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COMMENTARY: How to watch election night like a political pro

A day before the Canadian federal election, Ipsos CEO Darrell Bricker discusses the parties' levels of support going into what's expected to be a long night.

Political pros don’t watch election night the way most people do. They are looking for specific cues and clues as to how the night will transpire. And they are looking for them early.

It all starts with Atlantic Canada. In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada. Pros know that Newfoundland’s results start rolling in 30 minutes before the rest of Atlantic Canada and 90 minutes before the tsunami of results come crashing in from all but B.C.

They will be watching to see if the Liberals lose any seats in Newfoundland, and if that is followed up with seat losses in the other three Atlantic provinces. If the Liberals start behind early, it could be a tough night for them. If they start well, their vote could be more resilient than expected.

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Next, what’s happening in Quebec? Is the Bloc Quebecois for real? If they are, how many seats will they win? In 2015, the Liberals won 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats. The BQ won only 10 seats and lost its official party status.

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The sweep of Atlantic Canada was the first clue the Liberals were on a roll in 2015. This was confirmed by their unexpectedly strong performance in Quebec. This time, if the Liberals come in at fewer than 30 seats, their majority will almost certainly be gone, and even winning a plurality of seats could be in jeopardy.

Also important in Quebec are the results for the Conservative Party. Current polling for the CPC in Quebec is about where it was in 2015 when they won 12 seats. If the CPC outperforms this, especially if they pick up seats in Atlantic Canada, they will be positioned for a strong night. If it’s fewer, they will need to overperform in other parts of the country.

Something similar applies to the NDP. In 2015, the NDP won 16 seats in Quebec with 25 per cent of the vote. Current polling has the party at less than half of this in voter support. Going into this election most analysts assumed the NDP would be lucky to hold on to any of their seats in Quebec. If they are to have a stronger than expected night, Quebec could be where it starts.

Polls and post-election analysis
Polls and post-election analysis

This brings us to Ontario, which has 121 seats, the lion’s share of the 338 seats being contested on Monday. Political pros will focus mostly on the 905, which is the belt of suburban seats circling the City of Toronto.

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Depending on how the boundaries are drawn, the 905 contains between 30 and 40 seats. They tend to move in a block. In 2011, Stephen Harper won them on his way to a majority. In 2015, Justin Trudeau won them to secure his majority. In the 2018 provincial election, Doug Ford won his majority in the 905.

The 905 has no partisan loyalty. It goes with the winner. On Monday, if the 905 moves again in a block, there’s a possibility that either the Liberals or Conservatives could win a majority.

A look at the election battle in the Greater Toronto Area
A look at the election battle in the Greater Toronto Area

The City of Toronto, or the 416, is also worth watching. There are a few ridings with a history of switching back and forth between the Liberals and NDP. If the NDP is on the right side of the switches this time, it will be a difficult night for the Liberals.

There are also a few near suburban seats (the Don Valleys and Etobicokes) that can go to the CPC, but only if the Conservatives are having an exceptionally good night.

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Of the three Prairie provinces, only Manitoba has a meaningful number of seats up for grabs. They are focused in Winnipeg.

If the NDP or Conservatives pick up seats from the Liberals in Winnipeg, there’s a possibility the Liberals could be shut out on the Prairies (except for Ralph Goodale’s seat in Saskatchewan). If Ralph Goodale goes down, it will be a very bad night for the Liberals. On the other hand, if the Liberals add to their seat totals across the Prairies — especially in Alberta — the Conservatives will likely underperform against expectations.

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Alberta experts discuss why economic issues will matter in the federal election
Alberta experts discuss why economic issues will matter in the federal election

This brings us to B.C. The election could all come down to what happens on the west coast this time. Along with Quebec, B.C. is the most competitive jurisdiction in the country with four parties seriously threatening to win seats.

Like Ontario, the pros will be looking to see how the Liberals perform against the NDP in downtown Vancouver and against the Conservatives in the commuting suburbs. But B.C. also has Vancouver Island, where the Greens have the potential to win more than one seat this time.

In this close election, everything could come down to what happens on Vancouver Island.

Darrell Bricker is Global CEO, Ipsos Public Affairs