Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What I'll Be Watching In PEI's Election

The Green Party surge in PEI has caused a lot of non-Islanders to pay inordinate attention to tonight's election.  I'm one of them.  Islanders are no doubt a tad frustrated at come-from-aways now breathlessly proclaiming that PEI may have a Green government, a minority government, or both.  After all, Peter Bevan-Baker's popularity has been a constant in polls for just over a year, so the 3-way battle is not new.

If you're like me and watching tonight with interest, here's a few things I will be looking for that may tell us how this historic election will play out.  Having followed the polls for a year, read the platforms, watched the leaders' debate and spoken with folks on a pre-election visit to PEI, I am going to try to write about Island politics without embarrassing myself.  Islanders likely know everything here, but this is my guide for the rest of us who will be watching tonight.

The Polls Are Close

We've had 3 major polls in the last week, which shows unusual interest in a potentially-unusual election.  All three agree on the order of the parties -- Greens out front, the PCs in second with some upward movement, and the incumbent Liberals third, but respectfully so.  (The NDP has nearly vanished beneath the Green surge despite having a bright and likable leader in Joe Byrne).

Mainstreet and Narrative (o.k.a. CRA) have almost similar results 35-32-29 for Narrative and 35-31-29 in Mainstreet.  MQO showed a stonger Green result, pegging the race at 40-29-26.

As the pros say, polling averages and trends can tell you more than any one poll.  One can safely conclude from this that the Greens' pre-election numbers are holding and for real, that the PCs under Dennis King seem to be reclaiming at least their traditional vote and are moving up, and that Premier MacLauchlan's numbers seem to be stalled at a number that feels like floor and ceiling at once.

Just today, Forum Research dropped a poll that was in the field until yesterday, and it shows the PC momentum continuing and allowing them to nip the Greens 35-34, with the Liberals falling to 26.  It can be seen as an outlier, but it's consistent with the modest momentum that the PCs showed in the other polls.

Small Margins Matter in PEI

For a while, PC had a series of lopsided majority governments, both PC and Liberal.  In part, that's a function of our First-Past-The-Post system and PEI demographics.  In larger, more diverse provinces, the province-wide numbers can mask huge regional swings that allow for pockets of strength for each party.  In Ontario, even a wide PC lead will still allow for Liberal and NDP strength in Toronto and other cities.  Even New Brunswick can have big regional swings as in 2018, where close provincial numbers masked the fact that there would be huge Liberal wins in the North even as the party collapsed in rural Anglophone ridings.

PEI has a relatively homogenous population.  Demographics are pretty similar.  The urban-rural divide is far less than other provinces, not only because Charlottetown and Summerside are small cities, but he Island is a commuter province where many people with urban jobs live in rural communities.  The result of this is that the provincial number often is replicated in many ridings.  Thus in the past, say, a 50-40 PC lead produced a lot of 50-40 riding wins and a huge majority, unlike the Ontario and NB examples, where a 10 point PC lead would not bother Liberal incumbents in Toronto or Caraquet.

IF the MQO numbers were right (40-29-26), a Green majority would be quite likely -- an 11-point lead would likely produce a lot of 5-15 point wins.  In a province with a more pronounced urban-rural divide, it could augur 30 point wins in Charlottetown and close losses elsewhere, but the Island's history and polling breakdowns I've seen don't show that.  Charlottetown is a bit friendlier to the Greens than the rural East, but the swing is more modest.

That said, the MQO poll has a couple of cross-tabs that raised my eyebrows.  Bevan-Baker is a popular guy, but his 53% leadership preference number is high in the partisan late days of an election.  If we see that one as a slight outlier, the Greens are hovering around 35% in the other three polls.  That seems like a reasonable prediction, and one which then will be first or second depending on how the traditional red-blue vote arranges itself.  If the Liberals slip and PCs gain in the last week, there could be a narrow PC win.

Is There A Green Machine?

When I ran as a Liberal for the first time, I was amazed by how many long-time volunteers simply showed up at election time and knew what to do to turn out the vote..  The phone banks and canvass procedures were second nature, and the data from head office helped.  Running for the NDP later, I felt the lack of that machine.  Now, the Greens have many strong organizers who have honed those skills in non-partisan, issue-advocacy campaigns.  They are bright and driven.  (No one who has run against David Coon, as I have, will underestimate the transferability of these skills).  But in the more rural areas where the Greens will have to win to get a majority, this may stretch their resources thin.  Organizing to win 20 seats is different than the old days, when the Greens threw everyone into the Leader's seat.  As well, Green support skews younger, making them reliant on voters with fewer ingrained voting habits, sometimes fewer transportation resources, and harder to find through landlines.  Even if the GOTV only matters 2-3 points, that could matter in some ridings.

The Liberals on Edge

Third parties have it tough in First-Past-the-Post, especially if they are running a campaign to appeal province-wide.  The Liberals, when they fall to third, are at risk of losing a lot of seats because their support is so broad -- 26% provincially for them can mean they are always just short in riding after riding.  Yet, even a small poll error and/or a good GOTV effort can put them over 30%.  For third parties of broad appeal, 25% could see them reduced to 2-4 seats and 30% could out Wade Maclachlan in position to meet the House as Premier.

Early Signs To Watch

Given the Forum poll's suggestion of a late PC surge, I'd watch some ridings where PC incumbents were seen to be in dogfights with Green newcomers riding the wave.  If ridings like Borden-Kinkora, Kensingston-Malpeque and Startford-Keppogh show PC incumbents cruising, then this augers well for Dennis King's team.  If these incumbents seem to be going down in a Green wave, then the Greens may well ride the urban polls to a strong majority.  I'd also watch Dennis King's riding in Brackley-Hunter River, where a strong showing may suggest that he's exited a tight battle and has real momentum.

Liberal fortunes will hang on the ridings around the cities.  If Premier Maclachlan struggles to hold off a Green challenge in Stanhope-Marshfield, and incumbents are down quickly in the Charlottetown central ridings, it could be a long Liberal night indeed.  If the Premier looks safe and Charlottetown is a split, there's a good chance a minority government will happen.

For the Greens, Summerside will tell the tale.  If they are going to break out of Charlottetown into the areas that can give them government, they will need to win in Summerside and in the two leaders' ridings.  If they are comfortable there early, a majority is in reach.  If those results are mixed, then they will likely be looking at a minority government.


The tragic death of Green candidate Josh Underhay, a bright rising star who would have been a great Minister, means that we will decide 26 ridings tonight with one to come later.  If two parties tie, or one stalls on 13 seats, that will be a show. And.....

My Prediction

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.  I predict tonight will return 12 Greens, 11 PCs, 3 Liberals and there will be a high-stakes race for the 27th seat.  On the upside -- this has been an uplifting campaign.  The platforms are all moderate and even the Greens and PCs have common ground they could use to make a divided House work.  The harshest moment came when Bevan-Baker said that the Premier "had not done a terribly good job" on the immigration file.  That was seen as an attack, but that's pattycake most places.  Maclachlan Liberals have run on the red-hot economy, and that's a fair, positive argument.  If it doesn't work, it will largely be because voters chose something they liked more in a positive way rather than the lesser of three evils.  In this age, that's not unimportant, at all.

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