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Sometimes a byelection is just a byelection

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All Tory hopes and dreams this Monday seemed to be embodied within former Ontario Provincial Police chief Julian Fantino, who won a byelection in Vaughan.

It would have been detrimental to Conservative Party morale had their candidate lost to Liberal Tony Genco, who is virtually unknown to the public. Yet, it is an equally powerful blow to the Liberals that a safe-seat was taken by a high-profile Tory candidate. It is important to morale because the race was billed as a preview of the next federal election. High profile Conservatives and Liberals swooped down on the Toronto suburb in the past week, offering their endorsements. Yet can three of 308 Members of Parliament (actually, one of 308 considering Vaughan is the only one that received significant attention) really be indicative of what the next election will bring? Hardly. However, considering the great investment both major parties put into this byelection, the Liberals and Tories -- along with our good friend the media -- managed to fabricate the impression that it does.

The byelection was advertised as "Outremont Part II." In the 2007 Outremont byelection, the Liberals lost a long-time safe seat to the NDP signalling a crisis in Stephane Dion's party. The Conservatives were happy to reinforce this image in Vaughan, running one of their most high-profile candidates in recent years. Similarly to Outremont, in Vaughan the Tories were attempting to hijack a seat from a city that was generally considered to be a Conservative wasteland. The Conservative Party already controls a large number of swing ridings in southern Ontario -- Oshawa, London West, Kitchener-Waterloo etc. -- so why is the riding of Vaughan specifically so important? Well, it's not. By running Fantino, however, the Tories made a large psychological investment. It seems to have paid off -- in addition to the expected retention of the Manitoba constituency, the Tories managed to grab the Vaughan riding.

The next question is, why didn't the Liberals attempt a similar coup in Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette, a traditionally Conservative riding in Manitoba? Seemingly, they didn't have anybody quite as intriguing as Fantino to run. In fact, it was revealed that they approached Fantino with a request for him to run as a Liberal -- a rare open glimpse into how the two major parties are nearly identical. However, that is only part of the story. Liberals managed to build up the character of Tony Genco quite a bit by having Michael Ignatieff and Justin Trudeau speak on his behalf. This showcases the flaw in judging a party's momentum based on their performance in a byelection. Clearly, Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette is completely different from Vaughan and Vaughan is completely different from Winnipeg-North. These factors taken into account, it is actually more impressive that the Liberals managed to take the formerly NDP-controlled district of Winnipeg-North and gain another seat in the typically anti-Grit west.

As for the NDP, one would be tempted to attribute this failure to the NDP's own weak performance at the opinion polls since the gun registry vote. Of course, Winnipeg-North being an urban riding of a city where gun violence is among the worst in the country, the party can hardly be said to still be feeling the fallout from that. However, as could have been expected, Ignatieff pounced upon the opportunity to dismiss the NDP. Maybe he's right, maybe the next election will be a "clear, two-way choice."

The truth is, there are a large number of factors in each electoral district that determines the election's outcome. It's hard to say what role Don Cherry's endorsement, Fantino's Italian surname or the low voter-turnout played in Vaughan.

This byelection was only a byelection. That is all. It wasn't a referendum on the Harper government. It wasn't an indicator of party momentum. It wasn't an endorsement of a "tough on crime" agenda. It was simply a contest between candidates in three different ridings where the voter turnout was barely 30 per cent. In reality, while both the Conservatives and the Liberals can walk away semi-satisfied with their steals (and they are both claiming Nov. 29 a victory), this election probably indicates less than any run-of-the-mill opinion poll does. And, as the old truism goes, the only opinion poll that matters is the election itself. We'll see what shape each party is in next spring.

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