An analysis of floor crossers since 1867 shows that MPs who switch parties, like Ontario’s Leona Alleslev, have a harder time at winning re-election.

Leona Alleslev, MP for Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, crossed the floor this week to join the Conservatives from the Liberal party. If she runs for re-election in 2019 under the banner of her new party, history suggests that there is a good chance she will lose her seat, despite the narrow margin between the two parties in the last election.

For most of Canadian history, MPs were able to change party affiliation with great ease. They did not suffer at the ballot box either. This, however, has not been the case in recent elections. The costs of switching parties have grown drastically over the last 60 years resulting in less switching in recent times in comparison to the past.

In our recent article in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, we analyzed Library of Parliament data on all electoral races from 1867 to 2015 to investigate the fortunes of party switchers. We looked at how switching affected electoral performance over the years, and we also looked at whether switching into or out of government had a different effect on switchers’ vote shares.

There are many reasons that may lead an MP to switch parties, such as expulsion, political ambition, personal principles and party mergers. We focused our research specifically on the consequences of an individual incumbent’s decision to switch parties from one existing party to another. MPs who switched to or from independent status or switched stripes because of a merger of existing parties were excluded.

Our sample includes a total of 7,504 incumbent MPs with a party affiliation running for re-election. Seventy-two unique MPs switched parties from one party to another and ran for re-election. Of these MPs, 67 switched once and five crossed the floor twice for a total of 77 switchers. Thirty switched to government whereas 47 switched to the ranks of the opposition.

Generally speaking, incumbent switchers who run in the subsequent election win their bid more often than not: since 1867, there have been 27 losses and 55 wins. However, the wins are mostly between 1867-1958, and the vast majority were losses between 1993-2015.

Our analysis shows that switchers pay an electoral price at the ballot box. We considered in our research how the MP did in the election before the switch with their original party, how that party fared before and after the switch, and how the new party fared before and after the switch. Even with these factors taken into account, we found an overall five-percentage point penalty over the period of study (1867-2015).

Next, we looked at the evolution of switchers’ electoral fortunes over time. We found that switchers did not fare worse than non-switchers in the early years of Confederation. Indeed, early on, they even received a slight bump. A few decades later, however, there is a clear difference. Over time, party switchers’ electoral performance progressively deteriorates as compared to non-switchers. By 2015, party switchers are expected to receive close to 20 percentage points less than non-switchers.

We wondered if these results were driven primarily by one type of switch or another over time. Perhaps, things are different for a switch to government versus a switch to opposition. For instance, switching to government might be seen as an opportunistic move and as such voters might be more likely to punish them over individuals who switch to the opposition benches (which might be seen as motivated by principle). As reasonable as these hypotheses may sound, our results indicate that regardless of government/opposition status, switchers fare less well in more recent years than they did in the past. There is an electoral cost for both types of floor crossers.

What is clear is that switchers today have a steeper road to re-election compared to their non-switcher counterparts. This might suggest a tough road to re-election for Leona Alleslev.

Photo: Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer walks with Leona Alleslev, who crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives, before Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on September 17, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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