By Martyn Brown
With the latest opinion polls showing a slight recovery for the B.C. Liberals in the wake of the B.C. Conservatives’ self-immolation, Christy Clark is of course smiling. John Cummins’s party has been decidedly marginalized as its single-digit support now hovers around the same level as Jane Sterk’s B.C. Green party. So why is Adrian Dix quietly elated?
Election campaigns are largely about four M’s: motivation, messaging, mistakes, and momentum. Each of those interrelated factors are all working to the NDP’s advantage.
Motivation is the key to any party’s organizational strength and voter turnout. While the B.C. Liberals’ organizational strength is certainly showing and growing of late, that same fact also adds new urgency and relevance to the NDP’s election machine and support base. Apathy is always any apparent runaway winner’s greatest immediate threat.
Those inclined to punish the government are more motivated to vote if they believe it might be reelected. Those who want positive change tend to be more motivated than voters who are halfheartedly committed to preserving the status quo. As the contest continues to tighten, both parties will find it easier to motivate their activists. This time, however, fear of the NDP will do little to motivate the undecided masses who are not enamoured with the Clark government.
Which brings us to messaging. So far, the NDP is winning that battle. With nothing new on the horizon to lead a policy agenda for positive change, the B.C. Liberals will find it ever harder to control the agenda as the media becomes ever more fixated on the NDP’s commitments.
Dix has been coy about his party’s plans. He has also been very careful to avoid making mistakes. Whether he and his candidates can continue that until May 14, 2013, remains to be seen. Yet one core winning message is breaking through: as a leader, Dix is not prone to making careless mistakes or to embracing radical changes that rub voters the wrong way. That message is building confidence in the prospect of an NDP government as it also frustrates Premier Clark’s attempts to motivate disaffected B.C. Liberal supporters.
Dix is inoculating the NDP from most lines of attack, promising a “modest” program that affords few credible flash points for the B.C. Liberals to whip up voter fears. His tone of civility and respect is making the NDP look more positive and moderate than the B.C. Liberals, whose negative attack ads and hyperbolic fear-mongering is a major strategic mistake.
What about momentum? Even the B.C. Conservatives’ predictable implosion is a mixed blessing for the B.C. Liberals. The last thing the NDP wanted was for that party’s vote to collapse during the campaign period. A double-digit surge away from the B.C. Conservatives to the B.C. Liberals next spring would have been Adrian Dix’s worst nightmare. Now that won’t happen. The tightening two-way contest helps frame voter expectations and reduces the B.C. Liberals’ potential for rapid campaign momentum. The momentum game will now largely shift to how the undecided vote breaks and to how the B.C. Green party fares. All eyes will be trained on Oak Bay-Gordon Head, for a Green party breakthrough.
With barely four months to go until the writ drops, the NDP’s support is holding steady within a hair of an absolute majority of decided voters, with 20 percent of all voters still undecided and increasingly open to the idea of supporting the NDP. Not only does Dix enjoy a wide and growing lead as voters’ choice for best premier; his 53 percent personal approval level stands in stark contrast to Clark’s 59 percent disapproval level. Almost seven in 10 voters now plan to support parties other than B.C. Liberals, as do three-quarters of all women.
The NDP’s double-digit lead in every region is allowing them to target many previously unthinkable former B.C. Liberal strongholds. The government can take some comfort from the fact that a slight plurality of voters now believe B.C. is headed on the right track. But it should feel less sanguine that most voters are feeling positive about the economy. That same optimism, paradoxically, also affords new licence for many swing voters to “gamble” on the NDP.
Ironically, it is when economic times are toughest that so-called “free enterprise” parties benefit the most from their perceived superiority as economic managers vis-à-vis the NDP. In the post-HST world, where even that historic trump card has been all but lost by the Clark government, it is Dix who is most honestly smiling. And he’s not bluffing.