Friday, May 29, 2015

The Federal Election of 2003 that never was

The following is a work of fiction. Going through some old polls, I wondered what a snap election call in the fall of 2003, before the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged, would have looked like. With Peter MacKay announcing he will not run for re-election this fall, now is a good time to wonder what might have been. Thanks to Professor Werner Antweiler of UBC for providing the election data that I used to estimate seat counts.


The election call took everyone by surprise, but then again it had been a whirlwind summer for the Liberal Party of Canada. John Manley dropped out of the leadership race to replace Jean Chrétien at the end of July, and Sheila Copps, seeing the writing on the wall, did the same shortly afterwards. With Paul Martin the only name left on the leadership ballot, the party moved up the convention to mid-August and Martin was officially named the party's leader then.

With a caucus revolt brewing, Chrétien no longer saw his planned retirement date of February 2004 as tenable. He stepped down, and Martin became Prime Minister on August 20, 2003.

Liberals knew they had to act quickly. The party was leading in the polls by a comfortable margin, but the right would not be divided for long. Word that Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay, leaders of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, respectively, were talking about a merger forced the Liberals into action.

Calling for a mandate of his own, Paul Martin visited Governor General Adrienne Clarkson on August 24, a Sunday, and asked for the dissolution of parliament. The election date was set for Monday, September 29, 2003.

MacKay and Harper were indeed talking about merging the two parties into one, but the talks were still in a very early stage. While Martin was speaking with Clarkson, MacKay and Harper were speaking on the telephone. They agreed there was no time to formally unite the two parties. Who would be the leader anyway?

What if the two parties agreed not to run against each other, and worked out the merger after the campaign was over? Harper favoured the party that placed ahead of the other in the 2000 election getting the consensus right-of-centre candidate in each riding. And of course he would - the Canadian Alliance captured more than twice the Tories' vote in 2000.

MacKay was not in agreement. The latest polls had the PCs ahead of the Canadian Alliance, particularly in Ontario where Harper's numbers were very weak. MacKay wanted Ontario. But Harper knew that if he gave it to him, the Tories could very well outnumber his party's caucus after the election. And Ontario was key to his electoral hopes for the future.

The two agreed that they would just have to fight one more election as two separate parties. They wished each other luck, and the campaign was on.

This would be both Harper's and MacKay's first campaign as party leaders, as well as Martin's. Jack Layton of the New Democrats was also going to take his first kick at the can. Things were going moderately well for the NDP. After capturing just 8.5% of the vote in 2000, Layton had boosted the party back into double-digits. The party was not yet ready for a breakthrough, but if he played his cards right Layton could give the NDP its best result since 1988.

The only veteran leader was Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois, entering his third campaign as leader. But the party was adrift. In April, the Parti Québécois had been booted out of power with its worst performance in 30 years and the latest polls put the Bloc around 30% in the province. Duceppe needed something to breathe new life into the sovereignty movement. He would eventually get it, but not soon enough.

The campaign

Paul Martin did not prove to be the best campaigner, but things were working in his favour. The internecine fighting the Liberals were known for was virtually non-existent, thanks to the party's strong polling numbers. In Ontario, where the provincial campaign had been delayed in order not to overlap with the federal one, Dalton McGuinty took the extra time to campaign with the federal Liberals, boosting both party's support levels. At the crowded leaders' debate, where the truce between Harper and MacKay seemed to collapse on live television, Martin stood above the fray as the four other leaders bickered.

Stephen Harper had hoped to use the campaign to portray himself and his party as a potential alternative by moving to the centre, but with the polls not moving along with him - and a disaster looming - Harper instead had to turn back to the right to shore up his base.

It was a decision that gave Peter MacKay an opportunity. With his own polling numbers going nowhere, MacKay tried to position his party as the only electable conservative option, visiting winnable ridings in Alberta and Ontario. His numbers did not move enough to turn the tide, and MacKay spent most of the last week of the campaign in Atlantic Canada, where his party was competitive with the Liberals.

In such a crowded playing field, it was difficult for Jack Layton to get his voice heard. But he was making some significant gains in British Columbia and Alberta, and was holding on to Alexa McDonough's support base in Atlantic Canada. However, Quebec and Ontario, his two native provinces by birth and residence, were not swinging over to the NDP.

Gilles Duceppe was also having trouble. A strong French-language debate in which three of the five contestants had less than passable French, dooming any hopes that MacKay had of a return to Jean Charest-levels of support in Quebec, boosted the Bloc at the expense of the other opposition parties. But the Liberals were still supreme. The new Charest government was in the midst of its honeymoon. Seeing where the winds were blowing, Charest even campaigned with Martin. What could Duceppe do? Bernard Landry had just been dealt a humiliating defeat, but the PQ's leader gamely went on the hustings along with Duceppe. The result, though, was to shift the Bloc's campaign focus ever more on the question of sovereignty.

The results

When the votes were counted, it was a massacre. The Liberals formed the largest government in Canadian history, even surpassing (in seat numbers) Brian Mulroney's triumph in 1984.

The Liberals captured 48% of the vote, their best performance in 50 years.

The Progressive Conservatives narrowly finished second with just 15% of the vote, followed by the Canadian Alliance at 12.5% and the New Democrats at 12%.

The Bloc Québécois finished with 35.5% of the vote in Quebec.

The Liberals won 212 seats, or 70% of the 301 seats on offer (the 2003 representation order, boosting the number of seats in the House to 308, was only to go into effect in 2004).

The Canadian Alliance formed the Official Opposition with 34 seats, while the Bloc Québécois captured 20 seats, the NDP took 19, and the Progressive Conservatives won 16.

It was a stellar victory for the Liberals, with 40 more seats than they had won in 2000. The Canadian Alliance saw its seat haul fall by 32 and the Bloc's by 18. The NDP did boost their total by six seats and the Tories' by four, but these were meager offerings compared to Martin's juggernaut.

The Liberals had won every region of the country except Alberta. In British Columbia, the Liberals took 37.5% and 21 seats against 25.5% and nine seats for the Canadian Alliance. The NDP captured 21% and four seats, while the Tories were shutout at just 9% of the vote.

Harper did win his home province of Alberta with 39.5% and 20 seats, but the Tories had prevented him from doing better. MacKay's urban swing through the province paid some dividends, as the PCs took 26% of the vote and two seats. The Liberals, at 18.5%, and the NDP, at 15%, also captured two seats apiece.

The Liberals won the Prairies with 36.5% of the vote, enough to give them 15 seats. The NDP finished second, the only region where they did, with 22% and six seats, while the Canadian Alliance had 18.5% and five seats (all in Saskatchewan) and the Tories had 18% and two seats, both of them in Manitoba.

In Ontario, the Liberals took 56.5% of the vote and 99 seats, leaving just two seats each for the NDP (13.5%) and the PCs (19%). The Canadian Alliance, at just 9.5% of the vote, was shutout.

It was a two horse race in Quebec, but the Liberals dominated. They captured 53.5% of the vote against 35.5% for the Bloc, enough to give the Liberals 54 seats to just 20 for the Bloc. The Tories had 6% of the vote, and managed one seat out of the landslide. The NDP took 2.5% of the vote and Harper just 1%.

Despite MacKay hailing from the region, the PCs finished second in Atlantic Canada with 32% of the vote and nine seats. The Liberals won 44.5% and 19 seats, while the NDP held four seats with 20% of the vote. The Canadian Alliance had just 2.5% of the vote here.

The aftermath

With such poor performances throughout the country, and finishing third in the vote count, Stephen Harper resigned as leader of the Canadian Alliance on the night of the election. He had seen his party's vote share cut in half, as well as its caucus. Leading such a rump party for four more years of Liberal domination was just not worth it. A promising career was cut short.

He was the only leader to step aside that night. Gilles Duceppe requested a leadership review in his election night speech, and won it in December. Jack Layton had just been elected the NDP's leader, and he had increased the party's representation. He would stay on.

The question was whether Peter MacKay would stay. He, too, had just been named PC leader. He had proven a capable campaigner. What's more, he seemed to like it. He had finished second in the popular vote and had MPs in every province except British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island. By comparison, the Canadian Alliance was represented only in Canada's three westernmost provinces. If MacKay could manage it, he might be able to reunite the two parties on his own terms. He pledged to stay on as well.

The election results had been predictable. Everyone in Ottawa had been expecting a Liberal landslide from the day that Martin's leadership of the party looked inevitable. But the federal election of 2003 was where the predictability would stop. The sponsorship scandal, Peter MacKay's fractious coalition government of 2007, the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 2008, and the country's first (short-lived) NDP government were still to come. The Liberal hegemony of the 21st century, predicted by everyone in 2003, would not last the decade.


I've always loved alternate histories, and going through old polling data can only excite the imagination (the numbers for the results are derived from polls done by SES Research, now known as Nanos Research, and Ipsos Reid between August and October 2003).

But this is an interesting counter-factual because it is entirely plausible. The Liberals were dominant in the polls in 2003, before the sponsorship scandal began to tear them apart in early 2004. Had Martin been able to become Prime Minister earlier, and call an election before Harper and MacKay had managed to merge their parties, the Liberals would have almost certainly won a majority government in 2003. That means the sponsorship scandal would have exploded in the midst of a majority government scheduled to rule until 2007 or 2008, rather than before the 2004 election that reduced the Liberals to a minority, and then to the opposition benches in 2006, and gave the Bloc renewed vigour.

What would have happened afterwards is anybody's guess. Would the right have still united? And if so, would it have been under the Canadian Alliance's terms, or the PCs'?

Without having had the ability to chastise the federal Liberals not once, but twice in Quebec, would the 2007 provincial election there have gone differently? It would have taken place not within the context of a Conservative minority government that had opened its arms to Quebec, but in the climate of a tired Liberal majority government ravaged by scandal. Quebecers might have been more concerned with the sovereignty question, or punishing the Liberals, than with identity issues that divided the anti-PLQ vote and boosted the ADQ into Official Opposition status.

The timing of today's post with Peter MacKay's retirement from political life (word is he'll announce it this afternoon) is a complete coincidence. I actually started on this yesterday. But the timing could not be more fortunate. What if an election had been held in 2003, forestalling the merger of his party with the Canadian Alliance on the latter's terms? How would we look back on his career today? It is an interesting question to ponder.


  1. An incredibly interesting and entirely plausible alternate history. The only thing I would add is that voters sometimes do not react well to early election calls. The fall of the Peterson Liberals in Ontario was partly due to his perceived arrogance in calling that election early, and of course the most recent example in Alberta (although only one of a number of factors). Not saying that it would change the outcome by much, but it might have been someone's talking point though the 2003 campaign.

    1. When I set out to write this piece, I intended to shift the polls according to how the polls shifted in the 2004 campaign (i.e., reflecting each leader's campaign ability). I discovered that the polls at the beginning of the 2004 campaign were identical to the result at the end of it.

      True that an even earlier election call might have upset a few, but at least Martin would have some justification in this scenario.

    2. I love reading alternate histories, amazing to think what could have happened had certain things went another way. I've done it for the NHL draft, hoping we get more of these from you, Eric.

  2. This produces the best Liberal vote share result since Pierre Trudeau. That seems high.

    I don't dispute that the timing of this election might have caused Liberal support to be higher than it had been in Chrétien's victories (particularly given Martin's leadership election bump), 48% is really high.

    1. That's where the polls were! I stipulated the source of the numbers in my graphic, but I should probably mention it at the end of the piece as well.

    2. That's totally fair. I'm not questioning your impartiality.

      I'm questioning whether looking at polls between elections is particularly informative in that era. I know the Reform Party always polled terribly between elections (I worked for them at the time - I even made some of the polling calls).

    3. Political pundits of that time thought that Paul Martin will take the Liberal Party to new heights making a break through in Alliance strongholds in the West.

      The Canadian Alliance was damaged after the 2000 election. A dozen members left the Alliance in 2001. It seemed like the Alliance was not going anywhere.

      It's one of the reasons the Stephen Harper wanted a quick merger of the right in 2003. He wanted to ensure the right was unified against Paul Martin, who could appeal to a segment of small-c conservative voters that Jean Chretien could not appeal to.

      Of course, the realities for the FPTP system and right-wing donors holding back on donations contributed to the merger.

      Of course, politics does not follow speculation. Paul Martin aka Mr. Dithers turned out to be a lousy PM that bled support from everywhere.

  3. Is it possible to continue the analysis to 2015? Are you able to figure it out by speculating and extrapolating polling data or is it too much of a science fiction story by then?

    1. I've done things like that in the past, re-playing the 2004-2011 elections with a divided right. Here:

  4. Funny you should post this.

    I am in the midst of reading, "Divided Loyalties" written by Liberal insider Brooke Jeffrey.

    In the book, she illustrates how Chrétien really hamstrung the incoming Martin administration. Towards the end of his final term, he passed a raft of legislation that tied Martin's hands such as implementation of the Kyoto protocol, new election financing rules (the voter subsidy), and series of new spending initiates that significantly reduced the foretasted budget.

    He then delayed the Auditor General's report on the sponsorship program to come out after he had left office.

    Had Chrétien not tried to hang on for the "Long Goodbye" and attempt to stay until February 2004 and say left in early 2002, I think we would have had a very different 2004/2003 election as you have forcast

  5. The most fascinating thing about this whole exercise is that Harper resigns and could not (ever!) become PM. That tantalizing fact alone is well worth this alternate take on history. If anyone ever invents a time machine, I know exactly what to do with it.

    1. I'd like to make Harper stick to his guns in 2008 and make the coalition topple him. I think that would have been better for the long-term health of the country, as it would have established that economic non-intervention is still an available option (unlike now, when all the parties support it).

  6. Ekos poll out
    Overall numbers steady, but we see NDP down in ON and up in QC and Prairies.

  7. Another interesting counterfactual would be a replay of the 2004 election, except if the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives were still separate parties. How much of the support that the Liberals got would instead go to Peter MacKay's PC's? Would Martin's plea for NDP voters to stop a Harper government worked like it presumably did in 2004 if there was no threat of a Harper government? How would the vote split have occurred?

    Final results of the 2004 election, assuming that 1.8% of the Liberal's vote went back to the NDP, and 3.9% of their vote went to the Progressive Conservatives, finishing with 31% of the vote (what many polls registered in the ending days of the campaign).
    Liberals - 31%
    NDP - 17.5%
    Bloc Quebecois - 11%, winning 46% of the vote in QC (as some stayed with the PCs).
    Progressive Conservatives - 18.5%
    Canadian Alliance - 15%

    What would the results of this one be? Liberal minority or majority? How do the PCs do in Atlantic Canada and Ontario? Does the NDP make a breakthrough in Ontario + BC, while not collapsing in Sasketchewan as they did in 2004?

  8. Eric,

    Parliament is usually a proper noun, as in, the Parliament of Canada or "and asked for the dissolution of parliament (sic)".

  9. Way too many parties using different shades of blue in the 90s-00s

  10. What a neat post! That made for some great reading. Hope to see more of these (perhaps from earlier elections in Canadian history?)

  11. It gladdens the heart to imagine that there's a parallel universe somewhere out there where Stephen Harper's name is but an historical footnote.

  12. How is the provincial campaign of 2003 in Ontario delayed ? It seems unlikely that Ernie Eves, having already delayed the Ontario election to early Oct., several months past the four year mark, would delay it further simply to accommodate a third early federal election call in a row, much less one whose prospective outcome would be the re-invigoration of Liberals across the country, just ahead of an Ontario campaign where the Ontario Liberal Party was expected to provide a strong challenge.

    1. I'm assuming that Eves delays the election so as to not have two campaigns going on at the same time (which is what would happen if he didn't delay).

      Arguably, campaigning provincially at the same time as the federal Liberals are waging a winning campaign would be worse than waiting until after. Eves might calculate that having a Liberal government in Ottawa would be advantageous, since often Ontarians vote for the opposite at the provincial level.

  13. The Original Six Cup final is another "might have been" Eric.

    I guess we settle for half measures, eh?

  14. The sponsorship scandal came out from a fight within the Martinites and the Chretienites. The succession was messed up, with the Martin followers unwilling to wait their turn. In the end they killed the golden goose.

    The more interesting thing is that seemingly the same incompetent mandarins who started the Martin-Chretien fight are responsible for Ignatieff and now Trudeau.

    This means that with the exception of the Stephane Dion gap, the liberals have been leaderless since Chretien, with a figurehead leading the party while the back office plots and plans.

    1. The Sponsorship Scandal killed the Liberal base in Francophone ridings of Quebec.

      The only support Liberals have left are in the multi-cultural and anglophone ridings on the island of Montreal.

      The Liberals have always counted on Quebec to win majorities for the last +100 years.

      The Toronto headquarters of the Liberals have completely lost their Quebec base. Without the Quebec base, they have left to territory wide open for the NDP to take

  15. Just on a high level and not focusing on any particular individuals looking back at the sponsorship scandal and the inquiries and the legal system is is truly amazing that the Liberal party still exists.

    On the magnitude of the crime there was no politician that did jail time or was even fined. The stolen money was written off.... taxpayers loss. Elections Canada did not even bother to look at how the stolen money was used to get Liberals elected.

    The legal system (Charter of Rights, Judiciary, Law society, Supreme Court) let the Liberals off really quite easily.

    It really seems that the Lawyers and Judges have taken over the running of Canada since Trudeau Sr.

    It is not only the Liberals but Mulroney seems to have gotten off with an apology. At least his party was wiped out and no longer exists.

    The expense scandal in Saskatchewan wiped the Saskatchewan PC out of existence.

    1. While the Sponsorship scandal was underhanded, there's a question of how illegal much of it was. Clearly the government was misusing public money, but they have broad discretion to do exactly that. The thing that keeps them in line is supposed to be the electorate, and it did that.

      The Saskatchewan PCs' scandal, on the other hand, broke quite a few more laws. So toxic was that scandal that the CPC blocked the nomination of Grant Devine when he tried to run for MP.

    2. What happened in the sponsorship scandal was illegal monies destined for advertisement outside of Quebec were moved to advertisers inside Quebec, no tenders were issued for bids and the recipient of the funds paid kick-backs. Were such shenanigans justified given the political context? Is a more difficult question to answer.

    3. What could the political justification possibly be?

  16. I recognise it a hypothetical exercise but, I just don't think the Martin Liberals would have received 48% of the popular vote on election day.

    The main fight of course would have been for second between the Tories, Alliance and Bloc. I think the Tories would as you predict received the second largest share of the popular vote but, I think you are also vastly under-estimating the Bloc and CA seat count. Even with the numbers you postulate the Liberals winning 21 seats in BC is nonsensical-it just would not have happened.

    Anyway, for a work of fiction it is somewhat interesting.

    1. All the numbers are based on 2003 polling and a seat projection based on a proportional swing. I didn't inject any of my own judgment into the numbers.

    2. And while that's good from a methodological standpoint, election day results and out-of-campaign polling might be different in kind.

    3. Of course, but I only wanted to speculate on the narrative, not the numbers. But I think people forget how popular the LPC was around this time, and that despite the vote split on the right the Liberals were still winning elections quite handily (41% in 1993 and 2000, 38.5% in 1997).

  17. the Golf balls defense beats the Chewbacca defense

  18. How about another alternative...

    In the game of chicken Chretien holds on to the Liberal leadership.

    Martin camp has enough and fully cooperates the auditor general with all they know about adscam.

    Some cabinet ministers several Liberal bag men/senators and the PM face criminal charges. Elections Canada fines the Liberal party 100 million.

    The Liberals not arrested join the PC and NDP parties. The election becomes Harper versus Mackay versus Layton.

    Chretien still wants to be PM 13 years after adscam broke. Why do you think he gave up power so easily to Martin?

  19. Having just watched Murray Sinclair, the Chairman of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission speak at the presentation of the findings and report of the Commission all I will say this that what he reported and proposed where and are absolutely correct No Govt of any Party will in fact even begin to try and do what is demanded.

  20. From an Atlantic Canada perspective your scenario omits an important event – Hurricane Juan. You may remember that it was on September 29, 2003 that Nova Scotia & PEI were struck by the storm. It left two people dead, extensive property damage, tens of thousands of downed trees and extended power outages, lasting a couple weeks in some instances. In real life, PEI carried on with a provincial election as per normal that day, despite the damage and the power cuts. (Hardy Islanders!) But I suspect a federal vote that day would have been postponed, at least in Nova Scotia. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, it was just too difficult to get around (not to mention dangerous, with scores of downed power lines on the roads).

    If a Nova Scotia federal vote had therefore been postponed until mid-October, with the voters aware of the mammoth proportions of the Liberal victory in the rest of the country, would this have affected the outcome? Since Atlantic Canadians mostly re-elected incumbents in the 2004 election, probably not too much. Scott Brison, for example, won his seat handily in a deeply Tory part of the province, despite having crossed the floor to the Liberals. Personal loyalties count for a lot around here.

    In one case, however, I think things might have taken a different turn. In the 2004 election, Alexa McDonough beat popular Halifax city councillor and Liberal candidate, Sheila Fougere, by a little over a thousand votes. A relatively close call by Alexa's standards at the time. The argument that voters would have been better served by electing an MP on the government side might have been harder to resist, had they been faced with an overwhelming Liberal super-majority on election day.

    1. Ooh, good point. I didn't know my choice of date ran into this problem! I suppose we could move the election up a week or back a week without it causing any changes.


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