Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Myth of the Day: By-elections usually have government losses

On James Morton's blog, a commentator noted that "by-elections usually punish the party in government," a sentiment expressed by many Conservatives it seems, usually as a last-ditch reasoning against any sort of positive sentiment coming from their opposition. This, frankly, is a horribly incorrect notion that is born out of the idea that if the party in power wins in a by-election, they're doing good; if they lose, they're facing the wrath of an electorate.

While anyone could easily discredit this notion based on simple electoral politics, namely that singular elections in small districts more often than not end up locally-based rather than as a referendum on the government, I thought I'd just do a quick rundown of by-elections in Canada over the past two decades, who won them, and of course, the governments of the time.

Since 1993, there's been quite a few by-elections, but only 11 of those by-elections have resulted in the government party either winning or losing a seat. This list includes:

Brome--Missisquoi (1995, Bloc to Liberal)
Port Moody-Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam (1998, Reform to Liberal)
Windsor West (2002, Liberal to NDP)
Gander-Grand Falls (2002, Liberal to Progressive Conservative)
Perth-Middlesex (2003, Liberal to Progressive Conservative)
Temiscamingue (2003, Bloc/Independent to Liberal)
Levis-et-les-Chutes-de-la-Chaudiere (2003, Bloc Quebecois to Liberal)
Roberval--Lac-Saint-Jean (2007, Bloc Quebecois to Conservative)
Desnethe--Missinippi--Churchill River (2008, Liberal to Conservative)
Montmagy--L'Islet--Kamouraska--Riviere-du-Loup (2009, Bloc Quebecois to Conservative)
Vaughan (2010, Liberal to Conservative)

Looking at these we results, we see that 8 of the 11 by-election contests have been won by the governing party, while 3 were lost. This includes four Harper by-elections, and four Chretien by-elections. The three losses occurred on Chretien's watch, but during his comparatively more popular years just after the 2000 election (though Chretien was never that popular, he was hated more during the latter half of the 1990's than he was in the 2000's).

However, a good point to note here is that in the 16 by-elections during Harper's tenure, only one has been a Conservative-held riding (not counting Bill Casey), and it could hardly be considered a "toss-up," given that its Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette. That number will be up to 3 out of 19 with the resignations of Jim Prentice and Jay Hill, but their ridings are safe for the Conservatives as well.

Compare this to the Chretien/Martin era, where of the 32 by-elections, 22 of them were in Liberal-held ridings. The fact that they lost only 3 of them is amazing, and not all of them in safe ridings. Harper has yet to face such vulnerabilities.

But, nevertheless, the point is that it doesn't seem like governing parties, at least since 1993, do too badly in by-elections. If, of the 48 by-elections since 1993, governing parties have won 30 of them, how exactly do by-elections "usually" end up in government losses? That's nearly a 2-1 split. Heck, even of the 3 losses during that messy Chretien/Martin infighting period, the losses occurred in provinces (Ontario, Newfoundland) where the Liberals in 2004 either gained or maintained most of their vote share, yet the two wins in Quebec during the same period from the Bloc were counter-intuitive, because the Liberals lost most votes in 2004!

This isn't just easily demonstrated on the federal level. I can show the same thing occurring in the provinces, in the UK, and even in the United States. The fact is that by-elections usually end up turning on local conditions and the candidate, a lot more than on whatever the national scene is like at any given moment.

But, if the narrative helps the Conservatives, however false it may be, then it must be true, right?


  1. Interesting analysis but you ignore/dismiss/downplay important details/underlying factors. Riding, boundaries were redrawn or abolished. Long held seats retirement, star candidates, right of centre schism with Reform-PC. Incumbent resigning or retiring support/endorse party and new candidate with his team.

    Local campaigns matter. Campaign financing has changed the landscape in 2004.

    George Baker 55-78% owned the riding was called to Senate and than went back to take it for the Liberals. Herb Gray owned Windsor seat.

    The take away is not the BS infighting on the Hill. The preparation and work in winning the riding with troops and a message that hits home.

    Ford and NB articles I read demonstrated both were prepared and stuck to their script.

    Kevin in WPG north ran a good campaign, had real roots in the community. The NDP-CPC did not have the resume or the investment in years of built up cred that your guy did.

    Don't overlook it.

  2. Yeah, when I heard & saw Harper himself try to spin the Vaughan victory into being even more super-duper by saying, "it is rare for a governing party to win by-elections," I got into this, as well... as did Aaron Wherry, several times:

    ... the third time to address the AMENDED v., that "it is rare for governing parties to pick up seats in by-elections…" -- i.e., to not only win some but also increase their seat count during by-elections, which admittedly, Harper _has_ exceeded other PM's achievements.

    I'll show some finding in next post.

  3. Turns out, it's not very rare at all for the Governing Party to win a seat in a by-election: it's happened for 45% (96/211) of all the Cndn. federal by-elections held since WWII/1945.

    If we look at the averages for all the legislative sessions over those 65 years, it 4.8 out of every 10.6 by-elections (45%) per Session went to the Governing Party.

    Broken down by Governing Party, it was:
    - an ave. of 6.5/13.2 (50%) for all the Liberal Party-governed Sessions since 1945;
    - 2.6/7.1 (36%) for the Progressive Conservative govt's;
    - 3.0/8.0 (38%) for Harper's CPC, so far; and,
    - an ave. of 2.7 gov't wins per 7.3 by-elections per Session (36%) for both types of Conservative-Governed Sessions combined.

    Source for this: a spreadsheet I built from

  4. What _is_ a lot less common -- but still not exactly "rare" -- is to pick up seats: i.e., to end up with more than they went in with, considering the lost incumbents they were trying to replace.

    All told, it's happened in one out of every five batches of Cndn. fed. by-elections that've been held since 1945: i.e., in 18 of the 89 times there's been at least one by-election (20%); where a total of 211 seats have been in play.

    (And, yes, considering that the rest of the time there was either no net change for the governing party or there were net losses, it may not surprise you to hear there was a net loss of -23 seats to the governing parties of the day, for, gulp, an ave. of a quarter of a seat lost to the governing party per by-election date.)

    Broken down by Governing Party:

    The current Conservative Party of Canada is batting 80%: having convened 5 by-elections (involving 16 seats), they picked up seats 4 times, for an ave. of one seat gained across all their by-elections.

    The Liberal Party of Canada has done it more often, but it's failed to do it more often, too, for a lower average: it convened 53 by-elections in which 145 seats were in play, and only picked up seats 7 times (13% of the time), for a net loss of 23 seats (an ave. loss of .43 gov. seats per by-election date).

    The Progressive Conservatives ran 31 by-elections since 1945, involving 50 seats, and picked up seats 5 (16% of the) time(s) (for a net loss of -5, or .16 gov. seats per by-election date).

  5. oops, slight error in above: it's 16 of the past 89 byelection dates since WWII which saw the governing party pick up at least one seat, for 18%, altogether (I'd used the 'Sumif' [over 0] instead of 'CountIf' formula).

    Ok, now for the PM rankings:

    well, it's true, Harper's picked up the most net seats over his tenure (5) than any other PM since WWII; the runner up's Mackenzie King, with 2 (confined to his last term). Chretien netted 1, but the rest either broke even or went in the hole.

    ANd Harper's picked up seats more OFTEN than any post-War PM: 4 times (i.e., on 4 sep. occasions in which one or more by-election was held that day); King & Chretien are tied for 2nd at 3.

    And Harper's tied with Chretien for first place on picking up the most net seats for the governing party (2) in a given by-election date.

    So, hat-tip in the 'picking up extra seats in by-elections' dep't.

    But arguably that's easier to do in a minority situation when you didn't have too many to start with, and people are willing to give you a bit more rope.

    But in the heavy lifting dep't, the PMs who presided over the most seats won for their party in by-elections during their tenure were: St. Laurent (23); Chretien (20); Trudeau (16); Pearson (12); Diefenbaker (11); w. Harper coming in 6th out of the 10 (with 6).

  6. An additional note for the "inside baseball" political junkies.

    The record shows that Harper has picked up five seats in by elections--more than Chretien, more than Trudeau, and more than any other prime minister in Canadian history. -CR on Wherry's update blog post.

    Based on the amount of time served as PM would you agree he is out performing both Liberal "giants"?

  7. CS,

    Harper has picked up 4 seats, not 5. Unless you actually count the Bill Casey seat as "non-Conservative."

    But yes, I would say Harper's ground game is impressive. But if he went up against Trudeau- or Chretien-era Liberal machines, it'd be a lot different I think. Right now, he doesn't face a very strong machine in the NDP, Liberals, or even the Bloc, especially when it comes to by-elections.

    However, I'm really interested in seeing what happens in the next by-elections. Because I'm not so sure that luck will last forever, because if the Liberals play their cards right, like they did this time to some effective degree, they could end up scoring some impressive victories again. Maybe not outright victories, like, say, winning Calgary Centre North, but I'd watch to see how high their vote count goes and the ground game they play.

  8. WhigWag,

    All interesting analysis, much more in-depth than I would have gone! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks, Volkov; yes, it took a whole day to put together the database; probably not done with it, yet; glas someone was posting on it at the time so I could do something with.

    At CS w. the redundant comment -- way 'ta do what you complain about others doing re: you -- omit to read them. (I already cited Wherry above & gave the breakdowns myself).

    But it's premature to claim, as CritReasoning did, that Harper has "the most pick-ups of any PM in Cndn history" (whether we count Casey's "Independent Progressive Conservative" seat which likely always voted with the govt as a pickup or not)...

    because the source of this data
    only goes back to 1940, and Mackenzie King had a couple more terms before then, so is still in the running; and who knows, maybe the earlier PMs had lots of pickups, too.

  10. All bets are off. (I have been stating that before the by election) We don't have angry voters (Europe-US) who swept right of centre parties out of power. We have the left being pushed out globally. (This is not a local shift)

    WPG N dumped Judy Chief for swing to Liberal. Vaughan did same.Liberal - CPC.

    Ignatieff makes me laugh thinking by elections have made this a two party race.(He is 1/7 and his finances/donors may not beat Dion in 2008)

    I was wrong 4/7 earlier in my blog post!
    It is 5 pick up as CPC ran a candidate and lost to Casey in 2008. Scott Armstrong sits in the Government side of the house.

    Alan Tonks replaced John Nunziata independent. Are you going to suggest we don't count Alan Tonks as a gain or a Liberal MP?

    I have stated the campaign finance changes 2004 and 2006 are significant and most people are not getting what that means. A national campaign costs $ 16-20 million?

    Why do you think several liberals are unable to pay off the leadership debts from 2006?

    The CPC have 36k vs 33k combined ALL opposition.
    The Bloc are down 3% in popular support from birth in 1993. Bloc were 54-now 48 seats. The Federalist parties are slowly picking up those seats in Quebec.

    WhigWhag you can modify it to since WWII if you like.

    I don't get it why Liberals don't think our PM is a tactical genius. George Weston noted it in Harperland.
    If our PM is not a genius, don't you think it would reflect rather badly on your team than?

    It makes little sense to belittle the guy who has been taking you to the woodshed for nearly five years.

  11. Harper a "genius"? Rubbish. The Libs keep putting the puck in their own net, by rolling out policies like the over-ambitious & under-explained Green Shift before earning back the electorate's trust, or alienating their supporters by supporting or even out-Conservating the gov't on so many things, betraying their own pples in the process. Like the way both parties did today by kiboshing the seat redistribution reform:

  12. Ok, I went back to the database & did some more pivot tables, and can pick up Volkov's point again & speak directly to Ibbitson's PMO-inspired BS claim that "voters typically use ...a punish the government..."

    Well, VOlkov's right: that IS an urban myth. Not only cuz, as I observed above, even when we consider ALL the indiv. fed. by-elections held since 1945, 45% of the time, the governing party wins the seat (which hardly makes it a "rarity" when they do, which was Harper's term), but also because that overall figure masks the fact that over half the time, it wasn't their seat to begin with, so the fact that they aren't 'rewarded' with it in a by-election doesn't mean they're being "punished," either... a lot of the time, it might just be neutral: a return to the status quo before the by-election.

    So let's look at the stats on the 2 scenarios: those where it was an Opposition seat to begin with, and how often it stayed that way (which may not be much of a reflection on the gov't when it does); versus those cases where it was a gov't seat on the line, where the outcome CAN more reasonably be construed as at least partly a referendum on the govt's performance to date. (cont'd)

  13. Ok, let's start with the latter, & a correction: I misspoke slightly above re: the direction of "over half the time."

    When we look at all the 211 seats involved in Cndn. by-elections since WWII, 119 -- or 56% -- of the incumbents being replaced in them had been Members of the Governing Party at the time.

    And the overall success rate of installing another Member of the same governing party was: 65% (77 of those 119 by-elections resulted in a new Government Member of same party as the one they were replacing). So, pace Ibbitson, it's pretty much twice as "typical" to reward (or at least continue to support) the governing party as it is to "punish" it, in by-elections.

    Broken down by Party, the success, er, non-punishment rates in federal by-elections since 1945 have been:

    LPC: 66%, for winning 63 of its 95 seats at stake while it was governing;

    Prog. C.: 57% for regaining 13 of its 23 seats up for grabs while it was the governing party; and,

    CPC: 100% for recapturing its 1 seat.

  14. Finally, for the sake of completeness, let's look at the success rate of the various parties in recouping their seats in by-elections while in Opposition.

    Some of these, of course, are 1-hit wonders, like the aforementioned Bill Casey's 1-man band "Independent Progressive Conservative" 'party,' which had, er, a 0% success rate in replacing its seat, as did the "Independent Liberal" Lucien Dubois in 1949, and a couple other independents, AND the Reform Party (lost 1 opp. seat in a by-election); & the Canadian Alliance (lost 2); & the Social Credit (lost 4, most if not all in QC, I think).

    Only the larger, more stable parties had non-zero success rates in replacing their incumbents in by-elections as Opposition parties:

    Bloc Québécois: 6/11 = 55%
    Liberal Party: 17/28 = 61%
    Progressive Cons: 24/31 =77%
    New Democratic P: 9/11 = 82%

  15. TMD Whig Whag

    Blaming your team for shooting in their own net is not a good strategy.

    I don't view the Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney PC party the same as the CPC. PC party has followed So creds CCF into dustbin of history.

    I am referring to "by elections" PET and JC had 2x the length of time to win or lose. After 10 years of PM Harper at the helm the comparison will be fairer. We are in year five of second mandate. Not sure if CPC will drop writ in 2010-2012.

    The Globe Piece is wrong on Democratic Reform being dropped.