Why did the Conservatives Lose the 2015 Election?

OR: Is the "Racist Tory Thesis" Correct?

By J.J. McCullough


Why did the Conservatives lose in 2015?There are two well-worn media narratives about the Conservative Party of Canada and the votes of nonwhite Canadians.

The first is what I will call the Multicultural Tory Thesis, which holds that Prime Minister Harper owed his 2011 majority victory to the goodwill of recent immigrant/nonwhite voters. Supposedly, the great strategic genius of the Conservative Party in the 2000s was targeted outreach to minority voters.

This thesis had two main proponents: immigration minister Jason Kenney, who used it to justify his unpopular immigration hikes to other conservatives, and Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, who wrote a largely citation-free book (The Big Shift, 2013) positing that a Conservative takeover of the ethnic vote was the redefining reality of 21st century Canadian politics.

Because this thesis was so popular, after the Conservatives lost the 2015 election this result was quickly sculpted by the media and others in a way that would compatible with the narrative. This led to thesis number two, which I will call the Racist Tory Thesis: the Conservatives lost the 2015 election by acting too racist, and alienating the very ethnic vote they had become so dependent upon.

Today, the Racist Tory Thesis is uncritically integrated into virtually all mainstream media reporting on the 2015 election. It has risen to the level of truism, or at least something resembling a folk story.



In elections prior to 2015, the [Conservative] party made significant inroads with visible minority voters, offering them a vision of a country of economic and educational opportunity, where success was open to anyone, regardless of religion or race – a vision of what Canada should be and, far more than the United States, actually is.

But something snapped in the fall of 2015. The Conservatives started to lose and they started to get desperate. They reached for an enemy to rally their voters, and settled on Muslims. The polls may have suggested that crying wolf over niqabs and calling for a hotline to report “barbaric cultural practices” would be a winner with a large number of Canadian voters, and that was what was so disturbing about the strategy. It didn’t just damage the Conservative brand, it hurt Canada. The hurt would have been worse if the Conservatives hadn’t lost.


The Conservatives have to once again become the party that successfully “targets” immigrant and visible minority voters – not to stigmatize them, but to win their votes.

Globe and Mail editorial, May 27, 2016

...Harper kept the lid on the nasty xenophobic elements in his party and actually made significant inroads in certain communities of new Canadians with the help of Jason Kenney, who continues to argue in favour of open borders and against Trump’s Muslim ban.

Stephen Harper may have had plenty of shortcomings, but he was no bigot.

It all came apart in the final desperate days of the 2015 election, of course, when a desperate Conservative party cavorted openly with anti-immigrant voters and launched the ill-fated ‘barbaric cultural practices’ snitch line.


Alan Freeman, iPolitics, February 17, 2017


The Multicultural Tory Thesis / Racist Tory combine to form a powerful educational narrative that is understandably popular with left-of-center journalists who like immigration but dislike Conservatives since it reinforces both preexisting beliefs ("Tories did well when they embraced the thing I like, but they still proved stupid and racist in the long run").

But is this narrative supported by evidence?

A look at how diverse ridings actually voted, 2011-2015

In 2015, the Conservatives lost many ethnically-diverse ridings. The day after the 2015 election, Global News summarized things this way:

The swath of red ridings that propelled Justin Trudeau to a thunderous Liberal victory Monday boasts more newcomers as a percentage of the population than any other party’s territory.

That’s a stark contrast to 2011, when many of Canada’s fastest-growing, diverse metropoles, especially in the urban and suburban areas around Toronto and Vancouver, voted Conservative.

Global News, October 22, 2015


The article then presents two charts of 30 Canadian ridings where immigrants comprise more than 50% of the electorate. I will call them VDRs, or "very diverse ridings" for simplicity.

In the 2011 chart, we see the Tories won 17/30 of the VDRs. In the 2015 chart, the Liberals won 25/30. The article and its charts were widely shared as evidence of the Racist Tory Thesis.

Global's analysis was deeply flawed and deceptive, however. 2015 was the first election held after dramatic redistricting reforms that saw the House of Commons grow from 308 seats to 338. Almost every single VDR was affected by this redistricting in some form or another. Many districts saw their borders expanded or contract, while others were abolished altogether, and merged into surrounding ridings.

Here are the 14 VDRs that survived the redistricting (though some borders may have been altered slightly) and their election results.

A shaded cell indicates which party won the seat. Dark shading means the party won over 50% of the vote while light shading means only a plurality victory. Arrows indicate whether the party increased or decreased its share of the popular vote from the previous federal election.


2011 ELECTION
2015 ELECTION

RIDING NAME, IMMIGRANT %
CPC VOTE
LIB VOTE
NDP VOTE
CPC VOTE
LIB VOTE
NDP VOTE
2015 SUMMARY
Scarborough- Agincourt, ON (68.09) 34%
45%
18%
38% 52% 8% Lib hold
Willowdale, ON (61.37)
41%
39%
18%
37% 53% 7% Lib gain
Markham- Unionville (60.46)
35%
38%
21%
49% 43% 5% ︎ CPC gain
Humber River - Black Creek, ON (59.95) [previously known as  York West]22%
47%
27%
20% 67% 11% Lib hold
Etobicoke North, ON (59.59)
32%
42%
23%
24% 62% 12% Lib hold
Mississauga East- Cooksville, ON (58.70)
39%
38%
18%
35% 54% 9% Lib gain
Vancouver South, BC (57.54)
43%
34%
18%
34% 49% 14% Lib gain
Richmond Hill, ON (57.49)
44%
35%
16%
43% 47% 8% Lib gain
York Centre, ON (56.66)
48%
33%
15%
44% 47% 7% Lib gain
Scarborough Centre, ON (54.93)
35%
31%
29%
32% 51% 12% Lib gain
Scarborough- Guildwood, ON (54.51)
34%
36%
26%
26% 60% 11% Lib hold
Don Valley East (54.37)
36%
34%
25%
29% 58% 11% Lib gain
Vancouver Kingsway, BC (53.75)
28%
16%
50%
21% 28% 46% NDP hold
York South- Weston (53.67)
24%
32%
40%
19% 46% 30% Lib gain
Thornhill, ON (51.86) 61%
23%
11%
59% 34% 5% CPC hold
Brampton West, ON (51.36) 44%
22%
17%
30% 56% 12% Lib gain

In every one of the above VDRs, except one, the Tory share of the vote went down. However, in most cases the decline was quite slight, ranging from a high drop of 14% in Brampton West to just 1% in Richmond Hill. The bigger story, however was the decline of the NDP which plummeted by double-digits in the majority of these VDRs.

In 2011, the Tories won 10/16 of the above VDRs. In all but one (Thornhill), however, they won only a plurality of the popular vote. In 2015, by contrast, the Liberals won 13/16 and won a majority of the popular vote in nine.

Here are the new VDRs that were created for 2015 by redistricting, compared to the VDRs in the same area that preceded them. Please note that in some cases it is very subjective to decide which 2011 riding "counts" as the predecessor to the 2015 one.


2011 ELECTION
2015 ELECTION
2015 SUMMARY
RIDING NAME, IMMIGRANT %, [predecessor riding]
CPC VOTE
LIB VOTE
NDP VOTE
CPC VOTE
LIB VOTE
NDP VOTE

Scarborough North, ON (68.39)  [Scarborough Rouge River]
29%
27%
40%
27% 48% 22% Lib gain
Don Valley North, ON (64.85) [Willowdale] 41%
39%
18%
38% 51% 9% Lib gain
Markham- Thornhill, ON (64.60) [Markham- Unionville] 35%
38% 21%
32% 56% 11% Lib hold
Mississauga Centre, ON (62.84) [Mississauga- Erindale] 46%
33%
16%
33% 55% 9% Lib gain
Richmond Centre, BC (61.32) [Richmond] 58%
18%
18%
43% 42% 11% CPC hold
Mississauga- Malton, ON (61.10) [Mississauga- Brampton South] 44%
35%
17%
26% 59% 12% Lib gain
Brampton East, ON (59.19) [Bramalea-Gore- Malton] 34%
28%
33%
24% 52% 23% Lib gain
Steveston- Richmond East, BC (57.98) [Delta-Richmond East] 54%
16%
23%
38% 45% 12% Lib gain
Burnaby South, BC (53.98) [Burnaby- New Westminster] 35%
10%
49%
27% 34% 35% NDP
hold
Mississauga - Erin Mills, ON (53.29) [Mississauga - Erindale] 46%
33%
16%
39% 50% 9% Lib gain
Scarborough- Rouge Park, ON (53.05) [Scarborough- Guildwood] 36%
34%
26%
27% 60% 10% Lib gain
St. Laurent, QC (52.39) [St. Laurent-Cartierville] 17%
43%
29%
20% 62% 12% Lib gain
Surrey- Newton, BC (50.27) [Newton- North Delta] 31%
31%
33%
16% 56% 26% Lib gain


A similar story here. In 2011, the Conservatives won 8/13 of the above VDRs, but only won a majority of the popular vote in two. In 2015, the Liberals won 11/13, and majorities of the popular vote in nine. The Tory share of the vote went down in every riding except one, but by relatively small margins. The NDP vote, however, dropped by quite large margins everywhere, often by half or more. The NDP drop is stark and universal enough it cannot be hand-waved away by other variables arising from the redistricting process.


So What Actually Happened in 2015?


Looking at the recent history of Canada's high-minority ridings we can observe two clear facts:

1) Conservatives won 17/30 VDRs in 2011 despite the fact that the majority of voters in those districts voted for other parties.

2) In 2015 the Liberals won majority vote victories in 18/30 VDRs.


The Conservatives clearly became more unpopular in the 30 VDRs between 2011 to 2015. Yet the bigger story is how dramatically popular the Liberals became during the same period, routinely gaining more than 10% of the vote and occasionally jumping from third place to first. In 2011, Conservative victories in the above ridings were overwhelmingly pluralities; Liberal victories in 2015 were overwhelmingly majorities.

The Conservatives were ineffective at their single defining mission of 2015, which was to defeat the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau. The Conservatives largely chose to ignore the NDP, assuming the party did not pose a threat to the Conservatives.

On the one hand, this was an accurate assumption. The NDP  was not competitive with the Conservative Party in the majority of ridings, and the NDP vote, under Thomas Mulcair, dropped from 4.5 million in 2011 to 3.4 million in 2015. Yet the fall of the NDP nevertheless brought severe consequences for the Tories, since much of the depressed NDP vote clearly migrated to the Liberals.

Again, the Tory share of the vote in most VDRs did not decline by very much, but the Liberal margin of victory in the VDRs was large enough that even if the Tories held their 2011 share of the vote in those ridings they still would have lost them.


A Better Narrative

Voters in VDRs seem to overwhelmingly prefer progressive parties. In 2011, however, their loyalties were badly divided between the Liberals and NDP, which worked to the advantage of the Conservative minority in those ridings. The clearest explanation for the string of 2011 Conservative victories in diverse ridings was good old fashioned vote-splitting.

Note that anti-Conservatives can still spin this narrative in a way that reinforces their preferred assumptions, though the blame will have to shift slightly. If you accept the premise that the VDRs were lost by the left in 2011 rather than lost by the Tories in 2015, then there's nothing to prevent you from still believing that the Conservatives are horrible racists, etc. The onus simply shifts to explain why the vote was split in 2011. This will require passing some judgment on the poor campaign run by Michael Ignatieff and heaping praise on Jack Layton. A appropriately progressive 2015 analysis, in turn, will involve praising Justin Trudeau and bashing Thomas Mulcair.

The Conservatives' clearest path to replicating their 2011 success in the VDRs in 2019 would likely be a strong NDP leader/campaign and weakness on the Liberal side. It does not seem, contrary to popular mythology, that any policies the Conservatives pushed in 2015 — the niqab ban, the hotline, etc — turned off many Conservative voters in the VDRs.


What we don't know

For whatever reason, Canada does not have good exit polling data. In 2011 there was one much-shared exit poll commissioned by the Vancouver Sun but nothing comparable (as far as I'm aware) was done in 2015. And even then, the 2011 exit poll, which showed the Tories winning a plurality of the "born outside Canada" vote (42%), but falling badly behind the NDP in the "arrived in Canada <10 years" vote (28%) and "visible minority" vote (31%) raised more questions than answers.

When Tories win votes in VDRs whose votes are they winning? Votes from the non-white majority/plurality, or votes from the white/native-born minority? Even Canada's most diverse ridings have white/native-born populations of at least 30%, so the 2011 Tory plurality victories in VDRs cannot be taken for granted as "proof" of success with ethnic voters.

Likewise, when Tories when "immigrant" votes, what sort of immigrant votes are they winning? Immigrants from Europe, Britain, and Australia? Or China, India, and the Philippines?

It also must be conceded voters do not behave in perfectly predictable, rationalistic ways. Ideology in particular seems to be a widely overstated motivator, given polls suggest most Canadians do not understand the political concepts of "right" and "left," making it unreasonable to assume, say, that a usually reliable NDP voter who happens to be turned off by the new party leader understands he is "supposed to" vote for the Liberals (and not the Conservatives) as his second choice.

It may more useful to attempt to understand elections through the frames of things like top-of-mind issues, leader approval ratings, and preferences for broad outcomes like "change." Prime Minister Harper was a deeply unpopular man by the time he chose to seek a fourth term in 2015. Justin Trudeau did the best job branding himself as a fresh, new sort of prime minister, and the candidate who could unseat Harper.

Maybe that's what it was all about?


— J.J. McCullough