Saturday, August 29, 2015

Incumbents Usually Lose Holiday Elections

I spent Sunday morning of the August long weekend watching TV coverage of the call for Canada's 2015 federal election.  The current campaign has been run through the typical Canadian summer holiday in August.  At 11 weeks, the unusually long campaign means that it will also continue over the Labour day holiday in September, and through Canadian Thanksgiving in early October.

In some political circles, the received wisdom is that people don't follow political campaigns during the summer, or over other significant holiday periods.  A quick look back at past federal elections though, suggests that the theory that Canadians are inattentive to politics during their vacations may be flawed. 

In fact, Canadians have generally not been kind to those who have held elections during holidays. For example, at the federal level, you have to go back to 1953, to Louis St. Laurent's Liberals, to find a successful summer campaign by an incumbent.* There is a similar trend for campaigns that have extended over the week between Christmas and New Year's.  For example, the election of 1980 occurred partly over the Christmas holiday of 1979 and led to the defeat of Prime Minister Clark's Progressive Conservative government.

In total, there have been 14 Canadian national elections that were held in whole, or in part, over traditional holiday periods since 1867.  In these campaigns the government has lost 9, won 4 and was returned with 1 minority (1972).  More recently, 2006 was a loss for the governing Liberals (over Christmas), while partial summer campaigns in 1993 and 1984 both saw incumbents routed at the polls. 

Some think that holidays mean that Canadians are too busy with travel, family and friends to turn their attention to the political scene.  However, the historical pattern of loss for incumbents suggests that explanation is flawed. Canadians may well tune out official campaigns during holiday periods.  But, perhaps instead they engage in informal (and maybe more civil) discussion about policy issues, within their immediate social circles.  If this is true then it seems that, as an historical matter, a holiday campaign has often proven a chance for electors to come to a collective decision that leads to change.

No one knows what will happen on election day on October 19. But if the historical trend holds, messing with the Canadian traditional summer vacation and other holidays in 2015 could spell trouble for the governing Conservatives.

Update:  On Monday October 19, 2015, the governing Conservative party lost Canada's 42nd election to Justin Trudeau's Liberal party, which won a majority government.  *Note: The 1974 campaign ended on July 8, so was a partial summer campaign that ended in a majority victory for incumbent PM Pierre Trudeau.

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