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Alberta Even safe seats can deepen our knowledge about Tories’ 2015 hopes

Paul Fairie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary, where he studies voter behaviour.

On Monday, voters in Yellowhead, a large federal riding in the Jasper area west of Edmonton, head to the polls in a by-election.

The only close race in the riding in recent memory was between two conservative parties, when Preston Manning challenged former prime minister Joe Clark in 1988 (and Mr. Clark, running for the Progressive Conservatives, still won by 16 per cent). In 2011, the Conservatives captured 77 per cent of the vote.

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There is little doubt the Tory candidate will win. So can we learn anything from the results in one of Canada's safest Conservative seats?

Yes, in fact, we can glean a lot from the results of by-elections, even if they are for "safe" seats. While reading too much into any single by-election is a dangerous prognostication strategy, looking at many by-elections in the years between federal votes can serve as a good barometer of a governing party's popularity and its chances for re-election.

Since the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives' by-election results can be best described as mixed. They have lost only one seat (in Labrador), they have also lost an average of 14 per cent of their vote share over the 13 by-elections since 2011, winning by smaller margins in each seat compared with the previous nationwide vote.

Surely, some will say, Canadians are merely taking an opportunity to express disapproval of the government in a context where control of the executive does not hang in the balance. There is, in fact, some evidence that governing parties tend to be punished on by-election days. Looking at the 82 by-elections held since 1980, governing parties have lost an average of 5 per cent of their vote share compared with the previous general election, losing ground in 50 of 82.

But a look at the historical record reveals that the Conservative government has been doing poorly compared with past parties in power. Only two governments have lost a vote share greater than 14 per cent since 1980: the Mulroney (and, briefly, Campbell) Progressive Conservatives, in each of their two terms. While the PCs under Brian Mulroney were re-elected after suffering heavy losses in their share of the vote in by-elections during their first term (which included two seats falling to the NDP), their poor by-election performances did augur a 7-per-cent reduction in their national vote share in 1988. Dramatic declines in that term also reflected their unpopularity between 1984 and 1988, where they occasionally polled third nationally, behind the Liberals and the NDP. The Tories' attempt to seek re-election led by Kim Campbell after their second term went famously badly, winning them a meagre two seats in 1993.

What does this mean for the Conservatives' prospects of victory in the 2015 general election? In each of the four parliaments since 1980 where the governing party improved its share of the vote in by-elections, the government was re-elected every time. However, in each of the five parliaments where the governing party lost vote share, they managed re-election just twice, and both times lost votes (and seats).

This does not mean the Conservatives will definitely lose the next election. No responsible predictions about voter behaviour would ever be that simplistic. However, when set against historical data, the Conservative government's by-election performance this term can only be rated as poor, and merely achieving the third-worst performance since 1980 offers little in the way of good news for the Conservatives' chances in 2015.

Update (Nov. 18): Conservative vote share changes in the by-elections held on November 17 were perfectly in line with their performance so far this term. Before last night, their vote share had declined an average of 11.5% compared to 2011. Last night, it dropped an average of 11.8%, down by 14.5% in Yellowhead and by 9.2% in Whitby-Oshawa.

What does this mean? In positive news for the Conservatives, they retained both of the open seats, the primary goal of Monday's vote. Less promisingly, they've now lost vote share in all 15 by-elections held since the 2011 federal election, a much worse performance than their by-election record between 2006 and 2011, where their vote share increased in 10 of the 16 contests.

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