The results of Monday night's by-elections continued a consistent trend since Justin Trudeau took over the Liberal Party: significant gains across the board, even in former Liberal wastelands, and losses for both the Conservatives and New Democrats. This also echoes what the national polls have been reporting for more than a year.
The turnout in the four by-elections was anemic, under 20 per cent in the two Alberta ridings and just over 25 per cent in the two Toronto-area ridings. One might come to the conclusion, then, that the results are invalidated, at least in terms of any wider trends or implications. But there is good reason not to ignore the results.
In the five by-elections that had been held since Mr. Trudeau's leadership victory before last night, the Liberals had improved upon their 2011 federal election showing by an average of 17 points, with the New Democrats dropping five and the Conservatives dropping 12. In the four by-elections held last night (at time of writing), the Liberals picked up an average of 20 points, with the NDP falling by 10 points and the Conservatives by 13. That is a rather consistent swing.
Interestingly, those swings are also consistent with the change in voting intentions that the polls have been recording at the national level. The latest polls peg Liberal support at between 30 and 39 per cent, with the Conservatives between 30 and 31 per cent and the NDP between 19 and 27 per cent. That represents a positive swing of between 11 and 20 points for the Liberals since 2011, and negative swings of between nine and 10 points for the Tories and between five and 12 points for the New Democrats.
What this suggests is that the results of the by-elections may not have been entirely influenced by local factors and low turnout. The changes in support that has been recorded in recent by-elections, including the set of four from last night, have been repeated at the national level. This would seem to validate the results. It would also appear to validate the polls themselves, as the previous rounds of by-elections also did.
Another indication that the results are no fluke is that they were consistent with provincial-level polling as well. In Ontario, the Liberals have been pegged at between 33 and 45 per cent in recent polls, representing a gain of between eight and 20 points since 2011. That lines up with the gains made in Scarborough-Agincourt, but not those in Trinity-Spadina where a popular local councillor, Adam Vaughan, appears to have moved votes all on his own.
The NDP, by comparison, has been registered at between 14 and 24 per cent, a drop of between two and 12 points. Again, that fits in with the drop in Scarborough-Agincourt, but not Trinity-Spadina. The Conservative drop of five to 10 points in Ontario since 2011 was repeated in both Scarborough-Agincourt and Trinity-Spadina.
In Alberta, the latest polls have put the Conservatives between 47 and 55 per cent, representing a drop of between 12 and 20 points since 2011. The Tories lost less in Macleod, and more in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, than those extremes, but their average drop was well within that band. The Liberals, who have registered between 18 and 26 per cent in the province (representing gains of between nine and 17 points), were up by about 12 points in Macleod and 24 points in Fort McMurray-Athabasca.
This adds weight to both the significance of the results of the by-elections, despite the low turnout, as well as the polls that are attempting to record current voting intentions. As both are painting the same general picture, it would seem to be unwise to dismiss the notion that both the by-election and polling gains made by the Liberals are real.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.