When Saskatchewan voters are called to the polls in three months, Premier Scott Moe will be seeking a fourth consecutive term in government for his Saskatchewan Party. The polls suggest he’s likely to get it. It would be a win that most governing parties in Canada have failed to secure in the past.
First elected in 2007, the Sask. Party is the longest-serving provincial government in Canada. That alone is exceptional, considering the amount of changeover in recent years in Canadian politics. Only the Sask. Party and the Nova Scotia Liberals — first elected in 2013 — have been in power for more than five consecutive years.
With the brief exception of a few months in 2017, just before the resignation of then-premier Brad Wall, the Sask. Party’s lead in the polls over the New Democrats has been wide and relatively consistent since Wall’s first term in the job.
Ahead of this fall’s election, the Sask. Party is outfundraising the NDP and Moe’s personal approval ratings remain high. Two polls conducted at the end of the spring found two-thirds of respondents in the province approving of the premier’s performance.
So, barring an upset in October, the Sask. Party is likely to win its fourth consecutive election. That doesn’t happen for most parties.
Since Confederation, only about half of provincial or federal parties have survived long enough in government to even get a crack at a fourth term and just one-third of governing parties have been able to put together a winning streak of four elections. Most either fail in that fourth attempt or have already fallen by the wayside.
From there, survival gets harder and harder. Less than one-in-10 governing parties have made it beyond six terms.
This means that if Moe is able to make good on his party’s strong polling numbers, he will be in rare company.
The benefits of incumbency
In any given election, the incumbent party is more likely to win than lose. Throughout Canadian history, the governing party has won slightly more than 69 per cent of the time. The odds are stacked in the governing party’s favour for several reasons, not least of which is that if voters thought a party was good enough to govern last time, chances are they still feel that way.
That is especially the case if it is not only the same party but the same premier seeking re-election. Incumbent parties running with the same leader as the previous election have won about 75 per cent of the time, compared to just 56 per cent of the time when incumbent parties have someone new at the helm.
This should not come as a surprise. Popular parties tend to keep their popular leaders around. Unpopular leaders tend to resign and a fresh face isn’t always enough to turn the tide of public opinion.
That isn’t quite what is going on in Saskatchewan. Though the party’s support and Wall’s personal approval ratings were dipping in 2017, the Sask. Party was still leading the NDP in most polls and Wall was still one of the most popular premiers in the country.
Wall stepped aside before he risked overstaying his welcome, handing over a party in good shape to his successor. Since Moe took over in early 2018, no poll has put the party ahead of the NDP by anything less than double-digits.
Moe trying to add name to list of past four-timers
There haven’t been many four-term governments in Saskatchewan’s history. Only four governing parties have attempted a fourth-consecutive election victory and only three have managed to get it.
The first was William Martin’s Liberal government in 1917. In that wartime election, Saskatchewan’s voters — including, for the first time, women — re-elected the only government they had ever known since becoming a province in 1905. This was Martin’s first election as premier, however, as he had replaced Saskatchewan’s first premier, Walter Scott, in 1916.
The first leader to seek and win a fourth consecutive term was Tommy Douglas. Elected in 1944 at the head of Canada’s first CCF government, Douglas won re-election in 1948, 1952 and 1956. He would lead the CCF to one more election victory in 1960 before making the jump to the leadership of the federal NDP.
Allan Blakeney, leader of the Saskatchewan NDP from 1970 to 1987, was the only premier to fight for a fourth term and lose. After winning three elections in the 1970s, the pre-campaign polls gave Blakeney good odds of winning a fourth in 1982. Instead, the NDP went down to a big defeat and were replaced by Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives.
The fourth and last time a party sought a fourth consecutive term in office was in 2003. This was Lorne Calvert’s first campaign as premier and NDP leader after he replaced Roy Romanow in 2001. Calvert’s NDP barely held on, winning only two more seats than the Sask. Party under Elwin Hermanson. Calvert would lose the next election to Wall in 2007 — beginning the Sask. Party’s current run in power.
It has been an electorally successful run. The Sask. Party increased its seat edge over the NDP in both the 2011 and 2016 elections, winning the popular vote by 32 percentage points each time.
The polls suggest the Sask. Party is on track for another victory in three months. But considering the record of governments past, a win being predictable doesn’t make it any less impressive.