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Christy Clark: Canada’s comeback kid

Nancy Macdonald on lessons from the B.C. campaign


 

First things first: British Columbians last night witnessed the most incredible comeback in recent political history, and the biggest choke the province has ever seen.

In the days ahead, Christy Clark’s stunning, come-from-behind win will be endlessly compared to Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s surprise win over Wildrose in 2011. But this is so much harder to believe.

For starters, Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives were actually leading Wildrose in polls right up until the election. The B.C. Liberals have essentially been trailing the NDP since 2009 (briefly, after the 2011 leadership race that saw Clark take the Liberal helm, the party moved ahead of the NDP in polls before again plunging far behind).

And in Alberta, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith made serious campaign blunders. Many Albertans scurried back to the PCs, worried Smith wasn’t ready for prime time. But B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix made no major mistakes. In fact, Dix’s campaign had so impressed the Globe and Mail that yesterday it published a premature ode to his campaign. Dix’s positive style would surely become a model for politicians across the country, it argued.

Just how historic was the Liberal win? Going back 20 years, there are no examples of a government in a parliamentary system trailing by such a wide margin for the 18 months leading up to an election, then coming from behind for the win.

And the Liberals didn’t just win; they increased their seat count, giving Clark a comfortable, 50-seat majority (the NDP won just 32 seats).

Those results almost perfectly reversed predictions of pollsters who, after yet another spectacularly bad call, will certainly face tough questions.

Days before the election, the country’s biggest polling firms, Angus Reid and Ipsos Reid had Dix’s NDP almost 10 per cent ahead of the Liberals.
Summing up the mood, one Vancouver paper ran a front-page photo of Dix with the banner headline: “If this man kicked a dog he’d still win the election.”

But it wasn’t just pollsters and pundits. Shortly after polls closed in B.C. last night, two Liberal cabinet ministers quietly conceded defeat to media; one hoped the Liberal party might hang on to 25 seats, but admitted that was probably optimistic.

Indeed, expectations were so low among Liberals the party had rented a tiny room at Vancouver’s Wall Centre for election night. Even when, at 9:10 p.m., CTV leapfrogged local media with an early prediction of a Liberal majority, Liberal HQ remained eerily empty. There wasn’t a single minister or high profile Liberal on hand for interviews; they’d all planned to skip the wake.

Sam Sullivan, the former Vancouver mayor who was elected under the Liberal banner in Vancouver-False Creek, best captured the mood: “Over the past 24 hours I have gone through the five stages of mourning,” he said. “I was angry, I negotiated, I tried to bargain my way out. Eventually, I came to a really unhappy acceptance of the death of our political vision.”

Then, “I woke,” he continued, and we’d “risen from the dead. What a miracle.” Christy Clark, he added, “is God.”

Across town, in the massive hall the NDP had rented for what the party had expected would be a runaway victory, slack-jawed New Democrats quietly hugged before trickling out into the night. Few remained for Dix’s concession speech (where he was mistakenly introduced as “B.C.’s next premier”).

It’s our duty to accept [voters’] decision and to accept responsibility for these results,” said Dix, likely foreshadowing his resignation later this week. After all, just four weeks ago, his party held a 20-point lead over the Liberals. He let the NDP’s best chance in over a decade slip through his fingers.

At this point, it’s worth considering what the NDP did wrong, and what Clark’s Liberal team did so right.

The federal NDP, which picked up three new seats in B.C. in 2011, desperately wanted an NDP government in Victoria. To this end, the party dispatched the braintrust behind the party’s so-called Orange Crush electoral breakthrough in 2011 to help Dix in B.C. The campaign dream team consisted of NDP president Brian Topp, Anne McGrath, Jack Layton’s former chief of staff, and Brad Lavigne, Layton’s principle secretary.

But that meant Dix’s campaign was run by a trio of Ontarians, who didn’t seem to understand B.C., its unique politics, nor what makes its voters tick.

In an attempt to match the NDP’s strategic might, Clark’s team imported legendary Queen’s Park strategist Don Guy. But Guy’s role was advisory; Clark’s team was mostly headed by local talent.

Clark’s daily photo-ops showed the premier hard at work: in an orange hard hat at a new sawmill in northern B.C., in blue coveralls at a gas plant, serving up a plate of burgers at a restaurant. Cheesy stuff, sure, but it helped Clark frame the conversation around fiscal and economic issues—taxes, government spending and major projects like pipelines, liquefied natural gas and fracking—on which the Liberals are strong.

Dix’s campaign imagery, meanwhile, was Laytonesque: at every stop, the NDP leader was framed by smiling supporters. But instead of coming off as unthreatening, Dix appeared increasingly uninspiring.

Much ink has been spilled over the NDP’s feel-good campaign, which was modeled on Layton’s successful 2011 campaign. But Ontario and B.C. are worlds apart. Hugs and positivity worked well for “Smiling Jack” in Quebec and Ontario. But in B.C., with its long history of ugly, polarized politics and knock-out brawls, the strategy got the NDP nowhere.

And Dix, bookish, awkward and shy, has nothing like Layton’s magnetism and warmth.

From the start, Clark’s team has been running attack ads casting Dix as untrustworthy and out of control with billions of dollars in campaign promises. Voters may claim to hate ads like these, but research consistently shows they work. Days before the election, the Clark campaign put Dix’s face on a weather vane, flip-flopping in the wind, a particularly deft spot.

Finally, in the days before the vote, the NDP countered, and began to release negative campaign ads of its own. But “we waited too long to remind people of the Liberal’s scandals and lies,” NDP strategist Marcella Munro acknowledged last night. By then, the public, once so desperate to flog the Liberals for their many sins, had forgotten what it was they were so mad about in the first place.

In the end, Clark’s remarkable campaign offers up a few lessons: campaigns do matter. In politics, charisma goes a long way. And polls are meaningless—as the premier herself kept repeating like a mantra. At the time, however, few believed her.

“It’s tempting to look at polls like a horse race. But when people walk into a polling booth, they’re making a deeply individual choice for the future,” she told Maclean’s five weeks ago. “Polls don’t mean what people do when they get into the polling booth.” It turns out she was right.


 

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