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May 17, 2013

Election Lesson: Don't Get the Cart Before the Horse

Political watchers in general, and New Democrats in particular, will argue for a long time over whether a different NDP campaign or a different leader might have yielded an NDP win on May 14th. There is no way to resolve the "what-ifs" about the election campaign because all we know with certainty is the Liberals did exactly what they predicted with a stunning come from-behind-win.

Like almost all observers, save for exceptions like Trevor Lautens in the North Shore News, I thought the only question on election night would be the size of the NDP majority. Hind sight is twenty-twenty. During the course of the campaign it is doubtful that anyone could have convinced those behind the central NDP campaign to take a different approach because opinion polls pointed to an NDP victory. That produced a campaign focused on managing expectations for a soon-to-be NDP government rather than a campaign aimed at winning votes. In hockey terms, the NDP ragged the puck, confident that its lead was invincible. A wildcard was introduced in the campaign with Dix's announcement on the Kinder Morgan pipeline that caught everyone by surprise, including most NDP candidates. That announcement may have helped the NDP win two Vancouver seats but it framed the Liberal narrative perfectly, possibly contributing to the loss of far more seats elsewhere.

The pollsters also have a lot of explaining to do. They aren't in the business of predicting, although many read the polls as if they were. The companies can always say that they take a snapshot at a point-in-time and things change after that. Angus Reid wrote in the Globe and Mail that "Now, pollsters must figure out how our projections were so off." Good to hear that admitted. Ipsos Reid issued a news release taking a different tack. After pointing out that it is illegal to release polls in BC on election-day before the polls close, they argued:
"In British Columbia, we interviewed 1,400 voters on Election Day and, as you'll see, the numbers virtually matched the real outcome in terms of voter preference. But it also tells a story as to why this happened right down to the last minute. The reality is that one in 10 (11%) BC voters decided in the voting booth on election day to mark their ballot for their candidate-and with one of the lowest turnouts in provincial voting ever (52%) it was motivated voters, Liberals, who bested the NDP in the voting booth."

When all the ballots are counted the turnout could be closer to 56%, not great but much better than 2009. If Ipsos Reid is correct that 11% surprised the pollsters and the parties by deciding in the voting booth, we must ask why those folks were so different from those who decided earlier and if the final result can swing so much, why bother with polls. The Liberals say their internal polls were better and suggested a win. Perhaps the lesson is to do better, more expensive, polling. I wouldn't want to be in the position of trying to get a media outlet to finance a poll in the years ahead.

Some New Democrats cling to the excuse that the Greens cost the party the election. That argument is nonsense. The Greens are not an offshoot of the NDP; they are not soft New Democrats. In Oak Bay Gordon Head where Andrew Weaver made history as the first Green to win a seat in the provincial legislature, the NDP vote dropped from 44% in 2009 to 28% in 2013; the Liberal vote also fell from 47% in 2009 to 30% in 2013. In Sannich North and the Islands, the seat that closely resembles Green MP Elizabeth May's federal riding, a close three way race means the final count on May 26 will determine the outcome. In 2009 that seat went Liberal with 45% of the vote to the NDP's 44%. The early vote in 2013 has the Liberals at 33.01%, the NDP at 33.19% and the Greens at 31.86%, a gap of just 52 votes between the NDP and the Liberal with the Greens 387 behind. It appears that the Greens drew equally from previous Liberal and NDP voters. On a personal level, I know Green supporters who would never consider voting NDP; no one can consider them to be soft New Democrats. Mathematically one can add the NDP and Green votes and compare the sum to the Liberal vote; politically the separate columns are distinct and as mixable as oil and water.

What's next for the NDP?

Once dashed expectations fade, the good news for the NDP is a caucus of 33 (subject to a few seats more or less after the final count with the absentee ballots). Government functions best with a capable opposition; the NDP must demonstrate that it can be credible in that role and not simply withdraw in sorrow for itself. MLAs are well paid and have caucus and constituency staff to assist them. Those resources need to be applied effectively in doing the people's business, not wasted in an exercise of treading water for several years. With a tone that is not shrill and arguments that are reasonable, the Official Opposition needs to show that it is far more than a defeated political party.

Some might argue that what happens between elections doesn't matter since, according to Ipsos Reid, the outcome was determined by 11% of voters who made up their minds when they marked their ballots. Voters may not be as knowledgeable about every twist and turn that political junkies follow with glee, but they pay enough attention to form an opinion, whether that is months or seconds before they vote. The 2013 election shows the last few days of the campaign are extremely important, but it does not support the argument that the four years preceding the vote can be ignored.

The NDP is expected to hold a convention this fall. Whether it goes ahead as planned or is postponed until early 2014, the full executive and the position of leader is up for a vote. If Moe Sihota doesn't step down as president, as he previously indicated he would, there could be a challenge for the position. Some shakeup of the party's executive is a likely consequence of the failed campaign. The convention could also vote to hold a leadership convention. I expect that will happen unless Adrian Dix announces he will not seek to lead the party into the next election. Dix could say that he recommends the party hold a leadership convention in 2016 and that he would be willing to stay as leader until then. A 2016 leadership convention would allow the party to get over the emotion of its loss and it would permit the choice of a new leader to occur in the context of the government's record and other circumstances that will contribute to framing the 2017 election. Leading the party for the next several years might be compared to an exercise in herding cats. Tensions are bound to rise between those who favor a stronger position on economic development versus those who favor a clearer position on the environment. The latter group will claim that an anti-fracking stance would have won more Green votes; the former group will argue that establishing NDP credibility on the economy is essential to an election breakthrough. The Liberals will enjoy the debate, take notes and make use of it in 2017 as they did this year.

What's next for the Liberals?

Premier Clark will have respect and control of her party and caucus that was beyond her grasp before the election. Her MLAs know she won the election for them. Her caucus is large enough to allow her to reward loyalty and deal with trouble makers. She will be challenged to demonstrate statesman-like qualities and not make gaffs that some thought damaged her image over the last two years. She has an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and establish a new image.

The big challenges for the government will be things beyond their control. They campaigned on job creation, LNG, bond ratings, deficit and debt. Their assertions during the campaign were challenged as being fact-free; in the months ahead the government's performance will be measured against its election claims. It will be June or July 2014, 13 months from now, before Public Accounts are available to show whether the 2013-14 year finishes with a deficit or not. Quarterly financial reports, beginning in September 2013, will give early indications as to whether the government is on target or not. Being off could change a negative outlook by the rating agencies into a credit downgrade. It will not be easy to hold government spending to an increase of just 0.8%. Horror stories from hospitals or CLBC could make it necessary to easy the purse strings and run a deficit. The biggest factor on the bottom line will be commodity prices determined by international markets and currently trending down. Watch for any failures to be blamed on those external factors. Comparisons will be made to how BC performs relative to other provinces; however, we've seen how the Liberals spin those comparisons with the jobs numbers to the frustration of everyone who reviews the data. A sad lesson from the election may be that repetition of a political line trumps fact. It is not good enough for the NDP to put out a reality check saying the government is fact-free. The election showed everyone isn't listening all the time; repetition of falsehoods must be countered by equally vigorous and persuasive repetition of rebuttals.

BC politics were dominated over the last four years by constant campaigning, first on the HST referendum and more so in preparation for the election after Clark became leader. Little was accomplished by way of governing. Substantive changes can't happen quickly. If the Clark government has a vision for what it wants to accomplish with its new mandate, I expect to see it in its legislative agenda in 2014 and 2015. The Throne Speech expected when the Legislature next sits, perhaps as early as August, should fill in many of the details on what we can expect with the blank cheque held by Premier Clark.