Friday, June 27, 2014

Incumbents favoured in three of four by-elections (updated)

Four federal by-elections are being held on Monday in Alberta and Ontario. If voters in these ridings can be bothered to cast a ballot on what is a long weekend for many of them, the results should be interesting.

The ridings in questions are Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca in Alberta and Trinity-Spadina and Scarborough-Agincourt in Ontario (both in Toronto). These four ridings have been very safe ones for the incumbent parties in the past, and in three of them the incumbent is expected to prevail. That leaves Trinity-Spadina as the race to watch.

The Conservatives should have no trouble holding on to their two Alberta ridings, which they won by gargantuan margins in 2011. Of note may be the performance of the Liberals, who put in some surprising showings, and almost an upset, in two rural Manitoba ridings at the end of 2013. Fort McMurray-Athabasca, with its fast growing population and large labour force hailing from elsewhere in the country, could be interesting as well. The Liberals have been polling relatively well in Alberta - compared to their usual support levels, at least - and it will be interesting to see if they can attract a large number of voters in the province like they did in Calgary Centre in 2012.

Scarborough-Agincourt is a Liberal fortress, having survived the purge of 2011. Some might argue it was a Jim Karygiannis fortress, but polls suggest Arnold Chan will hold on to the riding for the Liberals. Trinity-Spadina, vacated by Olivia Chow as she runs for the Toronto mayor's office, would normally be an NDP lock. But with popular local councilor Adam Vaughan carrying the Liberal banner, the riding could swing over to him. Voters in Trinity-Spadina just recently elected a provincial Liberal, defeating long-time MPP Rosario Marchese, who had represented the riding since 1999.

Let's take a look at what kind of results we might expect in these four ridings. The first chart below shows the high and low projections based on the last three polls conducted in Ontario. These were calculated using the site's standard methodology for making riding estimations.
By these measures, the Conservatives look quite comfortable in Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca, while the Liberals look solid in Scarborough-Agincourt.

June 30 update: An Angus Reid national poll was released over the weekend. Adding it to the high and low projections, the Conservative high would be boosted to 56% in Fort McMurray-Athabasca. The Liberal low would be reduced to 35% in Trinity-Spadina, while the NDP high would be increased to 44% there. In Scarborough, the NDP high would rise to 16%, while in Macleod the Green low would drop to 6%.

In Macleod, the Conservatives have ranged between 62% and 70% when employing the provincial swing from the last three polls. The NDP, Liberals, and potentially even the Greens could claim second spot.

In Fort McMurray-Athabasca, the Conservatives look likely to be reduced from the margin they managed in 2011, but would still take between 48% and 55% against just 22% to 31% for the Liberals. Still, in a northern Alberta riding that would be a good showing for the Liberals. The NDP have the inside track on third place, but the Greens could narrowly take it.

The Liberals look set to take a majority of the vote in Scarborough-Agincourt with between 52% and 65%, against 23% to 30% for the Conservatives. The NDP should finish third.

And in Trinity-Spadina, the Liberals and New Democrats are in a close race that is leaning Liberal. Vaughan could take 36% to 51% of the vote, and Joe Cressy between 28% and 41%. The Conservatives, at 13% to 15%, would finish third.

But these are estimates based on province-wide support levels. In by-elections, local factors are extremely important. Forum Research has, as usual, tried to gauge the support of the parties in three of the four ridings (interestingly, Forum has opted not to poll Fort McMurray-Athabasca, due to the difficulties in reaching its transient, cellphone-only population). Let's see how Forum measures the three races, again using the high and low numbers they have reported in its two (Macleod, Scarborough-Agincourt) or three (Trinity-Spadina) polls released in the last few months.
Here we see some small variations from the estimates based on provincial swing.

June 30 update: Forum released some new numbers on the eve of the election. In Macleod, the poll would reduce the low Conservative result to 54% and the NDP low to 4%. The Liberal high would increase to 16% and the Green high to 16%.

In Trinity-Spadina, the Conservative low drops to 11% and the Liberal low to 45%. The NDP high increases to 35% and the Green high to 9%.

In Scarborough-Agincourt, the NDP high increases to 10% and the Green high to 4%.

Forum released its first numbers for Fort McMurray-Athabasca: 41% Liberals, 33% Conservatives, 13% NDP, 8% Others, 5% Greens. Not sure about those, but we'll see tonight.

Macleod lines up about the same, with the Tories a little lower than the provincial swing would suggest.

In Scarborough-Agincourt, Forum is less bullish on the Liberals and more favourable to the Conservatives, but still gives it to Chan by a fair margin over Trevor Ellis. The most recent Forum poll (June 18) gives Chan the advantage among all age groups, suggesting turnout might not matter.

Trinity-Spadina is perhaps the most different, if only because it doesn't give Cressy much of a chance. Vaughan has managed between 52% and 54% in Forum's three polls, against 31% to 34% for Cressy. In the latest survey, Vaughan led in all age groups except the 18 to 34 year olds, and 44% of former NDP voters said they would cast their ballot for Vaughan. That does not look very good for the New Democrats.

But just how reliable are by-election polls? They can be hit or terrible-miss. On the one hand, Forum has generally had a good track record in Toronto-area ridings. But calling cellphones is impossible for by-election polling, since it is not possible to ensure that the phones being called belong to people who live in the riding. A lot of people are cellphone-only in an area like Trinity-Spadina. The question is whether these people are different from the landline using population. Perhaps they are, or perhaps Forum has gotten lucky in the past. Cellphone-only residents might be less likely to vote in a more rural riding, but not in the downtown core of Toronto.

Macleod is unlikely to be gauged incorrectly by Forum, despite the company's bad record in rural ridings. The Conservatives will win here, but don't be surprised if Forum's estimations are off by double-digits. Nevertheless, in all ridings the numbers generally line-up with where the swing suggests they should be (that was not the case in Brandon-Souris in 2013, the big miss by Forum) so a bad performance may not be in the works.

Another complicating factor is turnout. Much was made of the decent advance poll turnout rates in most of the by-elections, particularly Trinity-Spadina. But was that because of high interest, or because many voters knew they would be out of town on June 30, the day before Canada Day? If turnout is low, there is a greater chance that something unusual could happen if one party is more successful in getting their voters to the polling stations.

It should be an interesting set of results. The wider implications will be difficult to gauge. If incumbents win in three of four, and a popular local councilor defeats the incumbent in the remaining contest, will that say very much?