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Anxious voters were looking for safety in pandemic-year elections

Canada’s electoral calendar was looking a little sparse around this date 12 months ago, with only one provincial election on the horizon. It suggested that Canadians’ attention would be focused primarily on the epic presidential contest south of the border — that it was going to be an uneventful year in politics, at least domestically.

It didn’t turn out that way.

Instead, 2020 was the year of unexpected elections. Few thought that B.C. Premier John Horgan would pull the plug on his minority government in 2020 with an election already scheduled for 2021.

When New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs secured support from the opposition parties in the spring to avoid a pandemic election, it seemed that his minority government would survive the year.

Now, both premiers have majority governments to look forward to — at least until 2024.

Conversely, federal parties in Ottawa kept avoiding the 2020 election that many pundits thought was just around the corner.

While the elections that were held in 2020 differed in some important ways, they had some common threads that could offer lessons as we contemplate the electoral calendar to come in 2021.

Voters want safety in alarming times

The most obvious thread between Canada’s elections was that voters rewarded governments they felt had managed the pandemic well. When voters went to the polls in New Brunswick in September and in British Columbia and Saskatchewan in October, case numbers in those provinces were relatively low.

It allowed Higgs to break a streak of one-and-done governments in New Brunswick, which hadn’t re-instated the incumbent governing party in any election since 2003.

The B.C. New Democrats secured a majority government in decisive fashion, with nearly 48 per cent of ballots cast — a record for the B.C. NDP. Horgan also became the first NDP premier to win re-election in the province’s history.

Higgs and Horgan demonstrated that voters won’t always punish a government that sends them to the polls early.

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New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs called an early election in September. By winning it, he was the first premier to secure re-election in the province since Bernard Lord in 2003. (Andrew Vaughan / Canadian Press)

Though the outcome of the scheduled election in Saskatchewan was never in much doubt, Premier Scott Moe still won a fourth consecutive majority government for his Saskatchewan Party with just over 60 per cent of the vote.

In Prince Edward Island, Premier Dennis King’s PCs were able to win a byelection in Charlottetown, wresting the seat away from the Liberals and gaining more than 23 percentage points in the riding compared to the 2019 general election. That single seat was all that King needed for a majority government.

Outside of Canada, voters were also looking for a safe set of hands. In New Zealand, one of the world’s COVID-19 success stories, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party won a majority of the country’s seats for the first time since New Zealand adopted a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system in the 1990s.

Populism has its limits

Not all harbours are safe in a storm, however.

In the U.S., Donald Trump was getting poor marks for his handling of the pandemic — lower than his overall approval rating. His numbers only got worse when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 himself after downplaying the severity of the disease and flouting public health rules.

Though he did somewhat better than the polls predicted, he still lost the presidential election by a sizable margin and surrendered two states — Arizona and Georgia — that had voted Republican in presidential elections for more than two decades.

While Trump’s populist approach does not seem to have doomed the Republicans — who made a few gains in the House of Representatives and might still retain control of the Senate — the presidential results mark the seventh time in the last eight elections that the Democrats have won the national popular vote.

U.S. President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, in part because of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Polls suggested it was a significant weakness for him among voters. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

While they didn’t face their electorates in 2020, the pandemic also hurt the popularity of some other populist leaders, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson.

Closer to home, populist parties enjoyed limited success. In the federal byelections held in October, the People’s Party captured just 1.1 per cent of the vote in Toronto Centre and 3.6 per cent in York Centre, where leader Maxime Bernier was on the ballot.

In New Brunswick, the People’s Alliance lost one of its three seats and fell to just nine per cent of the vote. The separatist Buffalo Party put up some decent numbers in a few rural ridings in Saskatchewan, but nowhere did they seriously challenge the hegemony of the Saskatchewan Party.

Greens here to stay but their momentum has stalled

Going into 2020, the Greens were on a bit of a roll. After winning their first individual seats federally and in provincial elections held between 2011 and 2015, the party won multiple seats in B.C. in 2017 and New Brunswick in 2018, and formed the Official Opposition in Prince Edward Island in 2019. The party followed that up with three seat wins in 2019’s federal election.

But that steady growth was halted in 2020.

In New Brunswick, the Greens held their three seats but increased their share of the popular vote by just three points. Their prospects for future growth there look limited — they were still 10 points behind the winner in the riding where they had their best shot at winning another seat.

The B.C. Greens, under newly-named leader Sonia Furstenau, dropped a seat when their former leader, Andrew Weaver, did not run for re-election. They also saw their share of the vote drop by nearly two points. More importantly, they lost the balance of power they had previously enjoyed in the B.C. legislature.

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Green Leader Annamie Paul made gains in the federal byelection held in Toronto Centre in October, but not enough to take the seat away from the incumbent Liberals. (Chris Young / Canadian Press)

The P.E.I. Greens also took less of the vote in Charlottetown-Winsloe in this year’s byelection than they did in last year’s general election. The federal Greens made inroads in the Toronto Centre byelection, where new leader Annamie Paul tried to win a seat. The party still came up short there and is far from being in serious contention to steal the Liberal stronghold.

Nevertheless, the Greens have shown they are here to stay. Despite failing to win new seats in B.C. or New Brunswick, the party has kept up an impressive streak: no Green candidate first elected under that banner at the provincial or federal level and running for re-election has yet gone down to defeat.

The polls are fine — not great, but fine

It wouldn’t be an American election year without new doubts about the accuracy of public opinion polling. The U.S. polls suggested Joe Biden was ahead by a comfortable margin of between eight or nine points nationwide. Instead, he won the election by about half of that.

The polls were off in a few key states and a couple Senate races did not go as the polls predicted, but the error was in line with the historical average of U.S. election polls over the last half-century. Still, the polls weren’t supposed to be wrong again after pollsters took steps to correct their methodologies after the 2016 election.

The polling landscape in Canada is not the same as in the U.S. Pollsters there have to deal with the United States’ binary political system, the polarization affecting those who do and don’t participate in polls and attempts to estimate turnout among different demographics — challenges that Canadian pollsters don’t have to grapple with to the same extent.

Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian pollsters had a decent 2020. The few polls that were conducted in the last week of the campaign in New Brunswick were off the mark by a little but not by anything out of the ordinary — and not enough to cause much of a surprise on election night.

Polls in Saskatchewan were less successful, under-estimating the size of the Saskatchewan Party’s lead over the New Democrats by a significant amount. But the error was still inconsequential, as the polls suggested the Saskatchewan Party was on track for a big victory. The party won by nearly 30 points, instead of the polls’ suggested 20 points.

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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, delivering his victory speech on election night, beat his polls by a wide margin in the province’s October vote. (Liam Richards / Canadian Press)

In the aggregate, the polls were extraordinarily accurate in B.C. They nailed the provincewide popular vote for all three major parties and got quite close to the mark at the regional level as well.

Taken together, that’s about par for the course for the polls in any given election in Canada. Sometimes they’re very accurate. Sometimes they can miss things around the edges without distorting the real dynamics of a campaign.

This wasn’t a new lesson learned in 2020. But the notion that polls can be useful without always being exact is a lesson that will need to be learned again (and again and again) in 2021 and beyond.

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