It’s a truism among politicos that you can’t read too much into by-elections. And while no seats changed hands Monday night, voters’ shifting support will be read closely by the federal parties in Ottawa.
Here’s what the results spell out for each major party:
The Conservatives were playing defence in the four by-elections. The Tories had little hope in the urban Liberal fortresses of Toronto Centre and Montreal’s Bourassa, and had only to hold two Manitoba ridings vacated by veteran MPs Vic Toews and Merv Tweed this summer. While polls showed the Tories in danger of losing Brandon-Souris, MLA Larry Maguire held on in a nail-biter. “Congrats to #CPC candidate @LarryMaguire4MP for his win in Brandon Souris, defying the pollsters, Ottawa ‘experts’ and media!,” Treasury Board President Tony Clement tweeted.
But Brandon-Souris, which has been represented by the Conservatives or a predecessor party all but once since 1953, was much closer than it should have been. The Liberals’ support jumped from 5 per cent to 42 per cent, and politicos in Ottawa will wonder what effect the unfolding Senate scandal had on the Tories’ dropping vote in both races. (And, contrary to popular wisdom, governments usually don’t lose by-elections.)
For the New Democrats, carried to Official Opposition status by Quebec’s Orange Wave in 2011, Justin Trudeau’s comments in Bourassa must have stung.
“It is the Liberal Party tonight that proved hope is stronger than fear, ” the Liberal Leader said in Montreal Monday night, pulling a quote from Jack Layton’s famous death-bed letter.
The party, which had no seats at stake among the four ridings, just had to stay in the game – which they did. Their support in Bourassa nearly matched their vote in the Orange Wave, even with anemic turnout, and candidate Linda McQuaig captured 36 per cent of the vote in Toronto Centre, the best the NDP had ever done in that riding.
The Liberals didn’t score their much-sought-after coup in the Prairies by stealing Brandon-Souris, but they did give Stephen Harper’s Conservatives a scare. “Just want to point out that you're all up past midnight wondering if #LPC will beat #CPC in rural Manitoba. I'd call that progress,” senior Trudeau adviser Gerald Butts tweeted in the early hours. In the end, they came within 400 votes.
The Liberals were the only party Monday night to increase the number of raw votes they received compared to the 2011 election, a feat made more difficult with low turnout in the by-elections. The party will take it as a sign that the national polls showing a Trudeau lead are right – even if the by-election polls weren’t.