Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Byelections 2010: No trends, just some stuff that happened

After every by-election, it’s always fun to watch the punditry and chattering classes flail about trying to read the entrails in search of trends to derive from the results. Politicos will look for trends to favour their party, while pundits will look for trends they can shoe-horn into whatever narrative they’ve been pushing, thereby affirming their awesome powers of punditness.

While every now and again you can find national trends in by-election results (there is an exception to every rule, after all) by and large there are usually no wider trends to derive from a series of randomly occurring by-elections scattered around the country. Usually, they’re just some stuff that happened, driven by unique circumstances in each riding.

Thomas Mulcair’s byelection win in Outremont didn’t presage an NDP wave sweeping Quebec. Elizabeth May’s strong second-place showing in London North Centre didn’t presage a Green wave, or get May any closer to the House of Commons.

The same is true for last night’s three races. Local factors are behind each result, and those trying to read too much into them are only fooling themselves. Or trying to fool us, because I’m sure most of them probably don’t believe the malarkey they’re peddling anyways.

The Races

Let’s start with the easiest one: Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette. It’s a strong Conservative riding in the rural West that stayed a strong Conservative riding last night. No change, no trend, status quo.

Further south was Winnipeg North. In a tight two-way race in a traditionally NDP seat (although Ray Pagtakhan snuck in there for a bit for the Liberals), Liberal Kevin Lamourex narrowly defeated NDP candidate Kevin Chief.

Is this a sign of a red wave set to sweet the prairie West? Is the NDP vote about to collapse? Not hardly. This was a case of a strong and respected but new to politics candidate in Chief facing off against a veteran of provincial politics in Lamoureux. Both sides poured-in resources and volunteers and fought hard on the ground, but in the end Lamoureux’s name-recognition was likely the difference. Hard to find any trends there.

And then there’s Vaughan. A Liberal seat for some years, by narrow margins at first and then with increasing pluralities. Often Conservative provincially, and in a belt of 905 seats that tend to tip bluish.

Expected to be a landslide for high-profile star Conservative candidate Julian Fantino over last-minute Liberal candidate Tony Genco, it ended up being a very narrow Conservative victory.

As the marquee match-up in the eyes of the media punditry, everyone is quick to ascribe trends to this result. Some say it’s a sign of a coming Conservative breakthrough in the GTA. Of course, that requires overlooking that the Conservatives already hold the ridings to the North (Oak Ridges-Markham), West (Dufferin-Caldeon) and South-East (Thornhill). Others say it was a referendum on Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and he failed (no races being referendums on anyone else, of course).

In actuality, the result in Vaughan can entirely be attributed to local factors, national trends be dammed.

It was a seat with favourable demographics for a Conservative candidate, held in recent years in part by the personal popularity of the Liberal incumbent, recently elected to the mayoralty in a landslide. A Conservative star candidate with extremely high name recognition (and a nearly guaranteed cabinet post) faced off against a Liberal neophyte, and was expected to win handily. Instead, he eked-out a narrow victory. It’s hardly a surprising result, and it’s not indicative of any wider trend. The race was tight, both sides poured-in volunteers and resources and, like in Winnipeg-North, name recognition was the likely difference-maker for Fantino, not any alleged Conservative wave.

As for Fantino's peak-a-boo campaign, did it help or hinder? Again, hard to draw a lesson, because it could go either way. Would the Conservative margin have been bigger if they hadn't hid their rock-star candidate? Or would greater exposure have led to a gaffe that could have cost him the narrow race? Who can say.

What about the wither the NDP trend being pushed by some, with their defeat in Winnipeg-North and poor showing in Vaughan? Does it really show a two-way national race? Sorry, I'm not buying. I think in races where it's clearly a LPC/CPC race, the NDP vote will bleed LPC to stop the CPC. But in race where its clearly a NDP/CPC race, expect the LPC vote to bleed to the NDP somewhat as well. Again, local factors will be the determinant in most cases.

The Lessons

Perhaps we can't legitimately pull any trends from last night’s by-elections, but can we pull some lessons?


Lesson one: It’s all about the ground war. The pundits like to punditize, and we bloggers and twitterers like to trade barbs and post videos and revelations. It’s fun and entertaining, but its impact in the grand scheme of things is negligible. We saw two tight races in Winnipeg-North and Vaughan, and they were fought and won not by any ad, attack press release, soundbite or blog revelation. They were won by old-fashioned, on the ground campaigning. Knocking on doors, making phone-calls, identifying the vote and getting it out on e-day. Particularly in a by-election, voters aren’t paying attention to the air war – it’s a phony war. Boots on the ground win elections, and that’s where these races were really fought.

Lesson two: It’s hard to sense the local mood from Ottawa. It was really amusing, and saddening, to watch the national media and punditry seriously try to handicap these races without ever leaving the friendly confines of their offices near Parliament Hill, relying instead on the spin they’re fed by each of the parties. No wonder they thought Vaughan would be a Conservative landslide, that the Liberals were having trouble pulling volunteers, and never even saw Winnipeg-North coming. I’m not that old, but I do remember a time when reporting meant first-hand observation. If they’d visited Vaughan or Winnipeg-North to talk to residents, meet the candidates and stop by the campaign offices, they’d have gotten a much better picture of the races.

Lesson three: No one will remember these by-elections in a week. What was today’s biggest story and the big thing that will change everything will quickly be forgotten. That’s how it has always been. And particularly when the results can’t be made to fit the narrative that’s being pushed. So just relax, because life does always go on.

Finally, if you’ll permit me, a few partisan observations. Tony Genco and team ran a very impressive campaign in Vaughan, and he probably deserves a shot in the general election. With the glare of the byelection off and the PMO off running the national campaign, he just might win. Particularly since Harper won’t be able to keep Fantino muzzled forever.

And a big congrats to Kevin Lamoureux and team in Winnipeg-North, for a very impressive win against a political newcomer, but highly-respected and capable candidate in Kevin Chief.

For those looking for signs of Liberal disunity, it’s hard to find any here. From what I hear, Genco in Vaughan had more volunteers than he knew what to do with, which is a great sign of how committed and energized Liberals on the ground are, and bodes well for the next election. Same in Winnipeg. A major inhibitor for the Liberals in the last few election as been their inability to identify and marshal the Liberal vote, and find the volunteers to run an effective GOTV operation. These results bode well for the next race.

Finally, it was nice to see the Liberals finally get it right on expectations management, and even beat the Conservatives on that font. They under-promised -- sending-out signals of a huge defeat in Vaughan and little chance in Winnipeg-North – and then over-delivered with a tight defeat and a narrow victory. A nice change from the recent trend of over-promise, under-deliver.

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MLM said...

Jeff, you rock. I feel like I've been beating my brains out trying to explain to people that the ground war - impacted, of course by name recognition - is what these elections were all about.

Even in general elections, so long as the air war is relatively competitive between the main contenders, the ground war is what makes up the difference.

Libs in '08 had no chance, because we had too much air-war friendly fire and the CPC blitz against Dion was too strong. I predict that, as long as the current LPC national-level machine has their shit together, our ground war capabilities will determine our fate.

We need to make sure our EDA's are prepared and ready to rely on themselves for local strategy and logistics. I hope that the regional leadership starts putting their thumb down on the ridings to make sure they are prepared.

Ben Burd said...

Nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the room - the Italian Vote. Fantino had it sewn up and had it from the start. Let's talk about the ethnic influence in all of the GTA ridings.

Bungle Jerry said...

What these by-elections showed me: by-elections are bipartisan to a much greater extent than general elections. The NDP historically do bad in York Region, but not two-percent bad, and the Conservatives are rarely that little of a factor even in Winnipeg North. By-elections tend to coalesce around 'for' or 'against' - since that can never mean for or against the incumbent, it will mean for or against the 'star candidate' (in two cases, a 'for' both times) or for or against the federal government.

I don't think it's that strategic voting is more or a factor locally than it is federally. I think it's just that third-party voters tend to be among the vast majority of voters who stay at home on by-election day.