Who really benefited from vote splits this election?

Special to The Globe and Mail

A Liberal supporter reacts early results roll in at Michael Ignatieff's Toronto election headquarters on May 2, 2011. (ADRIEN VECZAN/REUTERS)

Election night was tough for our friends in the Liberal Party. We know what that's like. And so we can well understand why they and some of their apologists have been tempted to try to de-legitimize the key election outcomes - the rise of the NDP to Official Opposition and a Conservative majority, realigning Canadian politics around these two national political parties - by saying the latter only occurred as a results of vote splitting by the former.

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The argument goes like this: Stephen Harper gained more than 20 seats in Ontario by increasing his vote by only five percentage points. The victory in these key ridings (so it is claimed) happened because the NDP supposedly drained votes from the Liberals, giving the Conservatives more seats.

But that is not the story of this election.

Here is the reality: The parties that benefited least from vote splits in this election were the Conservatives and the NDP. The party that benefited the most from vote splits was the Liberals.

What would count as evidence of vote splitting? In the first place, if there was vote splitting you would expect to see victorious candidates winning with small pluralities - well under 50 per cent.

In the second place, if there was vote splitting, you would expect victorious candidates to win their seats in close races. So if vote splitting was occurring in large measure, you would expect that Conservatives and New Democrats to win their seats with small margins over the second place finisher.

And in the third place, you would expect that the second place finisher to both the Conservatives and the NDP would be the Liberals.

So now let's turn to the data. Preliminary results from Elections Canada show that Conservatives had, on average, an absolute majority in the seats they won. To put it another way, the Conservatives received, on average, 54 per cent of votes cast in ridings that they won.

The NDP received, on average, 48 per cent of votes cast in ridings they won, also a very clear margin of victory by any reasonable standard. And the Liberals? They won their 34 seats with, on average, 42 per cent of the vote.

But surely the Prairies - where the Conservatives often won by large margins - are skewing the data? Actually, not so much.

The average plurality for the Conservatives and NDP in Ontario was 50 and 49 per cent respectively. That's right. The Conservatives and the NDP won their Ontario seats, on average, with numbers as close to a majority as anywhere outside of Alberta.

On the other hand, the Liberals won their 11 seats in Ontario with, on average, only 41 per cent of the vote. And the story is better for the Conservatives (54 per cent) and worse for the Liberals (37 per cent) in British Columbia. And in Quebec the NDP (46 per cent) and even the Conservatives (44 per cent) won their seats with larger margins, on average, than the Liberals (40 per cent).

What about margins between the first and second place finisher?

Consider the shocker. In the Greater Toronto Area - the Liberal Party's former fortress - the NDP was up, on average, by almost 8,000 votes over their nearest rival. The Conservatives had, on average, 7,000 more votes than their nearest rival. And the Liberals? Their vote spread in ridings they won in the GTA was well under 4,000 votes.

And finally, the Liberals came in second in only one third of Conservative seats and barely one in ten NDP seats. The reality of this election was that it was the Liberals who squeaked through in their 34 seats, winning despite low pluralities and small margins - benefiting, that is, from vote splits.

Here's one last fact. In 111 seats, the Conservatives came in first, the NDP came in second and the Liberals came in third. Had the Liberals not run in those seats and if it were true that 100 per cent of the Liberal vote switches with the NDP and vice versa (and you need to believe this to be true for "vote splitting" to be an issue), then the NDP would have won 13 of those seats and Prime Minister Stephen Harper would not have his majority.

And so here's the bottom line: The Conservatives and the NDP won their seats with, on average, large pluralities and considerable margins over the party that finished second - which was usually not the Liberals. Across Ontario, within the GTA and in British Columbia - the battlegrounds of the election - the Conservatives and NDP increased their vote, had large pluralities or outright majorities across the seats that they won.

Don't let them tell you otherwise. It only encourages them.

Ken Boessenkool and Brian Topp played active roles in the election campaign for the Conservative Party and the NDP, respectively. The views expressed here are their own.

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