Federal election 2015: The path to victory

Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes talks to party strategists and independent observers about the way to win in 2015


Predicting election outcomes has never been easy. But, given the startling results of recent races in Canada, putting any weight on polls and seat projections now looks downright reckless.

From Jack Layton’s NDP breaking through big time in Quebec in the 2011 federal election, to Christy Clark’s imperiled provincial Liberals surging back to win in B.C. in 2013, to Rachel Notley’s NDP shattering historical precedents earlier this year to triumph in Alberta—it’s been one cautionary tale after another for political prognosticators.

And yet, with a federal campaign on, we need to get our bearings. So I’ve been speaking with party strategists, testing what they tell me against the views of independent observers, and taking into account publicly available polls and seat projections.

Putting it all together, finding a Conservative, NDP or Liberal minority scenario doesn’t require outrageous assumptions. But I can’t map an obvious road to majority for any of Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau. The three leaders have 11 grueling weeks of campaigning to search for a route pre-writ polling data doesn’t.

As for the basics, there are 338 seats in the House to be contested, up from 308 now. Quebec gains three seats, British Columbia and Alberta six each, and Ontario a tantalizing 15, which complicates the task of making direct comparisons with the 2011 election results in those provinces.


2011 result: Conservatives, 14; Liberals, 12; NDP, 6

During much of his long run at the top of the polls after he won the Liberal leadership in spring 2013, Trudeau looked likely to dominate the East Coast. Even with Liberal numbers cooling since this past spring, he’s still positioned to make significant gains. If seat projections based on recent polls hold, Liberals might roughly double their seats in the Atlantic provinces, mostly at the expense of the Conservatives, with the NDP holding their 2011 ridings.

That could easily change. Among ridings the NDP likes the look of are Nova Scotia’s South Shore-St. Margaret’s, where a veteran Conservative MP, Gerald Keddy, is retiring. The government awarded no fewer than three federal “Canada 150” infrastructure grants to the riding, together worth $184,050, so it doesn’t look like the Tories will give it up easily. Among heavyweights who aren’t sure things, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt is thought to have won his New Brunswick riding, Madawaska-Restigouche, in 2011 partly because the local Liberal candidate was hampered by his party’s policy on the gun registry. With that issue not nearly as hot this time around, the Liberals are hoping the riding will be within their grasp again.


2011 results: NDP 59; Liberals 7; Conservatives, 5; Bloc Quebecois, 4

Next to Harper winning a majority, the biggest 2011 election story was the NDP’s staggering Quebec seat haul. So a key question for this campaign is whether Mulcair can maintain that dominant position, or even add to it up a bit, in his home province. He’s likely to face tough tests in a few Montreal seats, mainly from Liberals, and a few more from Tories in Quebec City. So far, the return of Gilles Duceppe as Bloc leader hasn’t seemed to dramatically change many races, but that’s a variable worth watching, especially where the Bloc might eat into the NDP vote.

In Montreal, then, keep an eye on such ridings as Ahuntsic-Cartierville, likely an Liberals vs. NDP battle, and Brossard-Saint-Lambert, where the NDP won by a narrow margin and the Liberals are hopeful. In Quebec City, the Conservatives will be keeping their fingers crossed on Louis-Saint-Laurent, which the NDP won in a close race in 2011. Then there’s Montmagny-L’Islet-Riviere-du-Loup, which is perhaps leaning Tory, after NDP won in a squeaker last time out. Polling numbers will have to move substantially for Quebec to be decisive in the national outcome, although some party insiders expect the province to remain fluid until late in the campaign.


2011 results: Conservatives, 73; Libs 11; NDP 22

Few doubt Ontario is where the election is most likely to be won or lost. Current seat projections suggest the Liberals are in a position to at least double their seat total. That sounds great, until you consider that 2011’s Liberal result in Ontario was a historic disaster. So Trudeau must do considerably better than that to have a real hope of winning nationally—at least quadrupling the Liberal Ontario caucus. Similarly, Mulcair needs to win in swaths of ridings never before thought to be within reach for the NDP, including some in southwestern Ontario. For Harper, the challenge at the start of the campaign is mainly defensive.

Political insiders are intrigued by dozens of Ontario races shaping up as bitter grudge matches. Consider Ajax, where Immigration Minister Chris Alexander is in tough against Mark Holland, the former Liberal MP he ousted in 2011. The packed Toronto fight card of 25 ridings, three more than in 2011, features slugfests like NDP icon Olivia Chow against local Liberal star Adam Vaughan in Spadina-Fort York, Finance Minister Joe Oliver facing Liberal Marco Mendicino in Eglinton-Lawrence. In the Toronto suburbs, a key question is whether the Tories can hold heavily immigrant seats—supposedly a major ingredient of the new Harper-era recipe for Conservative electoral success. A major popular vote swing in Ontario, in any direction, would likely be the biggest election-night story.


2011 results: Conservatives, 24; NDP, two; Liberals, two

Based on pre-election polls, the Liberals are optimistic about picking up a few seats in Winnipeg. In the Manitoba capital, for example, the Liberals will hope to pick up Saint Boniface-Saint Vital and Winnipeg South, both won by the Conservatives last time. Meanwhile, the NDP is counting on benefiting from riding redistribution having created new urban constituencies in Saskatoon and Regina. The Tories feel confident about their dominance of rural seats in both provinces.

Among races to watch is Saskatoon-University, where Brad Trost, the Tory incumbent, up against a strong challenge from the NDP’s Claire Card, a veterinarian and teacher at University of Saskatchewan’s vet school. Trost is the sort of Conservative who has to be feeling vulnerable. Most seat projections show the Conservatives losing a few seats, to the mixed advantage of the Liberals and NDP, if polls stayed where they are at the start of the campaign. As with almost everywhere in the country, that’s a big, glaring, italicized “if.”


2011 results: Conservatives, 27; NDP, 1: Liberals, 0

The last two provincial elections in Alberta have been, respectively, surprising (Alison Redford’s Tories holding off the Wildrose challenge in 2012) and earthshaking (Rachel Notley’s NDP winning a majority earlier this year). So nobody is taking anything for granted in this federal campaign. A sign of the NDP’s buoyant attitude: Some ridings where the party previously struggled to find credible candidates now feature hotly contested nomination races.

So where does the Mulcair hope to pick up seats? Assuming he holds the sole existing NDP riding, Edmonton Strathcona, the next seats to turn orange would most likely be neighbouring Edmonton Centre and Edmonton Griesbach. At least three other Edmonton seats are not unreasonable NDP targets. The Liberals will hope to be competitive in Calgary Centre, Calgary Confederation and Calgary Skyview.

For the Conservatives, who are used to virtually running the table in Alberta, the prospect of having to fight hard to avoid losing even a handful of seats is unfamiliar. Among Tory incumbents who will face serious challenges is Calgary Centre’s Joan Crockatt. Remember, though, the provincial Conservatives split the right-of-centre vote with the Wildrose party, a problem the federal Conservatives don’t face.


2011 results: Conservatives, 21; NDP, 12, Liberals, 2; Green, 1

Despite all the excitement over Alberta, B.C. might be the most likely province for NDP gains. Current polls put doubling their seat total from a dozen to two dozen well within reach. Mostly, that would come at the expense of the Conservatives, with the Liberals also picking up perhaps a half dozen ridings, while Elizabeth May only holds her sole Green riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands.

There are many questions, though, about the province’s legendarily volatile electorate. Several ridings in the interior look very close. Of them, South Okanagan-West Kootenay, a new riding without an incumbent, must go NDP for Mulcair to be having a good night on Oct. 19. Liberals must pick up seats in Vancouver, notably Vancouver Granville, where First Nations leader Jody Wilson Raybold is a high-profile candidate, and Vancouver South. Vancouver Centre could be an interesting Liberal-NDP contest, with Liberal incumbent Hedy Fry fighting off NDP challenger Constance Barnes, formerly active in Vancouver politics as a member of city’s Park Board. On Vancouver Island, the NDP would also look to pick up perhaps two seats. Liberals and Tories are hoping the Greens have a strong campaign, largely at the NDP’s expense, to help them in seats where the splits could matter mightily.

CORRECTION: The riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, where Finance Minister Joe Oliver is facing Liberal candidate Mario Mendicino, was misidentified. Maclean’s regrets the error.

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