Digging for the real story in the election results

So, a question.

Did the Conservatives win the 2008 federal election, or did the Liberals lose?

Of course, it would be perfectly right to say “both of the above.” But as some commentators have noted, the story of the 2008 vote is really more about a Liberal collapse than any huge surge of enthusiasm for the Conservatives under Stephen Harper.

To see just how bad it really was for the Liberals under Stéphane Dion you have to get past the popular vote figures that are most often used to explain the result.

And that’s where a little computer-assisted reporting using a spreadsheet program helps us dig deeper into the numbers.

Let’s start by looking at that popular vote tally.

It shows the Conservative percentage inching up by a little more than a percentage point to nearly 38 per cent (as I write this I am using preliminary numbers for 2008, so some of the numbers may change slightly), and the Liberals slipping by four percentage points to about 26 per cent.

That’s the number you will have heard repeated time after time, and at first blush it appears to tell the tale. But a deeper look at the numbers using our spreadsheet shows that the Liberal collapse was much, much deeper than the percentage point tallies would suggest.

The first problem with this oft-quoted number is that it represents percentage points change, not percentage change. To anyone except the most math-adept among us, that likely makes the drop appear smaller than it really is.

While the Liberal loss was four percentage points, the proportion of voters putting an X beside their Liberal candidate’s name was actually down about 13 per cent.

That’s a whopper of a drop, but Liberal party strategists must be even more alarmed by the change in the raw numbers of Canadians voting for the party.

While the Conservatives largely held their own nationally, despite wholesale collapse in Newfoundland and significant losses in Quebec, about one in five Liberal voters vanished between the 2006 and 2008 elections.

In fact, when you net out the gains and losses of the other parties, those disappearing Liberal votes account for most of the drop in voter turnout between the two elections. This leads to the reasonable conclusion that a lot of Liberals judged Dion`s performance so lacking that they just stayed home, precipitating the result we saw on election night.

The Conservatives, meantime, made some well-placed gains, allowing them to capitalize on the Liberal collapse. The Conservatives picked up 21 ridings from the Liberals. In most of them, Liberal support plummeted and Conservative support rose modestly, allowing the Tories to overcome what had sometimes been significant electoral disadvantages and win. These weren`t huge victories, for the most part, but were the electoral equivalent of a low-scoring hockey game. Two points into the win column.

In Kitchener-Waterloo, for example, the Liberals lost more than 9,000 votes, while the Conservatives added about 3,000, allowing them to eke out a squeaker victory that was, as I wrote this, the subject of a judicial recount.

In London West, the Liberals slid almost 2,600, while the Conservatives gained close to 900, allowing the Tory to win by a little more than 2,000.

In 12 of the 21 seats the Conservatives gained from the Liberals, the Liberals lost more than twice as many votes as the Conservatives gained.

As predicted, the rise of the Greens also probably helped the Tories in these ridings.The Greens were the only mainstream party to actually get more raw votes from Canadians, going from about 664,000 in 2006 to about 941,000 in 2008. In eight of the 21 seats that the Conservatives picked up from the Liberals, the Green vote exceeded the Conservative margin of victory.

We don’t know what would have happened if the Greens had not been there, but the shift in votes suggests some of those Green supporters were probably defecting Liberals. It’s something Dion was clearly worried about just before the election when he made his plea for Green Party supporters to vote Liberal to stop Harper.

All of this leads to some inescapable conclusions.

First, the Liberals suffered a collapse of historic proportions in the election of 2008, while the Conservatives made modest gains in crucial ridings. Much of the increase in the percentage of popular support for the Conservatives was clearly the result of Liberal voters staying home, driving down the total vote.

Second, we have to be ever vigilant about numbers. In the haze of an election night, amidst the barrage of simple numbers such as the percentage of the popular vote, it is easy to forget that the devil truly is in the details. The details often tell a much better story.

Third, the next election could hold some surprises. If the Liberals have a new leader and can recapture some of those voters who just stayed home, and if the Tories can reverse their slide in Quebec, it could be an interesting night indeed.

The lesson learned is that taking a close look at the numbers using a spreadsheet can provide insights to write stories that give the reader new value and new insight into who won, and who lost.

(A version of the above article will also appear in the Fall 2008 edition of Media magazine).