October 23, 2021

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How Canada Got Here | FiveThirtyEight


UPDATE (Sept. 21, 2021, 9:32 a.m.): Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was narrowly elected to a third term in Monday’s election in Canada. As of 9:30 a.m. Eastern on Sept. 21, the Liberals had won or were ahead in 158 seats, the Conservatives had won or were ahead in 119 seats and the New Democratic Party had won or was ahead in 25 seats — very similar to their numbers in the previous Parliament.

Below is our preview of how Canada got to this point and the stakes in this election.

It’s always an election year if you know where to look. This time, it’s up north: Canada heads to the polls today to decide whether to elect Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to another term.

Think of this election like a U.S. presidential and congressional election all rolled into one: Under Canada’s parliamentary system, each of Canada’s 338 electoral districts (called “ridings”) will elect a member of Parliament using normal first-past-the-post, plurality rules. (Unlike some other parliamentary democracies, Canada does not use proportional representation.) And the leader of the party that wins control of Parliament will become the new prime minister.

Right now, the election looks like a close race between Trudeau’s center-left Liberal Party and the center-right Conservative Party. But Canada’s many smaller parties could play decisive roles too. Here are five questions we’ll be looking to get answered as the results roll in starting tonight.

1. Did Trudeau end his own political career?

The biggest question, of course, is whether Trudeau will survive as prime minister. And if he is ousted, it could go down as one of the biggest self-owns in political history. That’s because Canada wasn’t originally scheduled to hold a vote this year; Trudeau chose to hold an early election in response to polls showing the Liberals with a solid lead. (Liberals held only 155 seats in the outgoing House of Commons — shy of a majority of 170, which made it difficult for Trudeau to govern.) The strong polls gave Trudeau hope that Liberals could win a majority in a snap election. But after the election was greenlit in August, the polls immediately tightened, and the Conservatives even briefly took the lead — making Trudeau’s decision look like a huge miscalculation.

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Things are looking a bit better for the prime minister now, though. Canada has two prominent, FiveThirtyEight-style election forecasters: Philippe J. Fournier of 338Canada and Éric Grenier, who writes the newsletter The Writ and runs the Poll Tracker for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And as of Sunday evening, they gave Liberals a 68 percent and 75 percent chance of winning the most seats, respectively. However, it looks pretty unlikely that Trudeau will get his coveted majority government: There is only a 15-17 percent chance that Liberals win 170 or more seats. In fact, both the Poll Tracker (154) and 338Canada (147) are estimating that Liberals will win fewer seats than the 155 they had before the election, though of course there is a wide margin of error on those projections. So Trudeau may yet live to regret calling this election.

2. How will the Conservatives do under their new leader?

This is also a high-risk, high-reward election for the Conservative Party’s Erin O’Toole, who was chosen as the Conservative leader just last year. While O’Toole was initially unpopular with the Canadian public, his centrist persona has helped make the party competitive (though he has also had some stumbles). These days, the Poll Tracker gives Conservatives an average seat projection of 118 and a 25 percent chance of winning the most seats, while 338Canada is a little more optimistic for them (127 seats and a 31 percent chance). So while the likeliest outcome is that they will stand pat or make only small gains (they went into the election with 119 seats), they are still only a normal polling error away from becoming the biggest party in the House of Commons. On the flip side, though, there is still a significant chance that they lose seats, which could cost O’Toole his job as party leader.

3. How many seats will the New Democrats gain?

Canada differs from the U.S. in that an analysis of its elections can’t stop with just the two dominant parties. The left-wing New Democratic Party is also a major player; in fact, it could be the biggest beneficiary of this election. The Poll Tracker and 338Canada are forecasting that the NDP will win 34 seats and 32 seats, respectively, up from 24 in the previous Parliament. That’s largely thanks to the charisma of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the first person of color to lead a major Canadian party; he consistently earns the highest favorable ratings of any of the party leaders. Nevertheless, the NDP has still struggled to break into the first tier. It trails the Liberals and Conservatives by double digits in the polls, and the forecasters give the party virtually no chance of winning the most seats.

4. Will the nascent right-wing parties be a factor?

Like in the U.S., Canada’s right wing has gotten increasingly vocal in recent years (although it represents a much smaller slice of the population than in the U.S.). A new party called the Maverick Party, which advocates for the secession of conservative parts of Western Canada, is running candidates in 29 ridings, mostly in the rural, inland provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. And former Conservative cabinet minister Maxime Bernier recently splintered off to form the People’s Party of Canada, which was originally known for its climate-change skepticism and hardline stance against immigration but this year has become a vessel for opposition to coronavirus lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccines. (Bernier himself is not vaccinated against COVID-19 and was arrested in June for refusing to self-quarantine after traveling.) According to a recent poll from Forum Research, 62 percent of PPC supporters were unvaccinated, and 70 percent were “very angry” with the policies of the Canadian government. 

While the Maverick Party is specifically running candidates almost exclusively in solidly Conservative seats, the PPC has a candidate in 312 of the 338 ridings and could very well play spoiler to the Conservatives. Though the PPC is not expected to win any seats of its own, it is averaging around 6-7 percent in the polls, enough to cost the Conservatives a win in some close ridings. And even if it doesn’t, it will be interesting to see how deep anti-establishment grievances run in Trudeau’s Canada.

5. Will we get another counter-majoritarian result?

In the previous Canadian election, in 2019, Trudeau was actually reelected while losing the national popular vote: The Liberals won 33.1 percent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 34.3 percent. But the Liberals won the most seats because, unlike in the U.S., Canadian geography puts the right at a disadvantage. The places in Canada where one party runs up the biggest margins (thus wasting votes) are not liberal cities but conservative rural areas: In 2019, every candidate who got 70 percent of the vote or more was a Conservative.

It’s possible the same thing could happen in 2021: The Liberals and the Conservatives are locked in a virtual tie in the polls at around 31-32 percent. That said, the Liberals are still favored to carry the most seats in that configuration because of the Conservatives’ vote inefficiency. In fact, Grenier recently estimated that the Conservatives will need to win the national popular vote by more than 3 points to be favored to win the most seats.

However, it’s worth noting that the combined vote of the Liberals and the NDP — whose voters generally prefer Trudeau to O’Toole as their second choice — will surely far exceed the Conservative vote (as it did in 2019). So Conservatives winning the most seats with only a plurality of the vote could also be considered a counter-majoritarian outcome. (The possibility of vote-splitting has led to many calls for electoral reform in Canada, but they haven’t gained traction.)

But there’s a twist: Thanks to the quirks of the parliamentary system, it’s possible that Conservatives could win the most seats and Trudeau would remain prime minister. Unlike an American president, Trudeau remains prime minister unless he resigns or is defeated in the House of Commons, and it’s possible that the NDP would side with the Liberals to keep Trudeau in power. 

Coalition governments are rare in Canada, though, so Trudeau would probably only try to cling to power in this way if the circumstances were perfect — namely, if Liberals come a very close second to Conservatives in the overall seat count. But it does mean that Trudeau’s chances of staying prime minister are probably higher than the 68-75 percent chance that Liberals have of winning the most seats. Then again, reelection in this way would hardly be a win for Trudeau, as it would put him in a very precarious situation politically — which could lead to more governmental dysfunction and thus, perhaps, another premature election as soon as next year.

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