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.


Christy Clark: Canada’s comeback kid

  1. This is unmitigated nonsense. Twisty lost her own riding. She’s fired. She couldn’t even fill out her own ballot.

    The Green party has split public affection with the NDP. That’s the sum and substance of it.

    • Nice try Danny boy – please be quiet for the next 4 years so the rest of us can get on with it

      • “Christy Clark: Canada’s comeback kid”

        Did you read the headline? At least?

        Ms. MacDonald should try again.

      • Liberals inherited a balanced budget and have returned a deficit. Is that what you want to get on with?

    • Yeah except for then fact that the green vote was actually lower this election… Nice try though… Keep to the facts.

      • How did you get 4 votes for this? It’s already been analyzed.

        Let me repaste:

        “But an analysis of the results by The Vancouver Sun reveals that in 12 ridings where the Liberals won, the party got a smaller share of the vote than the NDP and Green party combined.”

        • More to the point, this is an idle fantasy, being a little bit like the old SNL sketch: “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”.

          The Green Party does exist, and will continue to contest elections, not least because its supporters find things to prefer in the Greens or things to dislike in the other parties.

          And a Green vote is not a direct substitution for an NDP vote. In some cases, it is a protest vote (including for voters who would otherwise vote Liberal). In others, it is a “plague on both your houses” vote and you can’t assume that the voter would not simply have stayed home, with the same net effect on the vote totals of the two main parties.
          Others may make choices only between candidates they know/like, or who live in their particular community, or based on the gender of the party leader, etc.

          It may be the case that a majority of Green votes would have voted NDP in the fantasy scenario that there had been no Green candidates – but by no means all of them, so you can’t just add the numbers together

    • She lost her own riding in a close vote, after hardly campaigning there at all. On the other hand, the NDP committed a lot of resources to win that riding and trying to take down the premier. Clark destroyed a huge NDP lead across the province and is still actually premier. Also, drop the idiotic vote-splitting assertion. If you want to play that game, you’d better add the Conservative vote to the Liberal vote, and the left still loses.

      • “But an analysis of the results by The Vancouver Sun reveals that in 12 ridings where the Liberals won, the party got a smaller share of the vote than the NDP and Green party combined.
        Had Green voters in those 12 ridings all voted for their NDP candidate instead, the final seat count Tuesday night would have been 45 for the NDP, 38 for the Liberals, one Green and one independent.”



        Moral: don’t make assertions of idiocy without checking the facts.


        • As I mentioned on your other post, the numbers say that Liberals+Conservatives would’ve gotten 45 seats vs. 39 for NDP+Green. If you’re going to play the vote splitting game, take a look at both sides. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the only Canadian political parties who’ve ever managed to reverse the effect of vote splitting by merging have been on the right of the spectrum. The left ends up squabbling over petty details.

          • The Conservative base is a crank case. They are not going to vote or think Liberal. NDP/Green have a natural affinity. That’s why the Sun made that analysis. There’s nothing ‘idiotic’ about it.

          • If you want to salve your feelings with the notion that this election result was attributable simply to a split left wing vote, go ahead. It isn’t that simple, and it’s also moot. You don’t actually know why people voted the way that they did, and you also don’t know how they’d have voted were the choice of parties different. If the Greens weren’t around, perhaps some of those voters wouldn’t have voted at all. If the Green environmental policies were stressed in a merged party, perhaps some of the more trades-oriented vote would’ve drifted to the Liberals. The same effect applies to the BC Conservatives. Yes, they’re historically a party of cranks. However, most of their recent momentum was derived from disaffected Liberal supporters looking for a more right-wing place to part their votes. If the BC Conservatives didn’t exist or were rolled into the Liberals, it’s hard to tell how it would play out. What’s ridiculous is picking one hypothetical scenario where the numbers would’ve delivered what you consider a favorable outcome and pitching that as “What Really Should Have Happened.” Grow up.

          • Amen. What connections, for example, do old SoCreds have with the BC Liberal party? With the BC Conservative party? Answer: lots in each case.

        • I voted green but would never vote NDP. Many folks I know voted that way. How presumptuous to assume just because you are green you would support big labour mentality? Many centre-rights folks are much greener than many ‘lefties’ I know.

    • Except that the Greens’ popular vote declined….

  2. The real question here should be if the NDP ever actually had a lead.

    Oh sure, the pollsters said they did. As we’ve seen yet again, the pollsters have no clue what they’re talking about. They can’t predict actual results, because they’re sampling an ever smaller segment of the population and can’t tell who among it will actually show up to vote.

    With turnout below 50%, figuring out who will show up is key to getting polling right. They’ve failed utterly at it, and that means every poll taken during this whole process is suspect. I believe that in fact the NDP was never nearly as far ahead as the pollsters claimed in terms of votes from people who would actually show up on election day.

    And really, those are the only ones that matter.

    • Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. It’s a device used frequently by armchair pundits when they’re summing up the results of an election. Hindsight is usually called into play to help them appear as if they know what actually transpired. And that, when you weigh everything carefully in the balance, is all that really matters.

    • I agree. I’m not claiming to know what happened but when looking at polls its important to remember two things:

      – Their methodology may be suspect (which some of the pollsters are suggesting is the case due to an over-reliance on online polls).
      – What people express to a poll does not necessarily relate to how they are going to vote. I don’t mean that people lie to pollsters, but if you ask someone who they will vote for two months before an election you are really asking them to express an opinion on the parties, which is not the same as actually making a choice when you vote.

    • I think the pollsters have a couple of big problems to address.

      First, there’s the issue of identifying likely voters. They’ve got to come up with a better system to identify them in order to weight their results with some accuracy.

      Second, polling is a snapshot in time that can’t always capture quick trends. The Liberals’ polling numbers had been steadily improving throughout the campaign. Each poll took several days to complete, and the last were reported several days before the election. Did they fail to extrapolate the trend? Did the trend accelerate over the weekend as opinion shifted against the NDP? There’s also the “Feiler Faster Thesis” trumpeted by blogger Mickey Kaus: information disseminates faster now than ever before. Could last-minute campaigning and issues like the old NDP policy documents have changed opinion faster than the pollsters could measure it?

  3. The cat came back,
    They thought she was a goner,
    But the cat came back,
    The cat came back to stay.

  4. Christy neglected her own riding in favor of campaigning in other ridings for her party. I doubt there is an elected Liberal member today who wouldn’t willingly give up their seat to a leader who saw them take the party from much predicted defeat to overwhelming victory.

  5. Congratulations to the Liberal / Conservatives, it seems we now have the best democracy money can buy!

  6. I hope Christy asks a member of the 801 club (who spent a lot of time during the campaign disrespecting her) to step down so she can run a bi-election in that riding.

    As Sam Sullivan said last night, Christy Clark is the only reason the Liberals are still in government.

    • I downloaded the results from Elections BC and ran a similar but slightly different analysis. I totalled NDP+Green and Liberal+Conservative for each riding. The result was Liberal+Conservative=45 seats and NDP+Green=39 seats. If you’re going to bother with this “split the vote” nonsense, you may as well apply the same logic to both ends of the spectrum.

      • If you can show mainstream analysts doing a Liberal/Conservative analysis, it would be good math, but unnatural politics.

        • Well, you should read the last paragraph in the Vancouver Sun article you reference.

        • If pigs could fly. If is a supposition or condition. Wishful thinking, which in this particular case, is about events that might have occurred if the election results turned out differently. If the NDP had won as was predicted, would you still be ranting about the dreadful inequality of it all? If I had the answer to that I probably wouldn’t be wasting my time posting this comment.

  7. If the NDP couldn’t win this go round when will they ever be able to win. I think the NDPs real problem was having Adrian Dix as their leader they should have picked a respected moderate with no ties to disastrous Glen Clark regime. However now that the Green party candidates can be seen as electorally viable the Green Party is very likely in ascendancy while the NDP will start declining.

  8. Clark looks like ‘a kewpie doll’ in this picture…Is there not a local station in BC that needs a weather girl…..reminds me of the director at the CRA office in Toronto where 1 just retired from….TOTALLY FAKE……

    Hi Christi…..you should write a book with Sarah Palin…..You could look right through each other ears and see ‘The Grand Canyon’ Harper could pass ‘a pipeline’ right through her brain…..Nothing there…How about replacing Kim Kardashian during her pregnancy….

    • the difference between christi

  9. The left was split between Greens/NDP… too bad.

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