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All in the margins: The size of a Liberal victory could depend on B.C. results

Liberals may even have an outside chance of winning a razor-thin majority
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

By Bruce Cameron, Black Press Political Columnist

Since the English language debates were held September 9, the Liberals have bounced back from a small deficit to hold a small lead in voting intention over the Conservatives, raising the stakes in numerous close contests in B.C.

My wife and I watched the debate with another politically minded couple, all four of us analyzing who scored points and who didn’t. We even backed up the recording to go over a few notable exchanges, such as the explosive moment when moderator Shachi Kurl essentially accused Bloc Quebecois leader Yves Blanchet of condoning racism. Aside from that startling exchange, the strange thing about debates is how difficult it is to capture important changes in mood while you are watching in the moment.

Most British Columbians who tuned in were treated to a quintessential Canadian experience—at times thoughtful and polite, and only occasionally devolving into name calling and nastiness like the political theatrics often seen the U.S. My friend who hosted us, a former Member of Parliament, had a classic Canadian take on the debate. “Debates are like snow falling. When you’re in the middle of the storm, it’s almost impossible to really know how much snow will fall, and whether any of it will stick around over the next day or two.”

Based on polling data (a bold assumption in these tumultuous times), Justin Trudeau performed well enough to stop the Conservative momentum that had been steadily building at the mid campaign mark. One electoral outcome model, the CBC poll tracker, summed up the shift: the Liberal probability of winning the most seats (and a minority government) rose from 57% on September 9 (pre-debate) to 72% one week later.

Within the past five years, polling aggregators and electoral modelling have become commonplace. But the science behind those predictions took many decades to develop. The principle is simple—you take various polls conducted, give them a weighting based on the polling firms’ previous accuracy or methodology, and average out the results. Then you apply those averages to each province and riding to come up with an expected range of seats each party will win on September 20.

In the 2021 election, electoral modelling has given the advantage in a close contest to the Liberals, because of the way the votes are distributed. Heavily CPC-oriented ridings across the Prairies for instance vote overwhelmingly Conservative, while many closer races in urban areas around Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver (where there are more seats due to higher population density) favour the Liberals.

But those models are simply offer an educated guess. And the entire country will be watching the tight three-way races in B.C. to determine several things on election night.

First is the strength of the expected Liberal win. If the polls in B.C. putting the NDP and CPC ahead of the Liberals are off by only three to five points (well within the margin of error on most regional breakdowns), then the Liberals may even have an outside chance of winning a razor-thin majority. Liberal strategists will watch to see if their vote increases in Burnaby North Seymour, (keeping the NDP from capturing that seat), and they will breathe easy if Cloverdale Langley City flips to Liberal (overcoming a small CPC margin of victory in 2019).

Second is the depth and size of the NDP presence in Parliament. Almost half of the last NDP caucus was from BC (11 of 24 seats), and there are high hopes for a strong showing here to ensure the party wins more seat than the Bloc Quebecois (which I think is very likely). Those scenarios are based on the NDP winning back seats like Nanaimo Ladysmith from the Greens, and perhaps even Kootenay Columbia from the Conservative incumbent.

Finally, the fate of Erin O’Toole as CPC leader may hinge on whether the party can substantially boost its seat total in B.C from 17 at dissolution. At the mid-point of the campaign the CPC was hoping to win as many as 24 seats in B.C., a remote possibility now. The People’s Party of Canada, which have risen from about two per cent to almost seven per cent in national support, surpassing the Greens in B.C., may siphon off enough votes from the Conversative core to make O’Toole’s task impossible. Take South Surrey White Rock as an example of the PPC’s impact. If as I expect, the PPC candidate and former Conservative supporter Gary Jansen doubles or triples the number of votes the PPC received there in 2019, the riding will revert to Liberal Gordie Hogg.

It may be fall, but as the snow starts to fall in the mountains around B.C., it may bury the hopes of O’Toole if the small steady Liberal resurgence continues through Monday.

Black Press Media’s election analyst Bruce Cameron has been a pollster for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own company, Return On Insight. He is a frequent media commentator in print and broadcast media.

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