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B.C. Premier Christy Clark talks to the media before the May 14 election campaign’s lone televised leaders’ debate. (B.C. Liberal Party)
B.C. Premier Christy Clark talks to the media before the May 14 election campaign’s lone televised leaders’ debate. (B.C. Liberal Party)

Anatomy of a comeback: How Christy Clark beat the odds Add to ...

Six days before British Columbians cast their votes last month, Dimitri Pantazopoulos made a prediction that astonished his colleagues in the Liberal Party’s campaign war room.

As the party’s pollster, he was known for nightly reports that were optimistic but not overly specific. The joke was that he could speak for five minutes and say nothing.

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But this time Rich Coleman, campaign co-chair and veritable godfather of the party, wanted a number.

The answer he received: “Right now, I see 48.”

The room grew quiet, as the many doubters cast steely glances at the 45-year-old Mr. Pantazopoulos. There are 85 seats in B.C., so he had just predicted something they found difficult to believe: a clear majority.

By the eve of the election, their skepticism was keeping him up until midnight, going over his data in an attempt to see where he might have gone wrong.

“I couldn’t find anything,” he recalls. “I was either going to look like a genius or misfire in spectacular fashion.”

There was no misfire. The following night, the leader of the Liberals took the stage at the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver to give an acceptance speech that wasn’t supposed to be.

As the music died, she leaned toward the microphone and said: “Well, that was easy.”

A great roar went up because, throughout the campaign, opinion polls had her well behind the New Democrats of Adrian Dix. After 12 years in office, her party appeared to face certain defeat.

Instead, she one-upped her pollster by taking 49 seats in arguably the greatest political comeback in B.C. history.

How? Good political campaigns have staple ingredients, while strategy – how the staples are used – is a secretive science whose practitioners can be notoriously tight-lipped.

But some of the insiders who know just what went on have agreed to share their insights on the resurrection of Christy Clark.

It is a feat that, as well as being of national significance (it keeps a key ally of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in office), will be studied by political organizers for many years to come.

1. Wise man from the East

The first step on the road to victory came six months before election day, and thousands of kilometres away, in Three Small Rooms, the famed restaurant at Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel.

A quiet refuge for high-profile players, it was perfect for two political leaders to have a discreet rendezvous. In town to visit an ailing friend, Ms. Clark had asked Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty if he were free for coffee.

A month earlier, he had announced that he was leaving his office – she wanted his help in hanging on to hers. He had led four election campaigns and she, having become premier in mid-term, was facing her first.

They talked for 90 minutes, she recalls, and “Dalton gave me three critically important pieces of advice. ‘When you get off that bus every day remember everything is on your shoulders,’ he said. ‘In that moment you have to be perfect in communicating what it is you’re trying to do.’”

He also said to have someone on her bus whose advice she could trust completely and, probably the easiest advice for her to follow, told her: “Christy, you have a great smile. Don’t forget to have a good time, because people can tell if you enjoy talking to them. Smile as much as you can.”

Yet, words of wisdom aren’t all she received from Mr. McGuinty.

The battle squad assembled by Mike McDonald, her campaign director and long-time friend, included Don Guy, the brilliant political strategist behind many come-from-behind McGuinty victories, and Laura Miller who, as deputy chief of staff, had handled communications and strategy for the Ontario premier.

Another veteran of Queen’s Park, Ben Chin, had left broadcast journalism to work for Mr. McGuinty and came west as communications adviser to Ms. Clark.

The confidant for her bus she found closer to home: Brad Bennett, a scion of perhaps B.C.’s most famous political family. His father and grandfather – premiers Bill and W.A.C. Bennett – ran B.C. for more than three decades combined. A successful real-estate developer in the Okanagan Valley, he has been often asked to enter politics, but agreeing to hit the road with Ms. Clark is as close as he has come.

Also part of the inner circle, Mr. Pantazopoulos had served as the Premier’s principal secretary after coming from the federal Conservatives (not unusual for B.C. whose free-enterprise Liberals inherited many conservative-minded backers of the old Social Credit party of the Bennetts).

The outsized presence of Bob Rennie, the high-profile Vancouver condo marketer and international art collector, could also be felt in the war room. In his trademark dark suit and Converse sneakers, he helped to raise millions for the campaign, but offered moral support as well (as the Premier took to the stage on election night, he whispered in her ear: “Just be you.”)

By the time Ms. Clark returned from meeting Mr. McGuinty, the Liberal campaign strategy had begun to take shape. The goal was to persuade an electorate unimpressed by her uneven track record over two years in office that the Premier was better than she was being portrayed.

A month earlier, she’d had a good start with an upbeat party convention, which Mr. Rennie later admitted was critical to an election fundraiser he was planning. Had she bombed, he would have called it off instead of bringing in $2-million.

The convention also helped her attract several prominent candidates, including paralympic gold medalist Michelle Stilwell. Political commentators had suggested that dreadful polling numbers and her often bumpy time in office would scare away credible contenders. Proving them wrong was a sign of her estimable powers of persuasion, which would come in very handy once the race was on. By then they also had a campaign theme, which Mr. Pantazopoulos had left his post as Ms. Clark’s principal secretary to help identify.

“It was important for us to understand what our strengths and vulnerabilities were with voters,” he now says, “but also what the NDP’s strengths and vulnerabilities were – and how we could take advantage of them.”

The polling and focus groups he conducted across the province pointed the Liberals toward the economy: Even though the provincial debt had expanded on their watch, the issue still played to their perceived strength and the underlying weakness of any social democratic party.

2. Paternal inspiration

While Liberal strategists were certain of the election’s key issue, they still didn’t have an over-arching narrative – a campaign message that would connect with voters emotionally.

By late February, Mr. Guy, 48, had arrived from Ontario. About to speak at a “campaign college” for Liberal candidates, Ms. Clark consulted him and Mike McDonald about what to say.

“Say what you want this campaign to be about,” Mr. Guy recalls saying, “because, at the end of the day, what we’re running on is your leadership, your vision and your conviction. We can turn that into the message.”

On Feb. 26, in the same ballroom where she would give her election night victory address, Ms. Clark gave one of her best speeches – without notes, just speaking from her heart. She talked about the opportunity the province had to reap the riches from liquefied natural gas and leave future generations better off. She mentioned her deceased parents, Jim and Mavis, and her middle-class upbringing with three siblings in a modest, three-bedroom home near Oakalla prison in suburban Burnaby.

She told the crowd how her father not only made sure the family home was mortgage-free and all his debts paid off before he died but even pre-paid his funeral expenses. Surrounded by candidates, she had party organizers in the crowd enthralled.

“The speech kind of came out of nowhere and lit the room on fire,” Mr. Guy says. “I remember listening and thinking: ‘That’s it. I think we’ve got it.’”

That message was simple: Don’t spend what you don’t have; don’t burden future generations with debt; leave the world better off for your kids than what you had.

Joined by Don Millar, their resident advertising guru, the Liberal brain trust parsed the speech for talking points and potential slogans, coming up with “Strong economy, secure tomorrow,” the main campaign credo.

They also decided to channel Ms. Clark’s father for a campaign catch phrase: Debt Free B.C. Several were tested in focus groups, but that one “resonated with people as an aspiration,” Mr. Pantazopoulos says. “There’s some skepticism for sure, but at least you’re trying to get there.”

With their slogans in place, attention was turned to the half-hour TV commercial Mr. McDonald wanted to produce to erase memories of Ms. Clark’s previous shortcomings and present her in a new light. He knew that, as a former radio talk-show host, she was at her best with regular folks discussing everyday life.

Mr. Pantazopolous was not sold on the idea – $100,000-plus was a lot of money and he suspected few viewers would sit through 30 minutes of a politician talking. But he underestimated the creative magic of Mr. Millar, who had filmed Ms. Clark the previous year at a small-town Canada Day celebration where she served pancakes and square-danced with seniors. On the way home, he and his creative partner, Eric Hogan, had gushed about what they had. It would form the basis of the ad; writing a script to fit the pictures and the economic message would be easy.

The commercial aired on April 14 – two days before the campaign kickoff. “We knew the electorate was volatile – the TV special was our reset button, our chance to reintroduce Christy,” says Mr. McDonald, 44. “It was incredibly well received, and we had ... some solid momentum heading into the campaign.”

On the morning the race was to begin, Mr. Dix paid a surprise visit to Vancouver-Point Grey, sending a clear message that he was intent on taking the key riding, which includes the University of British Columbia and neighbouring Kitsilano – and which Ms. Clark had won by only 500 votes in a 2011 by-election after becoming party leader.

A Liberal stronghold it was not, and the war room was irate. “He went to her riding to kick her in the face before she’d even gone to see the lieutenant-governor,” says Neil Sweeney, a senior policy adviser. “It spoke to the arrogance of their campaign.”

And the Liberals had a weapon: controversial comments about aboriginals and francophones an NDP candidate had posted to a blog a few years before.

“We decided to drop the ‘candidate bomb’ ... because of what Dix did when he visited Point Grey,” Mr. Sweeney says. “That was a sign from us to them that we were not going to take this lying down, that they’d better be prepared. I don’t think they ever woke up to that, to be honest.”

Even later, when a Liberal TV ad mentioned his infamous “memo-to-file” imbroglio (in 1999, as chief of staff to NDP premier Glen Clark, he forged a memo to shield his boss from a conflict-of-interest accusation), Mr. Dix was upset at what he considered a personal attack.

“It was naive for the NDP to think we wouldn’t bring it up,” Mr. McDonald argues. “But the memo wasn’t the defining issue of the campaign – it was the economy.”

In any event, as a smiling Christy Clark visited the lieutenant-governor later that day to launch the race, Adrian Dix was having to fire his candidate. The Liberals had taken an early advantage.

3. The problem with polls

The party’s internal numbers were never as grim as those from big-name pollsters such as Ipsos-Reid and Angus Reid. Mr. McDonald says that, even in February, the Liberals were only 10 points behind the NDP – about half the gap others suggested.

Then a memo outlining a cynical strategy to woo ethnic voters was linked to staff in Ms. Clark’s office and cost some momentum coming off the provincial budget released that month, but by April the gap was closing again.

Heading into the election, Mr. Pantazopoulos estimated that the Liberals were down 13 points, not the 19 cited by Ipsos. The plan was to focus on 59 ridings (29 of them considered good bets) – the only ones in which the Liberals did any polling before and during the campaign.

From the beginning, the goal was to put Ms. Clark into as many of those ridings as possible – and into places where she could best discuss jobs and the importance of sound fiscal management. Organizers sought industrial venues where she emerged in hard hat, safety glasses and work boots (a set was custom-ordered to fit perfectly, including coveralls with her name across the front).

To no-one’s surprise, she made an early visit to northeast B.C., where she could talk about her plan to exploit the region’s natural gas, which she estimated could be worth more than a trillion dollars and help to make B.C. debt-free in 15 to 20 years.

The party also went to the expense of hiring a satellite-transmission truck so television reporters could get their footage out more easily from remote parts of the province.

“Pictures were extremely important,” Mr. McDonald says. “We had a candidate who looked great. We wanted to take advantage of that.” Mr. Sweeney says the Liberals also were better at marrying their message to the pictures. “If you looked at the 6 o’clock news, we were annihilating them every night.”

One early campaign stop was Burns Lake, a remote community northwest of Prince George that a year earlier had lost its sawmill in a fire. It is small and out of the way, but Ms. Clark had personal reasons for going: Her visit to the town just after the fire had been one of her tougher moments as Premier, says communications adviser Ben Chin.

“She tells the story of walking into the community centre and having everyone just looking at her,” he explains. “Without saying a word, their eyes said: ‘What are you going to do for me?’

“The whole town depends on this mill. She couldn’t promise the mill would reopen because she didn’t know.”

The government assured the U.S.-based owners they would have a ready supply of timber, so the mill is being rebuilt. Watching his boss speak at the ground-breaking ceremony, says Mr. Chin, 49, brought tears to his eyes. “That’s when I knew I was working for the right person.”

Meanwhile, the NDP was behaving as though the election were a foregone conclusion. It also had a very different take on the economy, and spent the first 10 days of the campaign laying out a platform that would include deficits the first three years of its mandate and hundreds of millions in spending promises.

This was just what the Clark team had been waiting for.

The Liberals had released their platform before the campaign, praying the NDP would angle for sustained media coverage by unveiling its program over the first week or so. This would allow them to create the image of a party willing to rack up bills with no real plan to pay them.

“It just made that out-of-control spending dynamic that we were trying to reinforce that much more powerful, and frankly easier,” Mr. Guy says. “It played right into our hands.”

To track the spending spree (and drive home the point), the Liberals erected the Spend-o-Meter, a grandiose electronic billboard, in a prominent location south of Vancouver.

Then came the coup de grâce.

4. ‘Kinder surprise’

The NDP campaign was in Kamloops on Monday, April 22. It was Earth Day, and Adrian Dix decided to commemorate the annual show of support for environmental protection by making a surprising announcement.

If elected, he declared, the NDP would thwart a proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline carrying Alberta crude oil to suburban Vancouver.

Mr. Dix had already stated his opposition to Northern Gateway, the controversial new pipeline being planned, but had taken a different view with Kinder Morgan. He had said that, as a matter of principle, he would wait to see the company’s complete proposal before taking a position.

Now he was reversing course, saying he had decided in January he was opposed – a view not shared with his NDP colleagues, many of whom were stunned.

Initial reaction from the Liberals was muted. “We were confused at first,” Neil Sweeney recalls. “We couldn’t believe that he just woke up that day and decided to make that move ... We were trying to figure out why he did it, what was in it for them. Eventually, however, it occurred to us the gift that he’d given us.”

It was a defining moment in the campaign, and presented many opportunities: The ad hoc nature of the announcement dovetailed nicely with Liberal criticism of Dix policies as haphazard and ill-conceived. It also undermined Mr. Dix’s contention that he was principled and could be trusted not to make decisions for purely political gain.

Perhaps most important of all, Liberals could say the move showed how little the NDP cared about economic development.

It also showed how little they had learned from the past.

Brad Bennett recalls that, 30 years ago, his Social Credit father was well behind challenger Dave Barrett heading into the backstretch of a campaign. But then the NDP leader announced he would abandon the economic-restraint program his rival had introduced to deal with a recession plaguing the province.

“That was the Kinder moment of 1983,” Mr. Bennett says. “We jumped all over it.”

Four days after the “Kinder Surprise,” party leaders squared off in a radio debate. Within minutes, Mr. Dix realized the ammunition he had handed Ms. Clark.

“She got up inside his chest,” Mr. Guy says, and it seemed to have a lasting impact. “I think he was upset that he got rattled, and consequently he was too hot in the TV debate three days later.”

Don Millar was in charge of preparations for the TV debate, which he viewed as a “positive communications opportunity” for Ms. Clark, a chance to talk directly to voters.

“We form instantaneous judgments about the people with whom we’re dealing; television elevates that,” he says. “You have to be cool. People don’t want to be yelled at in their living rooms.

“At the same time, people can sense a level of sincerity. That’s where Christy scored big points, in the way she connected with, what, 1.4 million viewers.”

Kinder Morgan came up but didn’t dominate the debate, which many commentators felt Mr. Dix narrowly won, based on content, although Ms. Clark looked most like a premier.

“I think there was an expectation that perhaps she wouldn’t be that swift and would be eaten alive by this guy who was a policy wonk. And she not only held her own, she gained ground,” Mr. Pantazopoulos says.

“In terms of male voters 55 and older, our support soared,” Mr. McDonald recalls. “Sure, the NDP had us in terms of voters 16 to 34, but that didn’t reflect turnout reality. Typically, a lot of people in that age group don’t vote.”

Even women, who had been an elusive target for Ms. Clark, started moving her way. Internal polling showed a rise of seven points among women and 10 points for voters 55 and older.

5. The tide turns

Heading into the weekend following the TV debate, the war room was a jumble of excited energy. The Liberals figured 30 of their target seats were so solid, they didn’t bother tracking them any longer, and focused on the remaining 29. They, too, seemed promising, but Mr. McDonald worried that public polls still showed the party well behind.

He even considered joining the campaign tour himself “to demonstrate how we could win,” and prepared by drafting notes. Under the heading “NDP mistakes,” he wrote: “Running a strategy to impress elites – media, business, labour but not really speaking to voters,” and “Not touring. Bubble wrap. He’s not tested. Lulled into complacency by poll numbers.”

Next, the Liberals unveiled their version of an advertisement that has been used in U.S. elections to portray a rival as indecisive and untrustworthy.

The 30-second spot shows Mr. Dix’s head atop a weathervane that changes direction with each blast of wind as a storm erupts in the background. The message appears only at the end: “weak leadership, weak economy.”

“We went into focus groups with the ad and the people were really intrigued,” Don Millar says. “They found it very entertaining and thought-provoking. There were no words which allowed people to crystallize their own thoughts – way more powerful than telling them what to think.”

Eric Hogan saw how the focus group reacted and declared: “This is a knockout punch.”

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Ms. Clark was a machine. She had her organizers carve out 60 minutes every day for a workout, which she felt would give her more energy. As she was stumping in as many as seven places a day, Mr. Dix sometimes made only two or three stops.

She says she didn’t touch a drop of alcohol for all 28 days of the campaign, both to conserve strength and as a sign of discipline. She also hammered the same message every day, which Mr. Dix admits he failed to do.

It was Don Guy’s task to ensure she didn’t get bored and deviate from the central theme – “It’s about the economy” – posted on the war-room wall. “Every day a new set of voters pays attention for the first time,” he says. “And Christy totally embraced that. I don’t think I ever saw anyone have a better time campaigning.”

On the bus, Brad Bennett turned out to be an important sounding board. He would listen to Ms. Clark’s pitch at stop after stop, and look for signs in the crowd of what was resonating and what was not. If required, the message was tweaked.

Every morning on the road began with a call to the war room to discuss the day ahead – and the day before. “I’d start the meeting by asking: ‘Did we win the day?’” Ms. Clark says. “And most of the time, they’d say: ‘Yes, we won the day.’ And then I’d say: ‘And tomorrow we’re waking up and the score is 0-0.’”

She never asked for daily poll numbers, but good news on that front usually got to her. Dimitri Pantazopoulos lived for those numbers. His day typically started with a 4:30 a.m. review of the overnight tracking numbers.

As each day passed, those numbers told a story quite contrary to that of the big-name public pollsters. The disparity between his phone surveys and theirs done on the Internet caused him many sleepless nights, especially in the closing days of the campaign.

“Ipsos is a $100-million-plus company, Angus Reid is the grandfather of polling in Canada,” he says. “I’m not that arrogant to think I’m right and everybody else is wrong. But then you look at the data and say: Either they’re making a systemic error or I am.”

By the end his numbers were so good that two days before the vote, Mike McDonald sent an update to campaign directors across the province, a four-page memo entitled The Road to Victory that set out why the party could win – and called on them to get out the vote.

On the last day, Ms. Clark made nine appearances, while Mr. Dix – alerted to the danger by his own polls and what his candidates were hearing – made a desperate, 24-hour mad dash around the province. It was too little, too late. He had simply been outworked and out-strategized.

The next night, the Premier and her team assembled in two sprawling suites at the Sheraton. Although confident, she knew that crazy things happen in politics, especially in B.C.

But within an hour of the polls’ closing, the outcome was obvious. At 9:05 p.m., CTV-BC called a Liberal win and soon afterward a Liberal majority.

Other networks didn’t make a call until much later, as if they didn’t believe what they were seeing.

Up in her room, Christy Clark sat in jeans and a T-shirt watching the returns with Hamish, her 11-year-old son, and ex-husband Mark Marissen, a highly regarded political strategist who had helped on the campaign. The smile never left her face.

After a congratulatory call from Mr. Dix, she prepared to head downstairs for her speech. But first she told her son he could miss school in the morning.

“No way,” Hamish replied. “I’m going, so I can tell all those boys who were making fun of me, saying you were going to lose, that they were wrong.

“You won, Mom. You won.”

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