Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Some Hard Take-Aways for Greens from Last Night's Election in Price Edward Island

Greens across the nation woke up this morning to welcome news that the PEI Green Party, under able leader Peter Bevan-Baker, surged at the polls on Tuesday evening, electing a caucus of 8 Greens - the largest contingent of Greens ever to enter a legislature together anywhere in North America.  With 30.6% of the popular vote, Bevan-Baker is ready to sit as Leader of the Official Opposition to a Dennis King-led Progressive Conservative minority government.  And of course there's idle speculation that Bevan Baker and the remnant group of 6 Liberals could get together and oust King and his 12 PC's to form a government of their own - although I think that's unlikely to happen.
Election Results - from Elections PEI

By almost every account, what happened last night to the Green Party in PEI was enormously good news for Greens everywhere - and yet more evidence of a growing surge of Green support.  I say "by almost every account" because I'm about to rain on everyone's parade with this blog post.  But I think what I have to say needs to be said - if only to temper Green expectations over the coming year, and perhaps to inspire Greens towards the hard work that we need to undertake if we really are going to have a shot at being anything more than irrelevant in the coming federal election.

PEI is Unique

First of all, PEI is simply not representative of the rest of Canada.  It's a very small province with its own unique set of issues. It's population (142,900) is less than that of my home city - Greater Sudbury.  The Liberal government under leader Wade McLauchlan had grown long in the tooth - and Islanders seem to schedule changes in their government the same way that they schedule dental appointments.  It was time for McLauchlan to go.  And when it's time for the Liberals to go, Islanders turn to the PC's.  And when it's time for them to go, they turn back to the Liberals.  This trend has been going on for decades.  Note that the trend was NOT upended by voters last night.
Peter Bevan-Baker

The success of the Green Party in PEI really did come out of nowhere.  The Greens had only run candidates in three elections prior to Bevan-Baker being elected to office in the 2015 general election (see: "Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker makes P.E.I. political history," CBC News, May 4, 2015).  Greens may recall that PEI Greens used the "beachhead" strategy in PEI - by putting all resources into electing a single member of the legislature, and then using that credibility of that member to inspire voters to cast ballots for Greens elsewhere.  The federal Green Party tried this in 2008, but failed to elect our Leader (who was then running in Nova Scotia).  In 2011, May was elected in Saanich-Gulf Islands - but 8 years later, she continues to sit alone in the House as no other federal Green has ever been elected.

But PEI was a different story.  It all went according to plan for the Greens.  Bevan-Baker was soon joined by Hannah Bell, who won a by-election.  And then there was last night, which saw the Greens move from just a single beachhead seat in 2015 to 9 in 2019.  They may not sound like many, but keep in mind, PEI's legislature consists only of 27 seats - and only 26 of those were being contested last night - the election was postponed in District 9 due to the tragic death of Green candidate Josh Underhay, who died in a canoeing accident with his young son on Good Friday, just days before the election (see: "P.E.I. Green candidate, son die in canoeing accident days before election," CBC News, April 20 2019). A by-election will be held in District 9 in the near future - but the outcome of that by-election will not change the standings of the three parties.

Narrative: Voters Can Confidently Vote for Green Candidates

What happened in PEI was unique to PEI.  I know that Greens in the rest of Canada want to read a lot into this - our narrative, after all, has been and continues to be that voters are showing a growing confidence that voting for the Green Party achieves results - that the old paradigm that a vote for the Greens is a wasted vote just doesn't hold up any longer.  Greens have, after all, been elected to provincial legislatures in New Brunswick, in Ontario and in B.C., where they hold the balance of power over a NDP minority government.

And 8 Greens elected in PEI feeds that narrative.  I don't think there's any denying that the narrative, generally speaking, is a good one, and is somewhat supported by the evidence.  But Greens should keep in mind that the narrative really only works in a handful of ridings - and most of them are on Vancouver Island, with maybe one or two elsewhere in B.C., perhaps one in Ontario, one in New Brunswick and maybe now one in PEI (and I want to say one maybe in Quebec, where the Green Party has been polling well, but I really don't believe that).

Of course, all of that can change - especially during a campaign.  If the PEI election proved any point last night, it's that campaigns matter.

PEI Green Support Faded Away

Yes, campaigns matter.  The real story about what happened last night was indeed about the Green Party - but not in the way that I'm sure almost every Green thinks it was.  Overlooked in all of the celebration is the following question, which I'm sure is looming large in the recesses of PEI Greens today.

What happened to the Green vote?  Where did it go?  Because a good deal of it didn't show up at the polls last night.

Look, I understand - to anyone who has been involved with the Green Party for any length of time, the idea of pulling in 30.6% of the popular vote seems akin to achieving some kind of Green electoral nirvana.  But if what happened last night happened to any other party, headlines in today's papers would read "PC's Win as [Insert Party Name Here] Vote Collapses at Last Minute".

Let's not forget that Bevan-Baker's Greens had been consistently polling at above 34% since early 2018.  A poll conducted in late-February, 2018, pegged Green support at 34% (see: "P.E.I. Green party now in second place: CRA poll," The Guardian, March 6, 2018).  Greens were still at 34% in June, 2018 (see: "UPDATE: Liberal support declines, tied with Greens in P.E.I. political poll," The Guardian, June 6, 2018).  And in March, 2019, heading into the election, Greens were up to 37% (see: "UPDATE: P.E.I. Greens maintain lead, Liberals slip below PC’s in latest opinion poll," The Guardian, March 7, 2019).

And last week, a poll released from a firm called MQO Research (whoever that is) had Green support at 40%, which is majority government territory.

All of the polling, however, proved to be somewhat wrong.  Mainstreet Research's poll released on April 18 illustrates the point: Mainstreet had the Greens at 35.4, the PC's at 30.5%, the Liberals at 29.2% and the NDP at 3.9%  (see: "PEI Greens Hold Lead, Governing Liberals In Third," Mainstreet Research, April 18, 2019).  Mainstreet's poll was pretty accurate as far as the Liberal and NDP vote went (the Liberals ended up with 29.5% of the popular vote, and the NDP just 3%).  But Mainstreet, like all of the pollsters, under-predicted the success of the PC's, who finished with 36.5%, and over-predicted Green support.

The real story of the night was the moderate collapse of Green support - but since many in the media have been skeptical that the reported "Green support" existed in the first place, that's not what's been making headlines.  But for a Party to be leading in the polls for over a year to suddenly find its level of support reduced by 7-10% on election night - that's a pretty big loss, no matter how you count it - and no matter who the Party is.

The Real Story - The Masterful Rise of Dennis King and the PC's

The other story from last night, of course, was the stunning rise and success of the Progressive Conservative Party under new leader Dennis King.  The PC's, who were polling at just 17% a little over a year ago, saw their support steadily increase.  On the eve of the election call, polls had PC support at 29%.  By the time election night rolled around, the PC's were able to add another 7 percentage points - which is just about what the Greens lost over the course of the campaign.
Dennis King (from torstar publishing)

And that's why campaigns matter.  It took a year for the PC's to move 12 points, but just a month to move 7 points.  For over a year, the Green Party hovered between 34% and 37% - but it lost between 4 and 7 points in a month.

The Green Party and Polling

So what happened?  During the election, pollsters and others were expressing concerns that the Green Party's vote not be very efficient.  With the New Brunswick election still fresh in mind - where the Liberal Party won the popular vote by 11% but did not win the most seats - efficiency seemed a real concern for the Greens in PEI, as many thought that the Greens vote would be concentrated in a small number of ridings - so even a high popular vote total might not translate into a high number of seats (and it's worth noting that this concern is yet another unique matter for PEI - elsewhere across the country, Greens have a different problem with support - the popular support is never concentrated enough to elect Greens).

But the concerns around 'efficiency' didn't appear to have materialized.  On the day after an election, Greens like to point out how many seats they would have won if the election was conducted with proportional representation based on the popular vote.  In the case of the PEI Green Party, proportionally speaking, Greens should have won 8 seats - the same as they did win under First Past The Post.  The Liberal Party, which pulled just 1.1% of the vote lower than the Greens, suffered the injustice, electing just 6 members under FPTP (in a PR scenario, the Liberals should also have 8 seats).

I speculate (and it is only speculation) that what's happened to the Green Party throughout Canada also happened to the Green Party in PEI - that either a) pollsters are simply getting it wrong when it comes to Green Party support, or b) voters, once they enter the polling station, lose confidence in the Green Party's ability to succeed at the polls and vote for other parties - we call that 'strategic voting'.

Let's look at a) first.  If you follow the polls, it's hard not to notice that Green Parties hardly ever live up to the pre-election expectations of the pollsters after all of the votes have been counted.  There is usually a gap of around 20% or so.  A good rule of thumb for Greens to keep in mind is that the polls almost always over-predict our support.  And that doesn't bode well for the Green Party of Canada - which has been stuck somewhere between 8% and 10% in the polls lately (poll aggregator 338 Canada presently pegs GPC support at 8.8%).  Hack off 20% of that support and you're left with about 7% - which is still pretty high for the Green Party of Canada, but not significantly higher than our best result (the highest level of support we've had nationally was 6.8% in the 2008 general election - when we failed to elect a single MP) - and absolutely not where we want to be heading into the federal election this fall.

The Stubbornness of Liberal Voters

And it's another take-away from last night's election that is going to make life very difficult for the Green Party of Canada to move its numbers.  We saw something similar happen in Ontario in the 2018 general election to what happened in PEI last night - and we might see the same thing, on a micro-scale, happen in the B.C. riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election next week.  That 'trend' is that Liberal voters, knowing their Party trailed in the polls (in third place in Ontario and in PEI) did not abandon the Liberal Party.  The Liberal vote did not collapse - and as a result, the parties who are the presumed beneficiaries of a Liberal collapse did not benefit.  In Ontario, that would have been the NDP - and many New Democrats remain bitter with the Liberals here to this day because they continued to fight to the bitter end.  

In PEI, the polls had the Liberals in the mid-20s, which means that they were largely out contention to govern with two parties ahead of them.  But Liberals on the Island were unmoved - they continued to support McLauchlan and showed up in the polls in numbers large enough that the final vote tally had them within 1.1% of the Green vote.  

This is actually a bit of an interesting phenomenon.  Pundits often look for (and target) supporters of third place parties and candidates - telling them not to waste their vote, and instead support second best in order to keep the evil at bay.  That's what strategic voting is, and we often see it play out (indeed, it's almost certainly what happened to the NDP in the 2015 federal election - an election which saw their caucus reduced by almost half thanks to a surging Liberal Party under the leadership of Justin Trudeau.  It might happen to the NDP again in 2019).  But when it comes to Liberal supporters, it seems that this trend just doesn't take hold in the same way.  Indeed, a collapse of Liberal support last night was expected - it should have happened - but it didn't.   If you buy into the Strategic Voting narrative, there's a very real case to suggest that Liberals supporters wasted their ballots - to the detriment of the Green Party.

And if that Liberal support - even at reduced numbers - remains solid even in the face of an expected loss, the Green narrative of "lend us your vote - you can have confidence in us that we'll win" goes nowhere.  And if we're going to succeed on election night, we need to succeed before the official campaign gets underway, by getting our support at the polls up to at least 12% - higher would be better.  And, as I've said before and will say again, it's New Democrats that we need to target.

The Continuing Rise of the Right-Wing Throughout Canada

Finally, one last word about PEI and stunning success that Dennis King and the PC's pulled off last night.  Without question, King's election on PEI has to be viewed as part of a wider national (some would say international) trend that is showing a rise of right-wing support, some of it extremist.  By all accounts, King and most of his PC caucus would be more at home in a Kathleen Wynne or Rachel Notley government than a Doug Ford or a Jason Kenney-led one.  The PEI PC's are not exactly this new breed of extremist-Conservatives that we've seen emerge over the past decade.  But it's hard to suggest that PEI isn't immune to this global trend, and King was the only party leader in place to benefit from it.
Andrew Scheer - from CBC News

Going forward in 2019, the rise of the right is likely to remain the primary electoral story.  I get that this is troublesome for Greens and others not on the extremist right of the political spectrum - many of whom want the next federal election to be about climate change or fiscal responsibility or whatever.  You can pretty much kiss all of that good-bye.  With gobs of money in the bank, and third-party actors (including the Premiers of several provincial governments who aren't afraid to intervene in the federal election - and who appear intent on using taxpayer's money to do so), Andrew Scheer and his Conservative Party will be calling the tune that all of the other parties have to dance to.  The media might cling to the notion that there is no one single narrative in the next election - but the media is growing increasingly irrelevant at dictating electoral narratives.  Facebook ads and social media contacts will drive the next election.  And the Conservatives are the only party that are in a position to benefit from this new reality.

The Rise of the Right - Are Greens a Part of the Problem?

And that doesn't work for Greens, either.  Not only would a Scheer government be anathema to everything Greens stand for, but we have really only one way to prevent it from coming about - and it's not exactly a palatable option for Greens.  Our problem is that a Green Party that pulls 10% of the popular vote only benefits the Conservative Party to any real extent.  At that level of support, we might elect 3 or 4 Greens, but what we end up doing is getting in the way of other non-Conservative candidates.

We wanted to be able to say to voters in this election, "Don't worry about Andrew Scheer - the People's Party is eating at his support.  You can confidently vote for us now knowing that there will still be a Liberal government in Ottawa on the day after the election."  But that narrative has completely fallen apart, thanks to Trudeau's idiocy over Lavscam, and Conservative Party spending.  Voters will once again be confronted with strategic voting as a very real option to keep the evil at bay - and in that scenario, Greens don't benefit anywhere outside maybe Saanich-Gulf Islands, Victoria and maybe Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke and (if Paul Manly can win), Nanaimo-Ladysmith (and right now, if I were a betting man, I would put my money on Manly losing - although I'm not yet sure to whom).

Taking a Hard Look in the Mirror

With all of this in mind - plus a New Democratic Party which, if it's not collapsing, is certainly completely mired in the mid-teens (and I'm still seeing collapse because the NDP is done east of Sturgeon Falls - Quebec is gone, and they've already been wiped out in the Maritimes), what is the Green Party to do?  As a Green Party supporter, I may not believe much of what Justin Trudeau has to say about things that are important to me - but I absolutely believe that Andrew Scheer is serious when he says he'll kill the carbon tax and exacerbate the climate crisis.  The Liberals aren't what Canada needs right now, in my opinion.  But Scheer would be a disaster for our nation and planet.

Maybe it's time for Greens to face up to this reality - the stakes are too high now.  Maybe the lesson that Greens should learn from the PEI election is that we need to stand down in those ridings that we can't win - but where our participation can impact the outcomes. And here I'm looking at Greens running in B.C.'s lower mainland, in the Greater Toronto Area, in Quebec and in the Maritimes.  Those are the places the Liberals need to make gains in or hold.  Maybe we ought to give them and the NDP a hand-up.  Because nobody else is going to.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)


rumleyfips said...

The popular press is pushing the ' voters want something new ' bit ( it makes a good story after all ) but something also stands out. Voter on PEI voted 70% PC and Liberal . Nothing new here. At the same time they voted against electoral reform. Same old , same old.

Stus quo seemed tho be the story of last night on PEI.

John_Northey said...

The stakes are always too high. Greens have been told this election after election after election. Each time we see things get worse - first Harper minorities, then Harper majority, then Trudeau majority (and a pipeline purchased). Yeah, I'm sure the current Con's will screw things up even more if put in, but Trudeau without a strong Green presence will also keep messing up - next will be pushing that pipeline through no matter what and maybe reviving the west to east one as well. I know I'm tired of it. Time for Greens to focus on key ridings and win those, ridings we don't have a real shot at right now we can put a candidate on the ballot in. But until the Liberals and NDP grow up and work with us to have real electoral reform there is no point in sitting back and hoping for the best. If you want Liberals in power then join them.

Scheer is a potential disaster, but Green candidates running around doing the bidding of Liberals is not the solution.

Sudbury Steve said...

The CBC's Eric Grenier and I seem to be on the same page: