In the 2009 B.C. election, both the main parties on the ballot smacked into a ceiling of voter support. In the countdown to election 2013, one of them seems to have cracked it.
By the time the polls closed on May 12, 2009, voters delivered the same market share as they had in the 2005 vote: to the Liberals, 46 per cent of the popular vote and to the New Democrats, 42 per cent. The results were the product of a two-party system in which both parties had plateaued.
B.C. politics has provided a roller coaster ride since. Internal strife forced both those parties to replace their leaders. And we’ve witnessed the rise and fall of a third party. The ride is not over, but last week an Angus Reid poll suggested the Adrian Dix-led NDP is sitting with an almost unheard of 49 per cent of popular support.
Mr. Dix is the beneficiary of voter dissatisfaction with Premier Christy Clark and her government. But give some credit, too, to his brand of bland politics, which has opened his party’s tent to former Liberal supporters. The pollsters found that one in five voters who marked their ballot for the Liberals in 2009 would now vote for the NDP.
In 2009, both parties presented variations of a centrist platform, but neither captivated voters. Both the NDP and the Liberals lost tens of thousands of voters compared to 2005, and half of eligible voters stayed home.
Given those results, there is little surprise that both parties have thrown out their old scripts on the path to the 2013 election.
Premier Clark has been all about rebranding the B.C. Liberals. Initially she earned the moniker “Premier Mom” with her Family Day holiday and minimum-wage hikes. But the tenor changed as support for the B.C. Conservatives grew. Her chief advisers were replaced with well-connected federal Conservatives, and the focus shifted to jobs and the economy.
More recently, many of those advisers have departed and Ms. Clark appears to be tacking back to the political centre, talking tough on oil pipelines and seeking peace with B.C.’s teachers.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dix has not deviated from a tight set of talking points. He has reached out to business, sought to gain credibility on economic issues, and preached moderation and civility.
“The real rebranding here is the NDP,” said Mario Canseco, pollster for Angus Reid Public Opinion. “The NDP are not seen any more by the average voter as something that is terrifying.”
Mr. Canseco said Mr. Dix has moved to the centre politically, but mostly he has gained ground by being circumspect. “They have been very careful about what not to touch.”
As for Ms. Clark, Mr. Canseco said, voters have seen too much – too many policy twists and turns – and at the same time, not enough. “They need to focus on two or three things – and follow through on them,” he said. “There is one thing she has that Adrian doesn’t, and that’s a majority in the legislature. Do something compelling with that.”
Since the Premier opted not to hold a fall session in the legislature, her next major policy event will be at the party convention next week. But the tone of that meeting has already been set. The intent is to scorch the Earth for the B.C. Conservatives, leaving no chance for them to bounce back.
Liberal MLA Bill Bennett, who is helping write his party’s election platform, said the objective is to restore the party’s traditional coalition forces. Then it’s just a matter of getting people to look at the NDP record, and he is confident the party’s base will come home in time for the next election.
“There is not a chance in the world that 49 per cent of voters will vote NDP,” he said.
NDP party president Moe Sihota said it doesn’t really matter which segment of voters the Premier chooses to reach out to next week. “I call it jitterbug desperation. When you are behind, sometimes you try too hard to curry favour with the voter.”