Matt Gurney: The PPC surge was real, but it didn't hurt O'Toole (at least not much)
The PPC's rise is worth studying on its own merits, as a political and social movement. But it wasn't an election spoiler.
By: Matt Gurney
In the days immediately following last month's federal election, as Conservatives grimly set about analyzing the disappointing outcome and pondered whether to line up behind leader Erin O'Toole or toss him over the side, one outstanding question was how much the rise in support for the People's Party of Canada mattered to the Conservative effort.
O'Toole planned to shift the CPC slightly toward the moderate centre on the assumption that the party's traditionally lopsided wins in western Canada meant that it could lose a little on the right to flip some close seats in the east. This didn't work. The Tories did shed support on the right, which might explain some measure of the PPC's rise, but the CPC didn't make up enough ground in eastern ridings to flip seats.
However, the election-night results are somewhat deceiving. O'Toole's strategy was more effective than the final outcome suggests. In Ontario, in particular, the Conservatives materially cut into the Liberals' advantage in the popular vote, effectively halving it, relative to 2019. This meant that the Liberals were extremely reliant on vote efficiency: a one-per cent swing of voters from the LPC to the CPC could have flipped dozens of seats, setting up a scenario where O'Toole could have been prime minister today. (These flips would not have come from the Greater Toronto Area, interestingly, where the Liberals continue to run up some lopsided victories of their own, but from other parts of Ontario and random seats all across the country. The election was closer than people realize.)
But back to the PPC. Did giving them room to grow on the right end up costing the CPC seats? If so, while that wouldn’t necessarily discredit the notion of moving the CPC toward the centre, it absolutely complicates it. If the Conservatives can't take their right flank for granted, their lives get a lot more difficult. In a recent feature in the Toronto Star, Althia Raj, who apparently spoke to every insider on the planet, wrote that a preliminary Conservative estimate is that the PPC rise cost them between four and nine seats.
That sounds about right, and it doesn't sound like much. Indeed, if anything, there's reason to believe that that is overly generous to the PPC.
I obviously don't know who Raj's source(s) were, but her numbers generally align with ones that I have seen myself. Shortly after the election, several Conservative friends forwarded me an unofficial internal analysis circulating among some members of the party. It was not an official Conservative Party of Canada document, just a quick number crunch by a veteran Conservative campaigner, who applied a very simple formula to estimate the PPC's impact. The formula was basically this: how many ridings did the Conservative party need in total to declare some kind of victory? Call it 150, the author said. By how many ridings did they come up short? Thirty one. In the 31 ridings where the party came closest to winning, the author asked, in how many would adding the totality of the PPC's vote to the Conservative vote have made the difference? Nineteen. Of those, how many would have shifted Liberal wins into the CPC column?
Would O'Toole have felt better about his night with an extra 12 ridings taken from the Liberals? Obviously. Would it have made his position as leader safer? Possibly. Would it have mattered to the electoral balance in parliament? No. Moving those ridings around gives the Liberals with 148 and the Conservatives with 131. The Liberal and NDP combined tally would still be over the necessary 170, with two votes to spare.
The report's author, though, noted that the simple math was obscuring a more nuanced truth. The Conservatives cannot assume that they'd have received the totality of the PPC vote if it shifted away from Maxime Bernier. In previous articles at The Line, I've noted work by John Wright of Maru Public Opinion, which aligns with the work of other pollsters, showing that the PPC vote of 2021 represents a mix of three roughly equal groups: former Conservative voters, former voters for all the other parties, and those who don't typically vote but voted PPC this time. Former Conservatives might be the largest of the group — a lot of the polls showed them at around 40 per cent of the total — but these sample sizes are small, with significant margins of error. The author of the report I was sent tried to estimate the maximum possible impact of the PPC surge by re-running the numbers, but this time looking only at "new" PPC voters — the number of votes cast for the party in each riding, relative to its 2019 results in those same ridings. The author moved those votes into the Conservative column, again, in their totality.
That resulted in the Conservatives winning 11 more ridings than they actually did, but only seven of those came from the Liberals. And since we can be confident that the new PPC voters would never have moved en masse to the Tories, the point is made: the PPC just didn’t matter to the Conservative outcome in any meaningful way. The worst possible effect is still essentially a rounding error.
The report's author makes clear that this is all very rough math. None of this should be taken to the bank, as it were, for any particular riding. A major complicating factor was the practical evaporation of the Green Party of Canada, which, on top of its well-publicized leadership woes, couldn't cobble together a full slate of candidates. Hundreds of thousands of Green voters were suddenly in play, and some of them seem to have parked their vote with the PPC, perhaps simply because they didn't feel like they had anywhere else to go. The author notes that in the 11 ridings available to the Conservatives in this new analysis, eight of them actually saw the CPC vote remain stable or increase, so that PPC surge came from somewhere else. This suggests the far more meaningful move among voters in 2021 wasn't from the Conservatives to the PPC, but possibly from Greens to the PPC.
In aggregate terms, the author found that while you could conclude that a handful of ridings were possibly but not certainly lost due to a PPC surge, you couldn't definitively conclude that any were lost because the Conservatives gave up ground on the right. This gets us to the low-end figure cited by Raj, but looking at this report, I don’t know where the rest could possibly have come from.
Every additional seat would have been good news for O'Toole. And the rise in the PPC vote share is worth studying on its own merits — The Line continues to work with John Wright to firm up our understanding of the PPC, both as a political and social movement.
But as an electoral force that hurt O'Toole in the last election, while we can certainly say it didn't help, it also didn't seem to hurt much.
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