So welcome to successful election campaigning in the twenty-first century! British Columbians are doing a lot of head scratching now, trying to figure out how a clear NDP lead in all the expert public opinion polls turned into a crushing defeat for the party.
Some are pointing at particular issues and platform planks. Was NDP leader Adrian Dix’s decision to “go green” and double down on his rejection of the Northern Gateway pipeline with a stinging rejection of Kinder-Morgan’s yet-to-be-submitted proposal for its own pipeline expansion a step too far from the political mainstream?
Or did the relentlessly negative attacks on Mr. Dix’s political baggage by the Liberals convince voters that he just didn’t have the ethical compass and personal integrity expected of a provincial premier?
These and other steps and missteps on the campaign trail probably played a part, but the underlying reasons for New Democratic dismay on the morning after lie more with their misunderstanding of political campaigning in this century – and with the provincial Liberals’ embrace of just such successful techniques.
Chief among those techniques is clarity and repetition of one central message. Like Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the 2011 federal campaign, Premier Christy Clark harped relentlessly on the theme of building a strong economy and preserving stable government handling of its finances.
It didn’t matter government’s “jobs plan” had failed to deliver the goods – that British Columbia ranked in the bottom half of provinces in job creation over the last two years. Nor did it matter that no reputable analyst thought that the claimed “balanced budget” tabled by the Liberals prior to the election had actually achieved that goal after five years of deficits.
What did matter was the consistency and relentless repetition by Ms. Clark of the message. Commentators pointed out the flimsy basis of the Liberal claims. They bemoaned the “fact-free” campaign rhetoric and railed about the boredom of one-note campaigning.
The same criticisms were leveled at Mr. Harper’s campaign. But, like Mr. Harper, Ms. Clark stuck to the strategy, ignored the whining, bored punditry, and was rewarded by victory.
Mr. Dix, on the other hand, seemed to announce a new policy, a new initiative, a different priority every other day. That fit his own policy-wonk inclinations and his party’s desire to have a solution for every problem, but it confused the voters. They couldn’t summarize the NDP’s vision on a postcard, and gravitated to a message they could remember.
Let’s be blunt. Unlike political commentators, the electorate does not read party platforms, pore over provincial budgets, or value policy sophistication. Indeed, most of them rarely even tune into political discourse, and only about half of them bother to get to the polls. Simplicity and repetition work.
A second campaign technique is to define the opposition before they can define themselves. Mr. Harper has perfected this technique in federal politics, savagely and successfully attacking the last two Liberal leaders. The jury is out on the effect of the Conservative assault on Justin Trudeau, but the technique has been a winner in the past.
Although Mr. Dix had been the B.C. NDP leader for two years, a huge number of British Columbians knew little or nothing about him before the election began. And once it did, Mr. Dix’s fraudulent “memo to file” in the late 1990s was presented as the touchstone of his character. The Clark campaign defined him before he could define himself.
On the other hand, the New Democrats committed to running to a “positive campaign.” For all four weeks of the campaign, Mr. Dix said nothing negative about Ms. Clark’s personal qualities and, until the last week of the campaign, offered little stinging criticism of the Liberal record in office.
Maybe a personal attack on Ms. Clark would have been too much, although a TV ad featuring a mother deciding to speed through a red light with her son in the car would have been interesting. But the New Democrats also played nice in their critique of the blunders of the Liberal government.
The New Democrats’ campaign slogan was “Change for the Better.” But they spent little time defining what they wanted change from. Maybe the assumption was that everyone knew about the HST debacle, the attempts to neuter the Auditor General, the “quick wins” ethic vote sleaze, and policy blunders and miscues too numerous to list. They had 12 years of Liberal screw-ups to choose from, and chose to mention very few of them.
Their silence allowed Ms. Clark to move into the vacuum and define herself as the champion of balanced budgets, debt reduction, and job creation - despite all evidence to the contrary.
Even worse was the New Democrat’s failure to fight back against the Liberal’s negative campaign. Leave aside the attacks on Mr. Dix’s personal character: Ms. Clark was able to present the NDP governments of the 1990s as an unmitigated disaster, with hardly a dissenting word from the Dix campaign. Contrast that with the U.S. Democratic party’s relentless counterattack to every slur aimed at Barack Obama or his record in office.
Brian Topp, the New Democrats campaign manager, was deeply involved in Jack Layton’s campaign. And the positive nature of that 2011 effort is often praised as the reason the NDP moved from also ran to official opposition. Maybe eschewing the negative and accenting the positive works to elect an opposition; it certainly didn’t elect a government in B.C.
Why the pollsters were as surprised as the public by the election results is a question they must address. They didn’t see the Liberal rebound coming and neither did the NDP. They, and political commentators, would do well to remember that the techniques of campaigning are often more important than the content.
Paul Ramsey was a cabinet minister in British Columbia NDP governments from 1993 to 2001. After leaving political life, he has taught Political Science at the University of Northern British Columbia.