Opinion: Are the Conservatives at risk of winning too many seats?

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The polls continue to worsen for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party. Recent numbers and projections from Abacus Data indicate that their last electoral stronghold in Quebec may be beginning to weaken, which could turn what is already looking like a very challenging electoral environment for the prime minister into a disaster.

The Liberals have faced such routs before. In 1930, 1958, 1984 and 2011 the Liberal party was on the receiving end of an electoral shellacking the likes of which political parties don’t always survive. Remarkably, the Grits returned to power with aplomb in each circumstance.

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The type of electoral wins that Conservative governments have carved out can partially explain these Liberal comebacks and may give an ironic modicum of good news to Liberal supporters who are otherwise rightly despondent in the current climate.

Over Canadian electoral history two distinctive pathways have emerged for the Tories to upend the big red ruling machine, neither of which has proved to be sustainable in the long term.

The first has been to mimic the hallmark Liberal strategy of brokerage, diluting the ideological content of their electoral appeal and amplifying instead pragmatic measures designed to transcend the dangerous fault lines of regional difference. R.B. Bennett’s tightly controlled Conservative party used this strategy in 1930 to defeat an aloof Mackenzie King government that was flat-footed in the face of the Great Depression. King roared back to power in 1935, establishing a dynasty that lasted until 1957.

Stephen Harper adopted a similarly firm control over the newly reunited conservative movement in 2003 with electoral pragmatism above all else in mind. Certainly, Harper had a clearly conservative agenda in mind, unafraid as he was to state that one wouldn’t “recognize Canada by the time I’m done with it.” But over nine years in government Harper’s defining skill was in keeping rigid discipline as to when and what red meat to feed the base without losing focus on the distribution and efficiency of votes in the general election. But the good fortune of an ascendant NDP and the collapse of the Bloc was needed for Harper’s only majority government to materialize.

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The Conservative governments of John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney offer a different model of taking on and defeating the Liberals. It led, in 1958 and 1984, to the largest majority governments in Canadian history. On both occasions, the Tory leaders capitalized upon a mood for change. Each petitioned powerful Quebec premiers — Maurice Duplessis and René Lévesque, no less — to influence their supporters to take a “beau risque,” painting the electoral map blue as a result. This populist rush appears to be the trajectory that Pierre Poilievre is taking the party should present trends continue.

Ultimately, these enormous victories proved to violate political scientist William Riker’s minimum winning coalitions theory — that politicians will (and should) “create coalitions just as large as they believe will ensure winning and no larger.” Before long, the pressures of addressing the incommensurate demands of too many masters resulted in insurmountable internal contradictions.

At their end, the Diefenbaker government receded to close to two decades of near uninterrupted Liberal rule and Mulroney’s failure to manage the nigh-on impossible west-east balancing act split the conservative movement, birthed the Bloc Québécois and set the stage for the slow death of the PCs.

Part of the genius of the Liberal brokerage model has been that it never really meant full national coverage or commanding a majority of the national electorate, despite offering an image of nation-building through unifying values.

Ironically, if current projections from the likes of Abacus Data are borne out on election day, Poilievre’s Conservatives may genuinely be at risk of winning too many seats across too many of Canada’s regions, replicating the unmanageable voter blocs of the Tory past. Any political hack will tell you that the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. But the Liberals may need to take heart in that the scale of their expected defeat could be a poisoned chalice for Poilievre.

Dónal Gill is assistant professor of Canadian politics at Concordia University.

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