Monday, December 1, 2014

147 years of elections

Polling has been a little thin lately, so let's take a look at the "only poll that counts." (As an aside, I loathe that phrase - it is the equivalent of saying "the only time your opinion counts is when my job is at stake.") And that means every federal election that has been held since 1867.

One of the things that struck me as I constructed the chart below was the degree of stability in Canadian politics. When you see the peaks and valleys, you may wonder what I'm on about. But political parties have often stuck to a fairly steady level of support.

This was particularly so early on in Canada's political history. Until the First World War disrupted the old order, parties shifted by only a handful of points. Between 1867 and 1911, the Conservatives took between 45.4% and 53.4% of the vote without fail. The Liberals captured between 45.1% and 53.8%. It was shifts in the margins that changed governments.

But that was in the era of a two-party system. There were periods of stability after the CCF arrived on the scene as well. From 1935 to 1953, the Conservatives (Progressive Conservatives after 1942) took between 27.7% and 31% of the vote in every election. Between 1963 and 1980 the Tories took between 32.4% and 35.9%. And even in the current period of turmoil, the Conservatives have only gone from 36.3% in 2006 to 39.6% in 2011.

The Liberals, too, had long periods of stability, capturing between 40.1% and 44.4% of the vote in every election between 1917 and 1935. Between 1993 and 2004, the party took between 36.7% and 41.3%.

And then there are the historically smaller parties, who have a much more reliable clientele. After the NDP's first two elections, the party took between 15.4% and 20.4% of the vote in every vote between 1965 and 1988. In fact, with the exceptions of the 1993, 1997, 2000, and 2011 elections, the party has fallen in that range in every election since 1965.

In their times, the CCF and Social Credit (with the Ralliement des créditistes) had a solid chunk of the vote as well, hardly shifting from one election to the next.

Of course, there were moments of great change: the first appearance of a three-party system in 1921, when the Progressives and United Farmers took 21.9% of the vote. The depression, followed by the Second World War, heralded a collapse in the Conservatives that was only briefly undone by John Diefenbaker between the 1957 and 1962 elections. Then there was the smashing victories by Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, followed by the final collapse of the Progressive Conservatives and the inauguration of a five party system. Most recently, there has been the swift decline of the Liberals and the breakthrough of the NDP in 2011. These again may be reversed in 2015.

(Note: The charts above and below were based primarily on the Library of Parliament figures on election results. Where there were gaps, I relied on the Wikipedia entries for older elections, which in turn are based on the Library of Parliament results as well. There are some notable differences in some of the numbers, however. This is likely due to the Library of Parliament records including some other candidates in the totals of the major parties, as in many elections there were Independent This and Labour/Progressive/Nationalist-That. I have deferred to the Library of Parliament when there have been discrepancies).

The chart I put together below shows the average results for each of the parties and their various iterations over select periods of time. In the brackets above each of the years I've put the reason why I selected these periods (i.e., a two-party system, a three-party system, the formation of the NDP, the collapse of Social Credit, etc.).

Overall, the Liberals have had the best historical performance with an average of 42.3% support, followed by the various classifications of the Tories (between 40% and 41.5%).

The NDP has averaged 16.5% support since 1962, putting them just up on the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties (who, recall, did field candidates in 1988).

The CCF averaged 11.2% during its history, while the Bloc Québécois has averaged 10.6% support. These are the only parties to have averaged over 10% support over their entire history.

The Progressives and United Farmers averaged 6.7% support, followed by Social Credit at 5% and the Greens at 2.4% (the Greens first fielded candidates in 1984, and took less than 1% of the vote in every election until 2004). Labour candidates averaged 0.9% in contested elections.

If we look at the era of the two-party system, from 1867 to 1917, the Conservatives were just a few points ahead of the Liberals. But since the three-party system started in earnest in 1935, the Liberals have averaged 39.2%, against 32.9% to 36.1% for Conservative parties.

Since the NDP was formed, Liberal support was roughly even with the Conservatives at about 36.7%, and since Social Credit and the Créditistes petered out in 1980, the Liberals have averaged 33.7% to 28.8% for the PCs or 38.1% for the combined totals of the PCs/Reform/Conservatives. The NDP upticks to 16.7% over that time.

During the era of the five party system, the Liberals reigned supreme averaging 40.2% between 1993 and 2000. Reform and the Canadian Alliance came second with an average of just 21.2%, followed by the PCs at 15.7%, the Bloc at 11.6%, and the NDP at just 8.8%.

But since 2004, in what we would consider the current system, the Conservatives have been ahead with an average of 35.8% support, followed by the Liberals at 28%, the NDP at 20.5%, the Bloc at 9.8%, and the Greens at 4.9%.

I also identified each party's 'peak period', which I have defined as three consecutive elections starting in 1935 (and for the Progressives and Labour, prior to that). 

It can be difficult for parties to put together three good elections. Consider Mulroney's victories in 1984 and 1988, in which he averaged 46.5%. That was the Tories' best performance following the inauguration of a three-party system. But those two elections were book-ended by defeat in 1980 and catastrophe in 1993.

The Liberals had their highest peak between 1940 and 1949, not coincidentally straddling World War II. The Liberals averaged 48.8% over that time, the PCs averaging just 29.3% and the CCF taking 12.5%.

The Conservative peak occurred under Diefenbaker between 1957 and 1962, when the party averaged 43.3% support. The Liberals took 37.8% over that time, the NDP/CCF taking 11.2%, and Social Credit averaging 7%.

The New Democrats are currently in the midst of their peak, and it seems likely that it will be extended into 2015. They have averaged 22.1% support since 2006, with the Conservatives at 37.9%, the Liberals at 25.1%, the Bloc at 8.9%, and the Greens at 5.1%.

Continuing through the list, the CCF peaked between 1945 and 1953, when it averaged 13.5% of the vote. The Bloc Québécois was at its height between 1993 and 2000, when it averaged 11.6%. And the Greens peaked between 2004 and 2008, with 5.2%.

Social Credit and the Ralliement peaked between 1962 and 1965, when together it averaged 10.7% support. That still put it behind the NDP, a party it never displaced for third spot.

The Progressives and the United Farmers peaked between 1921 and 1926, when they together averaged 12.2%. This overlapped somewhat with the peak of Labour candidates, who took 2.3% of the vote between 1917 and 1925. Though the three-party system only consistently took its place starting in 1935 with the formation of the CCF, from 1921 to 1930 the Liberals and Conservatives were deprived of an average of almost 15 points.

And that ends our little trip down memory lane as the on-going history of Canadian politics continues.


  1. Interesting to see the general declining trend in the Liberal and Conservative vote from past to present. If an actualy trend line was placed on the graph, which parties have declined the most or gained more rapidly? First glance seems to suggest that Harpers past goverments would help to prop up the Conservative trendline over the Liberals.

  2. What about the Communist party? Didn't they even have an elected MP at one time? Or have we censored them from our history

    1. I excluded parties that took too little of the vote to register on a chart like the one I created.

    2. Fred Rose from Montreal was a communist organiser and later M.P. However, he was elected under the Labour-Progressive banner.

  3. Eric, would it be correct to conclude that the electoral nadir of the once mighty Liberal Party of Canada began in 2004 and continues to this day (we will see if 2015 changes that, but even now they are polling below their typical pre-2004 level of support)?

    1. A good question! The nadir for the current parties, same rules:

      Greens: 0.3% (1984-93)
      NDP: 8.8% (1993-00)
      BQ: 8.9% (2006-11)
      PCs: 15.7% (1993-00)
      Liberals: 25.1% (2006-11)
      Combined Conservatives: 29.3% (1940-49)

    2. To continue along with your thought, we're in a period of historics.

      At 35%, the Liberals are still quite low by historical standards (out of 41 elections, only six were lower than that).

      At 31%, the Conservatives are only a few points over the party's combined nadir (only four elections were worse).

      At 21%, the NDP is on track for its second best performance in its history.

      At 8%, the Greens are on track for their best.

      And at 4%, the Bloc is on track for its worst.

  4. The trends are self-propigating.... at least the Conservative Liberal fulcrum.

    Post Mulroney the Liberals were going to be in power.... Manley, Emerson, McKenna, Stronach and even Paul Martin and Colter were Liberals because they were going to be in power and would not want to waste their time and talents with minimal impact.

    The same is happening now Chris Alexander, Michelle Rempel , Joan Crockett, Kelly Leach would have been tempted to run as Liberals had the Liberals a realistic chance to form a government.

    The Liberals offered and were rejected by Alexander.

    Leslie asked the Cons for a spot before he became a Liberal star.

    It just makes sense that talented people consider being an MP as public service.... giving back to Canada... will want to have a chance for Cabinet positions.

    To run for NDP you have to be an ideologue (socialist) with no chance for responsibility. That has become the same for the Liberals.

    1. For that to work, the Liberals would need to have an ideology.

      What is it? I haven't been able to spot a meaningful principle behind their actions (aside from "gain power") since John Turner was leader.

    2. Mackenzie King was the propagator of power for power's sake mantra of the Liberal party. He promised "homes for heros" to returning First World War vets but did absolutely nothing to keep his promise. WLMK's promise was made solely to ward off the threat of the CCF a policy subsequent Liberal leaders would repeat.

      John Turner is a man of principle which is why he resigned in 1975 as a protest to the Trudeau's socialist policy of wage and price controls (that never had any realistic chance of working). As far as I can recall Turner was the last cabinet minister to resign on a point of principle in Canada, although some may argue Lucien Bouchard also resigned on principle in 1990.

    3. Muclair resigned from the provincial cabinet on a point of principle regarding certain of his government's anti-environmental plans.

  5. Eric,

    I am confused why you pick 2004 as the beginning of the current party system-it seems completely arbitrary. Is it simply due to the re-emergence of the Conservative party? In every election since 1993 5 parties have been elected to Parliament, so it seems to me we never left the 1993 5 party system-we've only replaced the PCs with the Greens. I would suggest 1993 is a more logically date for the beginning of the current party system.

    1. I think the merger of the PC and Alliance is an appropriate point to start the current period. It was a rather major political event.

      Yes, the Greens have somewhat made the current system a five party system, but the party gets nowhere near the level of support that the PCs did. And they are, of course, different voter blocs.

      Also consider the number of seats won by the smallest two of the five parties in 1993, 1997, and 2000: 11, 42, and 25, respectably. By comparison, no fifth party won a seat in 2004, 2006, and 2008, and in 2011 the two smallest parties won a grand total of five seats.

      The divided right made things very different from today, I don't we can really consider 1993-2000 and 2004-2011 to be very comparable. With the Bloc dropping and the Greens still relatively marginal, we're closer to the 1980s when there were three strong parties than we are to the 1990s, when there was only one.

    2. Thanks for your reply Eric,

      I have to disagree with your assessment. Party systems are based upon the number of parties that are able to participate in Government as much as the number of parties in Parliament. Since, 1993 Canada has had a multi-party system, the merger of the conservative parties did not fundamentally alter that dynamic. If anything a distinction should be made in 2008 when the NDP and Liberals nearly formed a coalition government as the beginning of a new party system where three parties have the ability to form Government either separately or in coalition.

      I don't think I would count the BQ out yet. Yes, their popularity has declined but the idea of separatism is very much still alive, if it wasn't PKP would only be a businessman.

      Secondly, you write the Greens get nowhere near the support of the PCs but, at 7.5% average the Greens are closing in on the 12% the PCs won in 2000. Secondly, the voter blocs are not as dissimilar as you may think, the success of the Green party in Oak Bay Gordon Head is an example of this cross-over. Oak Bay was a PC bastion, a traditional protestant upper crust Conservative riding. It elected the last PC to the provincially legislature in 1975 after the party had effectively merged with the Socreds.

      Finally, did the divided right make things very different than today when we have a "divided centre-left"?

    3. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, it seems.


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