Can Shauna Sylvester win Vancouver mayoral election? Only if polls miss extent of her support among women

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      If you're paying attention to media coverage of this Vancouver mayoral race, it would be easy to conclude that that Kennedy Stewart has it in the bag.

      Veteran civic commentator Allen Garr at the Courier has characterized it as a two-person race between the former NDP MP and NPA businessman Ken Sim.

      In coming to this conclusion, Garr has been influenced by the polling of Mario Canseco at Research Co., whose numbers have consistently placed Stewart and Sim in the top two positions.

      In his most recent survey, Canseco has Stewart with a significant lead: 36 percent to 23 percent for Sim among decided voters.

      SFU public practice professor Shauna Sylvester is in third place at 19 percent.

      The conventional wisdom of Garr and others is that a vote for Sylvester helps Sim because she and Stewart are appealing to the same progressive voting base.

      The two-man framing of the race helps Stewart enormously because he can play up the NPA bogeyman to appeal to his base.

      In fact, Garr could be right when he describes it as a two-person race for mayor.

      But it's equally likely that if there are two frontrunners, neither of them is named Sim.

      That's because the NPA mayoral candidate faces a multipronged challenge.

      Coalition Vancouver's Wai Young appeals to traditional NPA supporters on the city's southeast side.

      These voters are less likely to dilly-dally on the Internet filling out English-language political surveys, so Young's level of support could be underestimated. That's because a significant number of these voters on the southeast side don't speak English as their first language.

      Meanwhile, Sylvester is eating into traditional NPA support among higher-income women and seniors on the West Side.

      These can be referred to as the so-called Joyce Murray Liberals. They are earnest citizens who reliably show up to vote on election day.

      Sylvester also has strong support among Peter Ladner NPAers—i.e. more progressive minded NPA voters with an environmental bent. They abandoned the party after it came under the sway of railway owner Peter Armstrong before the 2011 election. 

      Nowadays, those types often vote for Green park board, council, and school board candidates.

      And pesky former cop Fred Harding's Vancouver 1st appeals to social conservatives across the city. There may not be many of them, but these are voters who were apt to vote NPA in its heyday in the 1990s.

      This is not an endorsement for NPA candidate Ken Sim by a former NPA mayoral candidate.

      Readers gravitate to stories about Sylvester

      I'm not a professional pollster. Unlike Canseco, I don't have a pool of 402 people responding to a detailed questionnaire over the Internet every month.

      But I will point out that his last poll had a whopping plus or minus rate of six percent among its pool of decided voters, 19 times out of 20.

      He didn't divulge the plus or minus rate among decided female voters, but it would be even higher, given the even smaller sample size.

      Here's what I do know: every time I put Sylvester's name in a headline, it remains on the Straight's most-read list for a longer time than headlines carrying Stewart, Sim, or Yes Vancouver's Hector Bremner's name.

      This "hang time" has taken me and other staffers in our office by surprise.

      Throughout September and October, articles with Sylvester's name have been among the most-read on the entire website.

      It suggests that many readers are curious about her. They pass around articles about her. They are conducting Google searches of her name. They appear to care more about her than the leading male candidates for mayor.

      This is not scientific. This could merely reflect that her supporters are more likely to be on the Internet than those who favour Stewart, Sim, or Bremner. But it could be taken as a sign of momentum or public interest in her candidacy.

      Even Bremner tends to fare better than Stewart or Sim in terms of reader interest. It leaves me wondering if the polling is under-representing his level of support, too.

      In the 2013 provincial election, the NDP's Adrian Dix never had much traction with readers on our website. The same was true for Tom Mulcair during the 2015 federal election. In both races, they were the perceived frontrunners at the outset. I thought Dix and the NDP were going to win.

      In 2015 stories about Justin Trudeau were attracting by far the most eyeballs on before it became clear that his party was leading. His Liberal party climbed from third to first place, winning a majority.

      That year, nobody seemed to care about Mulcair or Stephen Harper. They were duds on our website, too. People even seemed to stop hating Harper so much—what was an even worse omen for him was that they ceased caring.

      Again, I must emphasize, traffic on a website is not a scientific survey. It's merely anecdotal information to add into the general mix of impressions and perceptions during a campaign. In this election, Sylvester has won the website battle on, and I suspect on other media websites as well.

      In this campaign Shauna Sylvester has gone out of her way to distance herself from Vision Vancouver, even though she used to sit on the party's board.

      Sylvester appears to have broad ideological appeal

      Some traditional NPA voters and former NPA candidates are supporting Sylvester. At first, I was surprised to hear this because she's been a strong environmentalist. But they've stated that they feel she's the best candidate for mayor.

      I've also heard from a couple of COPE people that they're quietly supporting Sylvester. Stewart's campaign manager, Neil Monckton, was part of the group that broke away from COPE when Larry Campbell was mayor. The bad blood this engendered hasn't completely dissipated. That was reflected in COPE's decision not to endorse a mayoral candidate.

      Sylvester also seems to be popular with many Greens. That makes sense, given her long-standing advocacy to address climate change.

      The danger for Stewart is if much of the public perceives that Sim has already lost. That takes away one of Stewart's primary messages: vote for me to stop the NPA.

      If that fear of an NPA victory diminishes, voters will settle on the candidate they like best (which could still be Stewart).

      But if the NPA brain trust privately feels that Sim has already lost, that becomes more dangerous for the perceived frontrunner.

      That would lead the NPA campaign to focus more on electing candidates to council in the hope of capturing a majority.

      Sim's position at the head of the ticket would be underplayed, which helps Sylvester.

      This, in fact, could already be occurring, judging from the wording of the party's radio advertisements.

      You don't hear Sim's voice. All you get is a plea to former Vision voters to choose the NPA this time around.

      There seems to be less encouragement to vote for Sim and a bigger push to elect Melissa De Genova, Rebecca Bligh, David Grewal, Colleen Hardwick, and other members of the NPA council slate.

      Kennedy Stewart posted this image on his Twitter feed of supporters eagerly showing their support.
      Kennedy Stewart

      Labour support can cut both ways

      Many of the media stories about the Stewart campaign over the past couple of weeks have been about his ties to the labour movement.

      There hasn't been nearly as much about his policies.

      That's partially Stewart's fault because he focused his campaign more narrowly on housing and electoral reform. He didn't make a big deal about other areas, such as seniors or the public library system, where he could have expanded his appeal.

      This week on CBC Radio, reporter Justin McElroy suggested that there wasn't a great degree of difference between what Stewart is proposing on housing and what the Vision Vancouver–controlled council has already advanced.

      This type of coverage makes Stewart come across as a candidate for the status quo when the electorate is hungry for change.

      More troubling for Stewart, a recent story by Bob Mackin at the Breaker revealed that CUPE Local 15, which represents inside workers at city hall, is offering to help its members book time off.

      This is so these workers can help "progressive labour friendly candidates"—presumably, including Stewart—get elected.

      "Apparently, there is further information on the ability to release people to door knock, drop poll cards etc.," says one memo floating around. "The amount for the release obviously must be paid by unions but DOES NOT have to be reported as 3rd party."

      As this unions-love-Stewart meme percolates through the coverage, it undercuts one of Stewart's greatest strengths going into the campaign—that he's less partisan than other New Democrats.

      The "Kennedy" who was being marketed on telephone poles all over the city was everyman. He was the guy who showed up in Vancouver with $100 in his pocket, played in a band, worked his butt off in school, and succeeded in life.

      This nonpartisan everyman Kennedy image was reinforced by constant reminders that as an MP, he edited a book that included contributions by Conservative and Green MPs.

      His campaign video includes a photo of him being arrested alongside Green Leader Elizabeth May outside the Kinder Morgan gates.

      Stewart borrowed Glen Clark's winning slogan from the 1996 election—"on your side"—to show he wasn't a pawn of big developers. Stewart was being framed as a true progressive for a progressive city.

      The tenor of the recent media coverage, however, has those who mistrust union leaders now casting about for the mayoral candidate most likely to stop Stewart and who's truly independent. For many, that's not Sim.

      The Courier's Garr, as a long-time labour reporter, has a more nuanced view of unions than many voters. As a result, he might be under-appreciating the corrosive effect that these stories could be having on Stewart's candidacy. 

      Meanwhile, some of the best-known independent council candidates appear to have a less-than-formal alliance with Sylvester. Her message about the need for a truly independent mayor, rather than one tied more closely to organized labour and the NDP or big developers, resonates with some of them.

      Even Sim appears to be somewhat supportive of Sylvester's candidacy while always emphasizing that he's the only one in the race who's headed a large organization.

      In debates, Stewart will suggest that Sylvester is the Vision Vancouver candidate in the race.

      Sim then gets up and declares that Stewart is the Vision candidate and holds off criticizing Sylvester. Ouch!

      Shauna Sylvester posted this message alongside the photo above: "One of the reasons I’m running is so my daughter and young women like her can live and thrive in Vancouver. #DayOfTheGirl".
      Shauna Sylvester

      Female voters could determine the outcome

      Canseco's polls have shown that Stewart and Sim are in a close race among male voters, but that Stewart has a massive lead with female voters.

      This accounts for Stewart's much higher level of support among decided voters in Canseco's most recent poll—which, it's worth repeating, has a plus or minus ratio of six percent.

      Stewart registered 42 percent support with women respondents, compared to 25 percent for Sylvester and just 10 percent for Sim.

      But imagine this scenario unfolding far differently on election day. What if Sylvester's support among women climbed to 33 percent? Or 35 percent? Or 38 percent? What if her female supporters, perhaps better educated or higher income, were more likely to show up to vote than Stewart's female supporters?

      And what if Stewart's support among women who actually cast ballots dropped to the high 20s by voting day?

      Were that to occur, and if Sylvester were to capture 18 to 20 percent support among male voters, she would likely win.

      The morning-after news story would then be that Sylvester finally shattered a 132-year glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to become mayor of Vancouver.

      This week, the Sylvester campaign has been ramping up this message to woo women into her camp. Expect this to intensify in the final two days of the campaign.

      Keep in mind that female voters helped deliver Christy Clark the premiership in 2013. She managed to boost her level of female support above that registered by her predecessor, and that finished off Dix.

      Female voters also provided Trudeau with the keys to the prime minister's office in 2015. Most women couldn't stand Harper and they weren't very enthusiastic about Mulcair.

      For now, the perception is that female voters are still largely backing Stewart in the Vancouver mayoral race. That's underscoring the coverage of Garr and others who see it as a two-person contest between Stewart and Sim.

      But if that changes—and changes in a big way—by Saturday morning, all bets are off in the election of Vancouver's next mayor.

      And if you see Sylvester's face on the front page of the Sunday Province newspaper celebrating a shocking upset victory, perhaps you'll find yourself coming back to re-read this column to remind yourself how something so surprising could have occurred.