By-Election Breakdown: Who won? Who lost? And why not enough people cared

The stakes were high in last night’s three by-elections that were geared to establish a narrative of momentum going into the October national vote. These are the last wins that parties could mount as trophies on their electoral shelf.

In a unique twist, everyone eked out a win.

  • WIN: The NDP’s Leader Jagmeet Singh won a higher NDP vote percentage in Burnaby South than his predecessor in 2015, giving him a spot in the House of Commons in advance of the 2019 election and allowing him to comfortably stay on as Leader of his party;
  • WIN: The Conservatives replaced retiring Harper cabinet stalwart Peter Van Loan with Scot Davidson, which keeps a foothold for them in the vote-rich GTA on top of increasing the Conservative vote percentage from 2015;
  • WIN: The Liberals are +1 in total seats after taking the riding of Outremont, following over a decade of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair holding that seat. Liberal insider Rachel Bendayan will be the next MP for Outremont – a proof-point for Liberals in Quebec that the SNC-Lavalin Affair is playing differently there;
  • WIN: The Green Party can point to a historic result in Outremont, winning 12.5% — enough to get their financial deposit back and enough to signal momentum; and
  • WIN: The Peoples’ Party, Maxime Bernier’s new political vehicle only in its infancy, ran candidates in all three by-elections and their Burnaby South candidate Laura-Lynn Thompson won over 10% of the vote there on a socially conservative platform.

In terms of short-term momentum, this could be chalked up as a wash for all parties. However, looking further down the road, this has cemented an NDP leader for the October campaign with weak poll numbers, national fundraising results, national media presence, and personal policy branding. Prime Minister Trudeau’s team is likely optimistic if his track-record as Leader continues down this path.

Singh’s NDP Caucus colleagues will now get to spend more time with him in Ottawa, but almost 1 in 4 of them won’t be standing with him in October by running for re-election. The NDP’s future hinges on Singh showing up to Ottawa and making a strong impression during the handful of Parliamentary sitting weeks left before the summer recess, which will put all party leaders on the road.

The regional story here is one that matches what many observers have been forecasting. The Liberals may be weakening in BC while the NDP are weakening in Quebec. The small surges for the Greens and Peoples’ Party eat away at left and right-wing parties respectively, which may leave space for the Liberals in the middle to hold ground.

The arc of these by-elections was about symbolism on the national stage more than anything though and voters play into that when they are being put on a pedestal. This is why party leaders are usually gifted seats, even if it’s not their home region. Canadians would be too polite to see Singh crumble before he even got a real chance.

The Liberals spent the evening spinning a narrative that government parties don’t usually win by-elections, yet they have swung three ridings away from other parties toward their own since 2015. As by-elections are mere jolts of momentum anchored in a moment in time – this trend is perhaps not emblematic of historic levels of enthusiasm for the Liberals. These ridings mostly pivoted at key moments in time around popular candidates who had been Mayors or community leaders already.

While all parties will—and should—celebrate the wins for their members that drive donations and door knocks, there was a real loser last night.

By-elections traditionally have worse turnout than general elections, which themselves have seen steady decline over time. The 2015 election saw a brief uptick to almost 60%, but the expected trend after 2011 was set to see less than 1 in 2 Canadians vote.

Even considering poor weather in some areas, each of these by-election ridings saw only about 1 in 5 eligible people vote.

It’s a real shame that parties may be able to point to percentage gains and momentum for their side, but ultimately we are talking about only a small vote differential in ridings with populations of almost 100,000.

Now, as we turn from by-elections to the general election on October 21, 2019 – it will be key for all parties who want to win big to tap into those other 4 out of 5 to help us really see where Canadians want their country to go.