouring campaigns that have access to more resources."

Though her department would not confirm that the change is coming, the minister told the National Post that the suggestion has "value."

Spanning 78 days from the dropping of the writs to the Oct. 19 vote, the 2015 campaign was the longest since federal elections were first held on the same day across the country in 1874.

Due to its unprecedented running time, parties' spending limits in 2015 were set at $55 million — though no party came close to spending that much. Nevertheless, the election laws as they currently stand give the government the right to choose the length of the campaign. The only limitation is that it must be at least 36 days long.

A 43-day ceiling, however, would make for a shorter campaign than has usually been the case in Canada. Campaigns since 1874 have averaged 51.5 days, and 29 of 42 elections have lasted longer than six weeks. Shorter campaigns have become more of a recent convention, with the 2005-06 and 2015 campaigns being the only ones over the last 20 years longer than six weeks.

3-way tie 6 weeks in

It is impossible to know what the impact of a shorter campaign would have been in 2015. The parties would have changed their campaign strategies accordingly, and with the fixed election date the campaign would have started later, rather than the election date being earlier.

But those caveats aside, the 2015 results would have been much different had the vote taken place on Sept. 14, 43 days after the writs dropped and 35 days earlier than was actually the case.

The New Democrats were leading in the polls on Sept. 14, according to the CBC Poll Tracker projection for that date, with 31.5 per cent, followed closely by the Liberals at 29.9 per cent and the Conservatives at 29.6 per cent.

It was nearly a three-way tie, with the parties close enough that with normal polling errors any of them could have finished first, second or third.

The seat count would have also been very close. The seat projection on Sept. 14 was for the New Democrats to win between 99 and 130 seats, the Liberals between 84 and 120 seats and the Conservatives between 100 and 141 seats.

That means any of the three parties could have emerged with the most seats in what would have likely been a volatile minority government.

Instead, the Liberals benefited from the long campaign to turn their third-place position at the start into a majority government. Polls suggest they needed the entirety of the 78-day campaign to reach that point.

Conservative majority in 2006?

The historical timeline would have also been impacted significantly in the previous election that spanned more than six weeks. 

The 2005-06 campaign began on Nov. 29, 2005 and ended on Jan. 23, 2006, totaling 55 days. Had it been a little less than two weeks shorter, however, the result could have been quite different.

The campaign reached its worst point for the incumbent Liberals at the six-week mark. Paul Martin's party had entered the campaign with a lead in the polls and reasonable expectations of re-election, but by Jan. 11 — 43 days after the writs were dropped — the Conservatives were on pace for a big win.

Stephen Harper led the Conservative Party to a minority government in the 2005-06 federal election campaign. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Three polls conducted around that time put the Conservatives at about 39 per cent support, with the Liberals at 28 per cent and the NDP at 16 per cent. That margin would have put the Conservatives potentially in majority territory.

Instead, the polls tightened in the last days of the campaign and the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, though still ousting the Liberals from power, won just a minority government with 36 per cent support to the Liberals' 30 per cent.

Shorter campaigns re-elect governments

As the examples of the 2006 and 2015 elections show, a few days can make a big difference in politics — and in both cases the governing party made the wrong choice in opting for a longer campaign (the Conservatives and Liberals were roughly tied at the 36-day mark in 2005-06).

In fact, since 1874 campaigns that have resulted in a government's defeat have been an average of eight days longer than campaigns in which a government was re-elected.

This might suggest that governments are better off choosing shorter election campaigns anyway. New electoral time limits would make that decision for them.

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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