Monday, January 23, 2012

Just how big an electoral challenge do Liberals face in 2015?

Buoyed by the energy of this month’s policy convention, Liberals across the country might feel compelled to look forward to the next election with enthusiasm. By then Stephen Harper will have been in power for almost 10 years and Canadians may embrace the next leader of the Liberal Party rather than one of the eight contenders currently vying for the NDP’s top job. However, for the Liberals to defeat the Conservatives in 2015 they need a comeback of historic proportions. 

You can read the rest of the article on The Globe and Mail website here.

Some Liberals at the recent convention seemed to realize the enormity of the task ahead of them, but the idea that the Liberals could return to power in 2015 seems extremely unlikely. As this article shows, the Liberals would need to overcome the largest margin in Canada's federal electoral history to defeat a sitting government.

History is always ready to be re-written, and considering the exceptional nature of the 2011 election it is certainly possible that the 2015 election will be just as historic. At this point, though, it doesn't look like 2015 is lining up to be this sort of historic election, though admittedly 2011 wasn't looking like a historic year even a couple weeks before the vote.

That means 2019 should be the Liberal target. A sensible strategy would seem to be a return to Official Opposition status in 2015 and then a to return to power in 2019. Another minority in 2015 and some sort of governing coalition with the New Democrats, however, would radically change things. That is a far more likely outcome than a Liberal-led minority or majority government in 2015, but is something that the Liberals should probably not be exclusively pursuing.

Being second fiddle in a coalition makes it more likely that, in a subsequent election, the leading party in the coalition (i.e., the NDP) would be given power alone or that the opposition party (i.e. the Conservatives) would be returned to power. Unless the Liberals are setting their ambitions low, this is something that, for their sake, might actually be better avoided.

But 2019 is very far away. According to the polls, Bob Rae has been doing a good job as interim leader and if he becomes permanent leader he could do very well in 2015. He will be 71 years old in 2019, and if elected Prime Minister that year would be the oldest since Charles Tupper, who was 74 years old when he was sworn-in in 1896. Rae would actually be the second oldest Prime Minister in Canada's history. That means 2019 could be a historic election if 2015 doesn't make the cut.


  1. The barrier is far less insurmountable if the goal is to be the senior partner in a Liberal-NDP coalition though.

    Consider a (308 seat) parliament with the following: 130 Conservatives, 90 Liberals, 80 NDP, 7 Bloc, 1 Green. There have been projections this year not far off that, and I think that sort of result would be enough to put Rae (or whoever else from the Liberals) into the PM's chair.

  2. In my view, you're about spot on Eric - 2019 should be our goal for either government or even for Official Opposition.

    I think this because I make two assumptions: one, the NDP's Quebec base will remain to 2015, and that they'll remain the main "party of replacement" when the Conservatives time is up. The Liberal Party's goal should be to position themselves in a way that says, "when these guys fuck up after their time in government, we know you don't want the Conservatives back. So vote Liberal!"

    It makes sense to me because the Liberals need to position themselves as alternatives to a Conservative-Dipper paradigm. The best way to do that is to allow those two parties exhaust themselves in government. That's how Mike Harris got in in 1995.

  3. That opens up a whole new type of strategic voting. if you DON'T want an incompetent loser like Bob Rae to be PM in a NDP/Liberal coalition government - then make sure to elect more NDP MPs than Liberals

  4. There are quite a few factors in deciding a Liberal comeback:
    1. They have to at least get as many seats in 2015 as they did in 2008.
    2. The BQ must not make an electoral comeback because that would mean that the Liberal-NDP totals will not be greater than the Conservatives.
    3. If they form a coalition with just the NDP, they cannot be the junior members (the NDP was the junior member of the 1985 Ontario accord and they lost seats to the Liberals in 1987).
    4. Ontario voters will have to return to the Liberals (the NDP won't be attracting many more Ontario voters).

    Essentially a repeat of the 2006 results but with the NDP taking Québec. Bob Rae seems like the guy to lead the Liberals (and he has higher approval ratings in Ontario!)

  5. 10 years of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I never thought I would see that day.

  6. The Liberals have to watch out though that they don't get ahead of themselves. They need to keep putting one foot ahead of the other on their road back and keep on slogging. Yes they've been doing a good job of that so far and it's only early going but there's still a long way to go. Having said that though, it doesn't hurt them to aim high, at least in their own minds, to say form government in 2015 or so, but they still need to continue taking those small steps. They will get there.

  7. You neglect to mention one example that Bob Rae knows well. In 1995, Mike Harris' PCs leapfrogged the opposition Liberals to go from third to a majority with a swing of +21.3 percent. The point being that if there is a 'throw the bums out' sentiment and the official opposition doesn't manage to harness it, third to first can happen. 2015 is a ways away.

  8. Eric,

    I think you're right about 2019 being the Liberal target. Obviously anything can happen between now and 2015, but with the addition of new seats in suburban Ontario, Alberta and BC, as of right now the Tories looke to be in a stronger position going into 2015 then they were at the beggining of last year.

    Mind you, given time, the Liberals can try to re-assert themselves in those regions (and they're going to have to if they ever want to form a majority government - winning Quebec won't cut it anymore). But since they won't have a permanent leader until next year, that isn't going to happen before 2015.

    That being said, if their target date is 2019, that raises interesting questions about whether or not you want to choose Rae as a leader. He'll be 67 in the fall of 2015, 71 by the time the 2019 election rolls around. Not that you can't be a 71 year old PM (or a 75 year old PM is he gets elected and serves a full term), but politics is a tough and tiring game, and increasingly a young man (and woman's) game and you wonder whether Rae will be up to the task.

    On top of that, as you get older health becomes more of an issue. You'd hate to be in heading into the spring of 2019 and have your leader keel over with a heart attack or a stroke. Layton's untimely passing, and the disruptive effect it's had on the NDP (they've basically lost their first year as official opposition), should serve as warning to the Grits.


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