For the past year, the B.C. Liberals, mired in scandals of their own doing, have been polling at least 20 points behind the NDP. Last week, the ground suddenly shifted. A Forum Research Inc. poll put the Liberals just four points behind the NDP. Later that day, Angus Reid released similar results, putting the Liberals seven points behind the NDP. And with that, the provincial election which, for the better part of a year, had been looking like a cakewalk for the NDP’s Adrian Dix, started to resemble a comeback tale for the ages for Clark’s Liberal team.
With just five days remaining before British Columbians head to the polls, it remains hard to imagine that Clark might actually close the gap. Crucially, Angus Reid puts the Liberals 10 points behind the NDP in the vote-rich ridings of B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Still, no one ever imagined the race would get this close, nor that Clark, whose two-year tenure has been marred by controversy and scandal, would perform as well as she has in the last four weeks.
Here are the 10 reasons for the Liberal surge:
1. Clark’s highly effective campaign
The Liberals have managed to frame the conversation on fiscal and economic issues—taxes, government spending and major projects like pipelines, liquefied natural gas and fracking—on which they are strong. That makes the NDP, who promise to increase taxes and government spending, show little to no interest in balancing the budget, and oppose resource mega-projects look like a risky choice. The NDP can’t seem to play their advantage, and turn the conversation to health care and education.
2. The NDP’s decision to come out against Kinder Morgan
Dix, worried about bleeding votes to the B.C. Greens, came out against the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion two weeks ago. It was a disastrous choice.
Green Party support remains unmoved. And it’s given Clark room to claim that resource development will come to a standstill under Dix—who also opposes Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline plan—killing jobs and wrecking B.C.’s shaky economy.
Dix’s stunning flip-flop has also alienated centrists, and is forcing those considering parking their vote with the Conservatives to think again.
3. The disastrous Conservative campaign
After last week’s debate, the tweet, “Cummins went full Gran Torino” was trending on Twitter—a reference to the 71-year-old B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins’ cranky incoherence during the April 29 leader’s debate. Again and again, Cummins, the only leader to rely on notes, repeated that the Liberals and NDP would “tax British Columbians to oblivion,” whatever that means. (“It’s possible,” said one observer, “that the only thing written on those notes was ‘Taxes = Bad.’ ”)
Cummins has had to fire four candidates since the campaign began; and the party, who saw support hit record levels ahead of the campaign, is looking more and more like a hopeless bunch of cranks. Potential Conservative voters have been running home to the Liberals ever since the writ was dropped.
4. Debate performance
Ahead of the debate, the media narrative said that Dix just had to show up, and not embarrass himself. He did both those things, and media commentators gave him the edge coming out of the debate. But the B.C. media are used to Clark’s slick communications skills. Regular British Columbians are not. They saw something very different on April 29. Dix, who began the debate with a shaking voice, often looked terrified, even when leaning stiffly against the podium, an apparent attempt to appear relaxed. (Some in the Liberal war room were playing a drinking game, knocking back every time Dix rested against his lectern.) By contrast, Clark, a former radio show host, looked polished, at ease and was quick to pounce.
Dix may not have fumbled; but only one leader looked electable that night. Polls released later that week confirmed that the televised debate had changed a lot of minds.
The bookish NDP leader has what one analyst has dubbed a “charisma deficit.” Clark’s best assets, meanwhile, are “her personality, her optimism, her attitude,” says the University of the Fraser Valley’s Hamish Telford.
The Clark campaign has been regularly tweeting photos of the premier in hard hats, hands dirty, all smiles. It’s cheesy stuff, but it works. Dix, who was recently photographed in a goofy bowler hat in historic Barkerille, has been running a cautious, defensive campaign, limiting scrums to one a day, and restricting media access.
It took his campaign almost four weeks to finally grant Maclean’s a 10-minute interview—after near-daily rescheduling and endless dickering over when and where the interview would be conducted and how the article would be framed.
The Clark campaign had the premier on the phone within days. They had no questions nor qualms about the tone of the interview or the article itself.
6. Attack ads
Voters may claim to hate attack ads. But research shows they have their desired impact on voting behaviour. From the start, Clark’s team has been running brutal attack ads against Dix. Yesterday came the release of yet another—a clip from the televised leader’s debate where Dix was asked a question about “memogate.” (Thirteen years ago, when he was B.C. premier Glen Clark’s chief of staff, Dix backdated a memo in an attempt to protect the premier from conflict-of-interest charges. Clark, it was alleged, had traded a renovation to his East Vancouver home from an applicant for a successful casino license.)
“It was my mistake, I take responsibility,” Dix said. “I was 35 years old.” It was a cringe-worthy line—at 35, he was neither young nor inexperienced, and the Liberals pounced, including the clip in a new online attack ad.
7. Being forthright
Where does Dix stand on the labour code? On fracking? On liquefied natural gas? On balancing the budget? Who knows? Details, Dix says, will be revealed after the vote, raising suspicion, and providing further ammo for the Liberals.
Clark’s obsessive faith in liquefied natural gas (LNG) as the province’s salvation may seem tiresome. But at least voters know where she stands on the issue.
Dix, despite insisting he wouldn’t run negative campaign ads, began doing just that three days ago, attacking the Liberals for “years of scandals,” and of “mismanagement and misleading voters.” All fair game—though after months of making hay of his “positive” campaign, it seems a little disingenuous to suddenly reverse that promise. With less than a week to go, look for the NDP to get even more aggressive.
8. The economic climate
Dix may have won endorsements from noted environmentalists like Tzeporah Berman by opposing both proposed pipelines through B.C., pledging to maintain moratoriums on tanker traffic, promising environmental reviews on fracking and calling into question LNG—one of the few bright spots in B.C., beyond the condo market. But it’s a hard sell to regular British Columbians in this economic climate, particularly when Dix is also promising major spending increases. Even support for the Keystone XL pipeline is growing in the U.S., amid polls showing that people’s desperation for jobs outweighs their concerns for the climate.
9. The Canucks early playoff exit
Two years ago, Christy Clark’s government held a referendum on the HST in the middle of the Canucks’ Stanley Cup run. Campaigners had to struggle to be heard through the din. Few tuned in, spoiling door-knocking plans and derailing pro-HST messaging. The harmonized tax, of course, failed on the June 30, 2011, vote.
This week, the city’s beloved Canucks became the first team to exit the playoffs, unceremoniously swept in four straight game by San Jose. All of a sudden, British Columbians are tuning into an election campaign that had, until now, been seen as the second-most important race in town.
10. Polls don’t tell a complete story
Pollsters in recent elections have looked red-faced, notably in Alberta, where they predicted a Wildrose majority in October 2011, only to see the Conservatives returned to power with a comfortable majority. Pollsters similarly didn’t have a clue that the NDP would wipe out the Bloc in Quebec in the 2011 federal election; and the Conservative minority they predicted was actually a comfortable majority for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Liberals are desperately hoping the Alberta scenario repeats in B.C., where pollsters are still predicting an NDP majority.