Incumbency is a powerful thing in politics and unseating an incumbent government is no easy feat. But it’s a little easier when that incumbent government has a rookie leader at the helm.
Especially in Newfoundland and Labrador.
While Andrew Furey’s Liberal Party has been in power in St. John’s since 2015, he was only sworn in as premier last August. That makes this provincial election campaign his first run at a governing mandate of his own.
Most of the time, being the incumbent government is better than the alternative. Since Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation in 1949, federal and provincial governments across Canada have been re-elected 68 per cent of the time.
The winning record of premiers or prime ministers with at least one election campaign as leader already under their belts is even better — they have been re-elected 72 per cent of the time.
But rookie leaders have a rougher go of it. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since governing parties rarely switch leaders when they’re at the peak of their popularity. Instead, new leaders are often swapped-in after the outgoing leader realizes he or she isn’t likely to win the next campaign.
That doesn’t set their successors up for success. Since 1949, the replacements have succeeded in securing their own mandates only 56 per cent of the time.
The power of incumbency, however, has been even starker in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Governing parties have been re-elected 80 per cent of the time in the province’s history. The government was defeated in only four of of the 20 elections held in Newfoundland and Labrador when there was an incumbent government on the ballot. And in only one of those cases — in 1971, when the Liberals didn’t secure the most seats and Joey Smallwood hung on for a few months before resigning in 1972 — was the defeated governing party led by a leader who wasn’t taking his or her first kick at the can.
In fact, rookie premiers have only won half the time. If the only thing you knew about a campaign in Newfoundland and Labrador was that the outgoing premier was heading into their first campaign as leader, you’d give them 50/50 odds.
First time successes and failures
There have been a few success stories. Brian Peckford won his first campaign in 1979 after replacing Frank Moores as premier and Progressive Conservative leader. He’d go on to win two more elections in 1982 and 1985.
Brian Tobin won the first of his two elections as premier and Liberal leader in 1996 after taking over from Clyde Wells, while Kathy Dunderdale won the only election she waged as PC leader in 2011, after stepping into the premier’s shoes vacated by Danny Williams.
But there have also been a few failures — examples that Furey will be looking not to replicate when voters head to the polls on Feb. 13.
The last one put the Liberals into office in 2015, when Paul Davis was unable to secure re-election for the PCs in his first (and only) election as leader. The same fate awaited Roger Grimes in his only election as Liberal leader in 2003, as well as the PCs’ Tom Rideout in 1989.
Of course, those were leaders fighting against the odds to keep their parties in power after long stints in office. The PCs had governed for 12 years when Davis was defeated, while the Liberals had been in power for 14 when Grimes went down to defeat. When Rideout’s PCs lost in 1989, the party had been in office for 17 years.
Furey’s Liberals have only governed for little more than five years.
Polls alone no reason to take re-election for granted
That might give Furey some comfort. Historically, that’s a little fast to boot out a government. The most recent public polls also suggest that Furey might have little to worry about.
In December, Narrative Research put the Liberals ahead of Ches Crosbie’s PCs by 32 percentage points. A poll by MQO Research indicated the gap was an enormous 43 points.
Even the smaller margin recorded by Narrative Research would be a landslide victory for the Liberals. If repeated on election day, that popular vote spread would mark the Liberals’ biggest win since 1959.
Furey is in a much better position than some of the unsuccessful rookies that came before him. The PCs were trailing in the polls long before Davis became party leader in 2014 and his party entered the 2015 provincial election campaign behind Dwight Ball’s Liberals by more than 40 points in a series of polls.
In 2003, the Liberals under Grimes were behind Williams and the PCs by 18 points, according to a Corporate Research Associates survey taken at the outset of the campaign.
The 1989 election ended with a close result — the PCs narrowly won the popular vote though they captured fewer seats — but rookie leader Rideout had good reason to believe he could continue the Tories’ time in office. Before he called the election for April that year, a poll by Decima suggested his party was ahead of the Liberals by 21 points.
That advantage didn’t hold over the course of the campaign, however, and by the time the vote was held, the polls were hinting at the photo-finish it turned out to be.
We’ll find out soon enough whether Furey’s Liberals will be able to hold on to the massive lead they had in public support heading into 2021.
That transitions of power have mostly come when there was a rookie leader on the ballot might bode well for Crosbie, except for one thing: he lost the 2019 provincial election. No party leader who has ever lost an election in Newfoundland and Labrador has managed to win the next one.