When they managed to win only one of five seats up for grabs in by-elections last summer, Tim Hudak’s tried to claim moral victory by noting they actually won the most votes in the five ridings combined.
As you can see, they did so by a fairly handy margin:
Total votes in five 2013 Ontario by-elections
In fact, if you look at all nine by-elections held since the 2011 campaign, you can see something similar. Despite having won only two of them (compared to four for the NDP and three for the Liberals), the Tories again come out ahead in popular vote:
Total votes in nine Ontario by-elections
Looked at one way, that’s a moral victory. Looked at a different way, it’s a nightmare scenario.
In this general campaign, the Tories probably have a chance to win more ridings than either the Liberals or the NDP. That’s because, other than downtown Toronto, the far north and a few other pockets, they’re competitive in pretty much every region.
But as we saw in those by-elections, in which the Tories came second in all seven ridings they didn’t win, there’s the potential for some serious inefficiency.
In those races, the PC candidate was runner-up to the Liberal in three suburban ridings, with the NDP barely registering. Meanwhile, the Liberal vote collapsed in four ridings in southwestern Ontario and one in the Niagara region, and the Tories wound up losing two-way battles with the NDP.
This is the point where we have to acknowledge that by-elections can be very poor barometers for general campaigns. They place more of a premium on local candidates and organization (which helps explain why the NDP managed to win the most seats of the three major parties despite the lowest share of the popular vote), turnout is unusually low, they offer opportunities for relatively meaningless protest votes, and so on.
That said, it’s not impossible to see some of the same phenomena repeating themselves. Talk to Liberals, and they’ll tell you they feel good about their chances of keeping most of their seats in the Greater Toronto Area and maybe even challenging a couple of Tory incumbents there – in part because they think they can get erstwhile New Democrats to vote for them. Meanwhile, the New Democrats are reasonably buoyant about their chances in southwestern Ontario, because they see the Liberal vote collapsing there and setting up winnable two-way contests between them and the Tories.
In other words, it’s not impossible that on June 12 there will be an awful lot of PC runners-up to join the seven of them from the past couple of years. It’s also conceivable that the Tories could win the popular vote, but not win the most seats.
To be clear, that’s not likely to happen. But as Mr. Hudak knows all too well by now, being competitive everywhere doesn’t necessarily count for much.