Though the Conservatives won two of last night's three by-elections, the results point to a steep drop in Tory support compared to their showing in last year's general election. It was the Liberals and, in particular, the Greens who saw their numbers increase instead.
In the ridings of Calgary Centre, Victoria, and Durham, the Conservatives averaged 45.3 per cent support in the 2011 federal election, compared to 28.9 per cent for the New Democrats, 16.5 per cent for the Liberals, and 9 per cent for the Greens. Last night, the Tories were only able to average 34 per cent support in the three ridings, a drop of more than 11 points.
That is the largest decrease in support the Conservatives have suffered on a by-election night since they formed government. The party dropped nine points in the March by-election in Toronto-Danforth, but their previous worst result on a night with more than one by-election taking place was a 2.4-point drop in the by-elections of 2006. The Conservatives did better than their previous general election results in the by-elections of 2007, 2008, and 2009, while they broke almost even in the three by-elections of 2010.
This decline cannot be explained away with the old adage that governments lose by-elections. Since coming to power, the Conservatives have yet to lose a by-election in which they were the incumbent party, and they have managed to win six of the 16 by-elections in which they were not the incumbent. In those 16 by-elections, they averaged a gain of 1.8 points, against a loss of 9.2 points in Victoria. And their average loss of 12.3 points in Durham and Calgary Centre pales in comparison to the loss of 4.9 points the Conservatives suffered the only other time they were defending one of their seats.
But the Conservatives were not alone in taking a bit of a beating last night in a winning campaign: the New Democrats dropped an average of 6.5 points across the three ridings, almost losing Victoria to the Greens. The Liberals gained 4.5 points and came within a whisker of winning Calgary Centre, while the Greens managed to increase their support by an average of 12.3 points, more than doubling their performance in the 2011 election.
Erin O'Toole was the only candidate who could go to bed early last night, as he easily beat out the NDP's Larry O'Connor with 50.7 per cent to 26.3 per cent. However, Mr. O'Connor did manage to narrow the margin by nine points, picking up 5.2 points since the May 2011 election. That came primarily from the Conservatives, who slipped 3.8 points, while the Liberals and Greens each dropped about a point apiece. Mr. O'Toole received almost the same amount of support as his father did in last fall's provincial election: John O'Toole took 49 per cent of the vote for Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives in the Durham provincial riding.
Though the results were looking close for much of the night, Conservative Joan Crockatt defeated Liberal Harvey Locke with 36.9 per cent support to 32.7 per cent. Chris Turner, the Green candidate, finished close behind with 25.6 per cent.
Despite the win, this was a rough result for the Tories. Ms. Crockatt dropped 20.8 points from Lee Richardson's result in the last federal election, losing all of that support to her two main opponents. Mr. Locke increased the Liberal vote share by 15.2 points, while Mr. Turner upped the Green vote by 15.7 points. And though turnout was abysmally low in such a close contest, both the Liberals and Greens earned more actual votes than they did in 2011.
One of the reasons for Ms. Crockatt's drop in support was likely due to the split between the Wildrose and PC provincial factions of the federal Conservatives. Assuming that Ms. Crockatt received total support from those who voted Wildrose in the last election, it would appear that she may have lost more than three-quarters of the vote that went to the Progressive Conservatives. If we also assume that Mr. Locke received the support of residents who voted for the provincial Liberals, then it was Mr. Turner who got the bulk of the deserted PC vote.
The race to replace the NDP's Denise Savoie in Victoria turned out to have the most surprising outcome of the three by-elections. Murray Rankin was expected to easily take up the NDP's banner, but instead narrowly edged out Green candidate Donald Galloway with 37.2 per cent to 34.3 per cent support. Mr. Rankin's numbers were down almost 14 points from Ms. Savoie's performance, with the Greens picking up almost 23 points in a riding that neighbours Green Party Leader Elizabeth May's seat. The Tories took a big hit, slipping about nine points. The Liberals were down about one point.
In total votes, the New Democrats shed almost half of theirs (much of that due to turnout, of course) but the Greens almost doubled the result of the 2011 federal election. While the riding will now be a top target for the Greens in 2015, of more immediate worry for the NDP could be the upcoming provincial election. Widely expected to be won in a landslide by the provincial New Democrats, voters in one of the handful of provincial ridings within the federal boundaries could opt for a Green MLA instead. B.C. Green Leader Jane Sterk, for instance, will be running in one of these ridings.
After the debacle of the Alberta election, the polls emerging from Calgary Centre were treated with almost universal skepticism – but in the end, they performed quite well. The last two polls, conducted by Forum Research and Return on Insight, were in the field nine and six days, respectively, before last night's vote. Nevertheless, both were very close: Forum pegged Ms. Crockatt's support at 35 per cent, Mr. Locke's at 30 per cent, and Mr. Turner's at 25 per cent. Return on Insight gave Ms. Crockatt 37 per cent to Mr. Locke's 32 per cent and Mr. Turner's 17 per cent. Return on Insight was almost dead-on for the Liberals and Conservatives, while Forum was close to the mark for the Greens.
Polling in Durham and Victoria was sparse, with the last survey by Forum being conducted two weeks before the vote in each riding. The Durham poll showed the Tories well ahead with the NDP in second, while the Victoria numbers showed the NDP's chief rival was Mr. Galloway of the Greens. It is impossible to say whether the last two weeks of the campaign were responsible for any discrepancies, but that would seem to be a fair assessment.
In total, about 101,000 people voted in last night's by-elections, a drop of about 67,000 votes from the almost 168,000 valid ballots cast in these three ridings in the 2011 election. The drop in turnout played a large role in the roughly 7,000 votes lost by the Liberals, the 26,000 lost by the NDP, and the 41,000 lost by the Tories. But if one party won a moral victory last night, it has to be the Greens. They upped their vote haul by almost 7,000 ballots.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.