As the B.C. Liberals’ public campaign director in the last three elections, I used to dread opening those emails in the wee hours of the morning that gave me the daily tracking numbers.
Each time, my throat would tighten and my heart would race as I opened the file to see that night’s “rolling” public opinion sample. There are some things you can’t control in politics and that daily revelation was a constant competition of emotion and fact.
It’s tough to watch a lead evaporate that is attributed to a faulty strategy, when it is really mostly due to something else, like candidate controversies, individual gaffes, or perceptions of leadership.
And so it is today for New Democrats. No matter how much their campaign strategists might have told themselves and the candidates that the polls would get tighter, when it happens, it always feels surreal and somewhat sickening, like a car crash.
Second-guessing starts immediately, as fingers are silently pointed in recrimination. The really hard part is sticking to the strategy that the numbers alone suggest may not be working, when every fibre of your being is urging a reflex response that ensures it won’t.
Many are now questioning the NDP’s basic strategy of staying positive and future-focused instead of responding in kind to the B.C. Liberals’ relentless attacks. They see the Liberals closing the gap and getting closer to the prize.
The talk of every town is whether Christy Clark can pull it off and win, with her party’s newfound momentum. I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid.
The B.C. Liberals are still hovering in the low 30s, well below the NDP, with a week to go and little obvious room to grow.
The NDP’s strategy is sound and has worked to help put that party in the lead so far. I believe it will prevail if people do not panic and throw the whole strategy out the window by suddenly “going negative”.
That would only make a mockery of the NDP's leader and of a key demonstrable “change for the better” that he has embraced as both a defining difference and as a vote-winning strategy that I believe will ultimately pay off.
As cynical as I am about many facets of politics I witnessed, drove, and perpetuated in past political positions, I can’t agree with the pundits who now chide Adrian Dix for his “whole ‘positive’ campaign gimmick”—as Mike Smyth put it.
The longer you stay in politics, the more you find that the people who live and breathe it the most, from pundits to political hacks, tend to be so jaded they can’t accept a counterintuitive strategy as anything but cynically motivated.
That’s crap. And it’s equally crap to suggest that fairly holding any party, person, or government accountable for its record is tantamount to “going negative”, or engaging in the same type of personal attacks that Dix has sworn off on behalf of his party.
It’s perfectly legitimate, necessary, and consistent with Dix’s approach for the NDP to highlight the B.C. Liberals’ record in making its case for change.
There’s a world of difference between doing that fairly, respectfully, and also effectively and using lies, personal attacks, and gutter-politics innuendo to try to smear your opponent as Clark has done, aided and abetted by her minions and surrogates.
It’s that approach that all parties have been so prone to adopt in our increasingly American-style attack campaigns that I reproached in my eBook. It’s a strategy that I embraced in past campaigns, in tried and true fashion, that the NDP and all parties have historically used to win by throwing mud and hoping it sticks.
There’s no doubt it has worked in the past. But it’s garbage. And what Dix apparently believes, which I think he’s right in advancing, is that most voters are wise to that game and now rightly reject it in spades.
They want a new type of positive politics that doesn’t sink to the gutter. They want an approach that isn’t all about running people down or that is utterly wedded to partisan hyperbole and fearmongering, as Dix used to engage in before he was the NDP leader, and which remains a defining feature of Clark’s DNA.
Moreover, one should not confuse strategy with tactics.
Tactically, Dix does need to remind voters, as he is now doing, why they ostensibly wanted change in the first place. He does need to contrast the B.C. Liberals’ record with their election promises and to differentiate the Clark government’s actions, failings, and differences in priorities from what the NDP is promising.
I gather that the NDP's strategy was always to make such contrasts in the last week of the campaign, having established its own prescription for positive change. Whether that tactic should have been taken earlier is a debatable point.
But there is no doubt it is critical for the NDP to ensure voters are motivated to go to the ballot box, freshly reminded of why they lost trust and confidence in the government that has so long ruled this province.
If Dix can round out the last week by also appearing more energized and more passionate in his drive to lead B.C. forward, he can also show people a new dimension to his character that inspires trust and confidence in him. The latest polls should certainly give him new impetus for a heartfelt appeal that shows he's more of a fighter than most people have given him credit for being.
Anyone who has watched Dix at his best in the Legislature over the years knows that he has the potential to be devastating, with wit, humour, and sheer political smarts. He just needs to unleash the carefully suppressed "political beast" his friends and foes alike know is within him.
Okay, so he'll never be the Marshall Lynch of B.C. politics. But it's that raw character within Dix— the one who is hungry to compete and ready to win— that stands to offer some much-needed last-minute motivation for NDP supporters, who can ill afford to be complacent if they want to make history by consigning Clark & Co. to history.
If anyone should be feeling pangs of panic at this point, it should be the B.C. Liberals. They are still at least 10 to 13 points from any serious shot at winning, given the NDP’s sizable lead, its more evenly distributed geographic support, and its more motivated voter support base.
The Conservative vote will still be a huge factor, especially in traditional B.C. Liberal strongholds where the NDP remains well-positioned to win several new seats. Of the 56 candidates identified as B.C. Conservatives on the ballot, 20 will have no Green Party candidate to disproportionately siphon votes away from the NDP.
It is the B.C. Liberals who will lose the most by the Conservatives' presence and the absence of Green candidates in seven key seats the NDP stands to “steal”. They include two seats in Kamloops, Chilliwack–Hope (which the NDP won in last year’s byelection), Parksville–Qualicum, Penticton, Prince George–Valemount, and Surrey–Tynehead.
The Green Party is only fielding candidates in 61 of the province’s 85 ridings. Of the 24 seats it is not contesting, at least 18 are ripe for the NDP's pickings, seven are safe NDP seats, and 11 of which would represent net gains.
They include the seven ridings noted and Kootenay East, which is a two-way race. With no Green Party candidate in Abbotsford South, Cariboo North, Delta South, or Peace River North, all but the last of those ridings could quite conceivably go to the NDP on vote splits.
It is the B.C. Liberals who are most threatened by the independents running in those four ridings, not the NDP. Three of those seats are traditional Liberal strongholds and one is a traditional swing seat that generally goes to the winning party.
Moreover, the Green Party’s two best hopes for electing members are in B.C. Liberal–held ridings: Oak Bay–Gordon Head and in Saanich North and the Islands. While the Green vote could deny the NDP those two otherwise very winnable seats, it is the Liberals who have the most at risk by losing its current four seats on Vancouver Island, where they now trail the NDP by double digits.
It is the NDP that stands to gain the most from the B.C. Green Party’s “parked support”, about two-thirds of which, at least, is traditionally aligned with the NDP. To the extent that those voters start to believe that the B.C. Liberals might be re-elected, many will likely switch back to the NDP, putting the trailing B.C. Liberals further behind still.
The NDP still enjoys a massive lead in Metro Vancouver, which accounts for nearly half of all seats in the province. Barring an unlikely precipitous drop in its current support, it will likely pick up at least eight to 10 more seats in that region, including Vancouver–Point Grey.
Other swing ridings held by the Liberals are now easily open to the NDP, like Boundary–Similkameen, Cariboo–Chilcotin, Nechako Lakes, Prince George–Mackenzie, and Vernon–Monashee.
By contrast, the B.C. Liberals have little room to grow. As things stand, the NDP is unlikely to lose any of the 35 seats it won in 2009, with the possible exception of Cariboo North. The best the Liberals can really hope for is to hang onto seats they currently hold, at least half of which are all potentially vulnerable.
With all of that fertile ground on the horizon for the NDP, and only a dozen or so extra seats needed to form a comfortable majority, I like the NDP’s odds, to put it mildly.
Just as the latest polls will help to reduce B.C. Liberal voters’ apathy, so too will they reduce the complacency that threatens to reduce voter turnout for the NDP. Hopefully, the prospect of a horse race will help motivate all British Columbians to cast their ballots.