British Columbians are accustomed to surprising election results, from the evisceration of the Social Credit party in 1991 to the NDP win in 1996, when Gordon Campbell’s Liberals actually had the greater share of the popular vote.
In many cases, political observers say, voters who begin the campaign undecided end up making the difference.
Allan Warnke, a political scientist at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, saw the dynamic play out in 1991 when he ran for the fledgling B.C. Liberals, who went from zero seats to 17 and opposition status. Mr. Warnke, who won in Richmond-Steveston that year, noted there was a huge undecided vote at the time. “That meant anything could happen, and it did,” he said, referring in part to the demise of Social Credit, which had been a “natural governing party” but ended up with only seven seats.
Mr. Warnke said the undecideds can shift dramatically if a key event in a campaign galvanizes support. In 1991, that event came when Liberal leader Gordon Wilson got off a memorable one-liner in the televised debate. Mr. Wilson seized on an exchange between NDP leader Michael Harcourt and Social Credit leader Rita Johnston to declare: “Here’s a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia.”
“That was it,” Mr. Warnke said. “That’s all it took.”
Norman Ruff, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, said election campaigns have come to matter more, appealing to voters who don’t pay attention until the writ is dropped: “The old notion that people carried around a fundamental political party ID has gone by the boards.”
The quest for more information about party policies and platforms is an emerging theme among readers who make up The Globe and Mail’s new “Undecided in B.C.” panel – 40 voters we’ve brought together online to discuss the campaign and the factors that will go into the decision they make at the ballot box on May 14.
“The greatest challenge for me over the years has been the increasing lack of information issued by parties during election campaigns,” wrote Chrystal Ocean, a retiree from Duncan, adding that she is even considering spoiling her ballot this year. “I have become more, not less, undecided over the years.”
Pollster Mario Canseco says undecided levels have been running between 12 and 20 per cent in his surveys, signalling that some voters are awaiting the campaign to decide where to throw their support.
“There’s always this component of the electorate that votes, but waits until the last week [of the campaign] to make up their minds,” said Mr. Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion.
Several panelists said they wanted to see concrete party platforms sooner rather than later. Typically, parties release their platforms only after the campaign has officially begun – even though B.C. now has fixed election dates.
Nicolas Eisenkraft, a millwright from Surrey, represents some of the sentiment of the panel – in tone if not specifics: “The Green Party offers a platform that appeals to me ideologically, but I normally try to vote as pragmatically as possible. … Although I have voted for the B.C. Liberals in the past, I no longer feel that they have the best intentions or even offer the most competent leadership. The NDP could win my vote if they were to be more forthright with their policy platform, but they just seem to be running on populist rage. … So the dilemma for me is pragmatism or ideology.”
Mr. Canseco said the last-minute nature of many voters’ decision-making creates a pool of voters accessible to the parties.
Strategists are aware of that group, but there are also “soft” voters who have parked their support somewhere but may not stick with that choice when faced with a ballot. Those are often voters who backed one party in the last election but have since drifted. The B.C. NDP has a much higher rate of voter retention than the B.C. Liberals, so this is a particular issue for Christy Clark’s team.
“You could argue there’s a chance for the B.C. Liberals to re-engage with them and bring them back into the fold,” Mr. Canseco said, “[but] there’s also the possibility of those voters being finally swayed by the NDP if they see it as an option they can support.”
The Liberals have been seeking to rebrand the party since the moment they elected Ms. Clark two years ago to replace Mr. Campbell, who was supposed to take the baggage of the harmonized sales tax with him. “From our standpoint, the undecided are an opportunity,” a senior Liberal strategist explained. “It’s a question of people coming home.”
As they clamour for more information to help make their election-day choice, panelists have voiced their concerns on a variety of subjects. No single issue has emerged as the consensus ballot-box question so far, although in a challenging week for the B.C. Liberals, the theme of integrity in government has been raised often.
“It is a woeful thing when your elected officials are in no way trusted and it is assumed that there is nothing going on besides backroom deals and ‘insider’ trading, so to speak,” education assistant Scott Guthrie of Victoria wrote. “This is not to say that the Opposition would be any better than this – it is a whole new culture of politics that seems to pervade all parties.”
Other main issues so far include jobs and the economy, the government’s ability to manage finances, the tension between developing resources and protecting the environment, transit, and the traditional hot-button topics of health care and education. These issues can overlap in many ways, panelists frequently noted.
Said Blair Mirau, a Nisga’a government economic development officer in Prince Rupert: “It seems that the majority of British Columbians … are looking for an election platform that clearly states what the government’s priorities will be on a year-to-year and four-year-term basis.”
As the campaign unfolds, The Globe and Mail will give readers an inside look at the panel’s deliberations. Will undecided voters hold the power to decide the election? Follow along for the answers.
With a report from Justine Hunter