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November 30, 2010

A Guide to Leadership Races

Leadership races are more fun than a barrel of monkeys for political junkies, regardless of their personal political preference. Occurring less often than general elections, a contest within a political party can require strategies far more complex than those employed in a general election.

The BC Liberals have made their race extra complex by calling a constitutional convention for February 12, just two weeks before party members vote. Under the current constitution, a new leader gets elected by receiving a majority of votes from all members who vote. Under the proposed system a new leader gets elected by receiving a majority of weighted votes, with weights determined so that each of the 85 constituencies is counted the same whether it has 100 members or 5,000 members. It is possible that the same votes counted under each of the two systems would yield different winners, so leadership campaigns have to cover their bases and either try to influence the February 12th convention or campaign so as to win under either set of rules.

Candidates talk about traveling the province so as to visit each of the 85 constituencies, but they cannot be confident that all members who are eligible to vote will attend their meetings. Effective campaigns will have techniques to reach every eligible voter so as to identify their vote and get their supporters out to vote on February 26th. Identification techniques will include phone banks, foot-canvassing, direct-mail and use of the Internet. As has become the case in general elections, caller-ID and voice-mail will frustrate even the best efforts to reach voters. Campaigns won't work their way through the membership list from A to Z; they will first approach the movers-and-shakers in each constituency, including the presidents, members of constituency executives, past convention delegates and election workers. Those people will be asked for their support and urged to work in the campaign to influence others. Depending on how that is handled, it can turn former friends against each other (says the voice of experience).

Candidates cannot presume that eligible voters will make up their minds until a few days before the vote, and they have to assume that it may take several ballots to determine a winner (using either multiple rounds of voting, or a preferential ballot). That means they have to be nice to the other candidates because they want to ask supporters of their opponents to give them their second or third preference if they can't be convinced to give them top billing. Consequently arguments need to be developed to move eligible voters and a second or third round of canvassing will be useful so as to determine how to pull the vote.

Most eligible voters will be looking for the candidate who will stand the best chance of winning the next general election. Unlike whoever succeeds Danny Williams, the next leader of the BC Liberals will inherit a mess left by Gordon Campbell. Candidates need to use the media to speak to all British Columbians in an effort to influence polls that will probably be used by campaigns in an attempt to sway how members in the BC Liberal party vote.

Before his November 3rd announcement that he would resign once a replacement had been chosen, an Angus Reid poll indicated that Campbell had an approval rating of just 12%. Leadership hopefuls face the dilemma that most British Columbians want to hear them distance themselves from Campbell but they are not only tied to him by what they said on the public record, but they also have to worry that the 12% support for Campbell might be 84% amongst card carrying BC Liberals. By speaking so as to appeal to all BC voters, they risk antagonizing their party's base.

One of the mysteries for observers of the BC Liberal leadership race is the number of eligible voters and how they are distributed between the 85 constituencies. The cutoff date for new members is mid-January, but there is little incentive to engage in membership recruitment if the voting rules are changed to use weighted votes. The size and distribution of the membership is crucial, however, when campaigns decide how to allocate their budgets. Rules set by the party's executive are rumoured to limit spending by each candidate to $450,000. This is the first leadership race for the BC Liberals since the Elections Act was amended, requiring every penny raised and every penny spent by each candidate to be reported to Elections BC and made public within 90 days of the vote. The party set spending limit sounds like a lot of money, but experienced campaign managers could effectively spend much more.

Unless campaigns want to shoot in the dark, they need to pay for polling that tests arguments and they could benefit from focus groups that test what they think they learn from the polls. Effective use of those techniques is behind most successful advertising and political campaigns; those techniques aren't cheap. Once each campaign gathers its intelligence, they will be ready to start contacting eligible voters. Pity the people who paid $10 for a four year membership in the BC Liberals; with a half dozen leadership campaigns attempting to phone them two or three times, they won't have any peace. At least Ranger the cat will respect their privacy.

It will be interesting to see if the leadership campaign captures much public interest. It's fascinating for pundits but the public may have written off the BC Liberal brand name. Angus Reid will likely release three new polls before February 26th and another within two weeks of the vote. All the candidates must be hoping that the winner doesn't fall as flat as Campbell did following his aborted 15% personal income tax cut.