It’s hard to overemphasize Justin Trudeau‘s overwhelming victory on Monday night. While neither the percentage of the vote (39.47%) nor his percentage of seats won (54.44%) were very remarkable, it represents a turnaround without equal in the history of Canadian politics — and, as nearly as I can tell, the history of advanced democracies.
When Justin Trudeau took over the Liberal Party in 2012, it appeared to be in terminal decline. It had lost seats and votes in four consecutive and five of six elections stretching back a decade. From a once-reliable base of the 35%-40% of the national vote, it had sunk to under 20% of the vote and third-party status, with just over 10% of the seats in Parliament. Its leader in the 2011 election, Michael Ignatieff, had lost his own seat. Far worse, its fall had corresponded to the rise of the social-democratic party NDP. Under the charismatic Jack Layton, the NDP had increased both its share of the vote and seats in Parliament in the same elections, so by 2011 the NDP had won over 30% of the vote and had about 1/3 of the seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals and the rise of the NDP in the period 2001-2011 was remarkably similar to the decline of the British Liberal Party and the rise of Labour during the 1920’s. It seemed certain that Canada was on the way to becoming a fairly conventional Parliamentary Democracy, with a center-right coalition (“Conservative” or “Christian Democrat”, or (in Australia, Japan, and British Columbia), “Liberal”) facing a center-left labor-allied coalition (typically, “Labour” or “Social Democrat”). In fact, at the start of this campaign, seven weeks ago, it appeared likely that Canada was about to get its first Social Democratic government.
And then Trudeau, dismissed as handsome and pleasant but lightweight, pulled off one of the most remarkable campaigns in the history of advanced democracies. Consider the numbers:
- Trudeau increased his party’s vote from 18.91% of the vote in 2011 to 39.47%, an increase of 20.56% of the vote. This easily the largest increase for an existing party in Canada’s history; only the Mulroney landslide of 1984 (17.58%), the Diefenbaker landslide of 1958 (15.17%) and the 2011 rise of the NDP (12.45%) were in double digits.
- This is only the second time in Canadian history that a third-place party became the largest party in the next election, and the only time that a third-place party has formed a majority.
- This is only the third time in the last eighty years that a majority government of one party has been replaced by a majority government of another party, and only the fifth time over that span that a majority government has lost at all.
- Trudeau increased his share of House seats from 11.04% of the seats to 54.44%, an increase of 43.4%. Once again, this is a record for Canadian elections. Only Mulroney in 1984 (38.30%) and MacKenzie King in 1935 (34.29%) even come within 10% of Trudeau’s triumph.
- Trudeau’s freshman class — MP’s who first won election in 2015 — is so large that it would easily be the largest party in the House. In fact, it’s bigger than three minority governments (1962, 1972, 2006) and very close to two more (1957, 2004).
Those data speak to the historic magnitude of Trudeau’s victory. No party leader in Canada has ever increased his party’s share of the vote or seats by anything like as much as Trudeau did. Comparisons are often made to his father‘s 1968 victory — the “Trudeaumania” election. But that was in fact quite modest — Pierre Trudeau added a modest 5.19% of the vote and 8.9% of the seats to the 1968 Liberals’ pre-election totals, compared to his son’s 20.56% of the vote and 43.4% of the seats. But more impressive was the efficacy of his campaign. Historical data to compare to other leaders are not available here, but it’s hard to imagine a campaign that had a more significant effect.
According to the authoritative ThreeHundredEight.com, the Liberals started the campaign in third place with 25.9% of the vote, compared to the NDP’s lead with 33.2% and the Conservatives’ 30.6%. The Liberals managed to increase their vote total marginally, to about 29.6% of the vote, by Sept. 20, while the NDP declined slightly to 29.8%. But then there was a decisive break — over the last month of the campaign the Liberals added about 10% support while the NDP dropped 11%. Effectively, Trudeau persuaded about one-third of NDP supporters to vote for him instead.
Now that’s impressive. Part of the credit surely belongs to Prime Minister Harper, who inspired a depth of antipathy that led to at least some strategic voting. Though there have been many news reports of the “Anyone-but-Harper” movement, I haven’t seen any quantitative analysis of its effect. Part of Mr. Trudeau’s massive victory was surely momentum; some percentage of those who switched from the NDP to the Liberals in October were motivated by the fact that Mr. Trudeau had the best chance to unseat Mr. Harper. Some of his gains from the NDP in Quebec, too, were surely due to the niqab affair; even Quebec NDP candidates opposed NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s principled stand that Muslim women should be permitted to wear the traditional face covering when taking the oath of Canadian citizenship. However, Mr. Trudeau used the issue as the centerpiece of a thoughtful speech on individual liberty and collective responsibility, which I recommend reading.
Still more impressive is Mr. Trudeau’s popularity. It’s a common experience in politicians that the day they are nominated (or, in the case of a Canadian political leader, elected to the leadership) is the peak of their popularity. Indeed, that was the case for Mr. Trudeau, up until yesterday. Liberal popularity peaked at 38% just after his election as leader, and then declined, more or less steadily, until the start of the campaign. Then, as noted above, it leveled and then began a continuous rise until election day, where he peaked at 39.47%.
An analysis of his success would be worthwhile, and will come later. And governing is not campaigning — as New York Governor Mario Cuomo observed, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Of course one doesn’t know Mr. Trudeau’s skills as an essayist. Today, however, we can observe he has written a marvelous poem.