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A Liberal supporter listens to debate at the party's policy convention in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2012. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
A Liberal supporter listens to debate at the party's policy convention in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2012. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Crunching Numbers

Just how big an electoral challenge do Liberals face in 2015? Add to ...

Buoyed by the energy of this month’s policy convention, Liberals across the country might feel compelled to look forward to the next election with enthusiasm. By then Stephen Harper will have been in power for almost 10 years and Canadians may embrace the next leader of the Liberal Party rather than one of the eight contenders currently vying for the NDP’s top job. However, for the Liberals to defeat the Conservatives in 2015 they need a comeback of historic proportions.

When Canada last had a change of government, the Conservatives under Mr. Harper had turned a vote-share deficit of 7.1 percentage points in 2004 into a 6.1-point lead. But overcoming that 7.1-point margin in 2006 paled in comparison to the two previous changes in government. The Liberals had placed 11.1 points behind the Progressive Conservatives in 1988 before winning in 1993, while under Brian Mulroney the Tories had overcome an 11.9-point margin between the 1980 and 1984 elections.

But with 18.9 per cent support in the last election, Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals finished 20.7 points behind the victorious Conservatives. If the Liberals overcame such a margin in 2015, it would be the greatest comeback in a federal election in Canada’s history.

A federal party has never unseated a government after finishing so far behind in the previous election. Only one other case comes close: the 1957 victory by the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker, when they had overcome the 19-point deficit they had been handed in 1953. But that election was extraordinary as it ended 22 years of Liberal government, the longest uninterrupted federal reign in Canada’s history.

Mr. Mulroney and Jean Chrétien’s first victories were also exceptional in their own ways, while the second largest margin overcome (16.9 points) took place in 1921, the first election after the First World War.

However, swings of this magnitude have taken place before. The largest was in 1984, when the Progressive Conservatives improved their vote share by 17.6 points and the Liberals saw theirs slip by 16.3 points, for a total swing of 33.9 percentage points. The 1921 election saw a swing of 27.3 points, while in 1958 the ruling Tories under Mr. Diefenbaker had a total of swing of 23.4 points against the Liberals.

But beating an opponent from so far behind is quite a different thing from running up the score. In the three cases above, the comeback party had taken more than 32 per cent of the vote in the previous election, not the 19 per cent the Liberals took in May 2011.

The history of elections in Canada’s two largest provinces also suggests that the Liberals are facing long odds in 2015. Only twice did parties overcome larger margins than 20.7 points.

The top honour goes to René Lévesque’s 1976 defeat of Robert Bourassa’s Liberals. In that election, perhaps the most impactful election in Quebec’s history, the Parti Québécois overcame the 24.4-point margin of 1973 to form government for the first time.

The other case took place in Ontario. In 1987 the NDP finished 21.6 points behind the Liberals, but under Bob Rae the party overcame that margin to form the government in 1990.

But history also suggests the go-slow approach endorsed by Dalton McGuinty in his speech on the first night of the federal Liberal convention has a greater chance of success. It took two elections for Mr. McGuinty to become Ontario’s premier, and it might take two elections to return the federal Liberals to power.

To overcome that 20.7-point margin by 2019 would still be an historic achievement, but it would not be unheard of. The Liberals had finished 22 points behind the Tories in 1984, two elections before their 1993 victory. The PCs under Mr. Diefenbaker in 1957 and the Liberals under Lester Pearson in 1963 both came out as victors after falling 20 points behind two election cycles earlier.

Of course, with only nine points having separated the Conservatives from the New Democrats in the 2011 election, the odds of an NDP victory in 2015 are far greater than a Liberal comeback. And it is also possible that the Liberals could win the most seats in the House of Commons in 2015 without winning the most votes. But unless Liberal supporters believe their next leader will be of an historic quality, they may be better served by taking the longer view.

Eric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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