The foregone conclusion that was supposed to be the B.C. election has suddenly become anything but. And with 11 days left in the campaign, the front-running New Democrats are facing a critical question: Do they stay the course or alter their game plan?
What was a 14-point lead for the NDP over the incumbent Liberals to start the race has shrunk to seven points, according to an Angus Reid poll released Thursday. Other opinion surveys released this week have the contest even tighter. But everyone can agree that this election has begun to turn, and it now seems inconceivable that NDP Leader Adrian Dix will march onwards without some concession to that fact.
The NDP has been running on a fairly modest agenda and a call for change after 12 years of Liberal rule. It's been a campaign marked by a positive tone – a tactic that was always going to be called into question if the Liberals began gaining ground with a harder and more traditional attack-style approach. But now there are also questions surrounding Mr. Dix's about-face on the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, which while winning him votes on the left, may also be costing him support from the centre.
Mr. Dix has maintained that he would not alter his overarching campaign strategy regardless of what the polls said. And certainly to go negative now would look desperate and unprincipled. He could, however, become more impassioned around his general themes and campaign harder – more like someone trailing in the polls than one with a cushy lead. There's no question that Liberal Leader Christy Clark has covered a lot more territory, shaken far more hands, than Mr. Dix, who is not as enamoured with retail politics.
Ms. Clark welcomed news of the shrinking gap, saying more people are subscribing to her view that the NDP would be a disaster for the provincial economy.
Not surprisingly, the NDP Leader played down the latest findings, saying it would not force him into a strategic tack. He said he would continue to stump around a constructive, upbeat message of change and remained confident about the only poll that matters – on Election Day. "I'm very positive about our campaign. I think it's going well."
To some extent, the latest results aren't surprising. A majority of those who were uncommitted at the start of the campaign were identified as having once supported the Liberals. Once the campaign got underway, it highlighted the contrast between the two main parties, and many of those who had been inclined to vote Liberal in the past decided to return home.
There are two matters that may have come into play recently: Mr. Dix's position on the Kinder-Morgan pipeline and Monday's televised leaders' debate.
While Mr. Dix's decision to oppose the proposed expansion of the pipeline – after saying he'd wait for the results of an environmental review – won him points with his core supporters and those inclined to vote Green, it also likely fired up the Liberal base. It allowed Ms. Clark to accuse her opponent of saying no to economic development to satisfy the demands of environmental groups, a message that would echo in the north and interior of the province and even with former Liberals flirting with the BC Conservatives.
Although polls on Monday's leaders' debate gave Mr. Dix the performance edge, that margin was slim. "If there was really a 10- or 14-point difference between the parties prior to the debate, and Mr. Dix won the debate only by three to five points over Ms. Clark, he's winning people who were with him already and she's winning people who weren't with her before. Christy Clark made up ground on people who weren't currently voting for her and Dix didn't," offered Greg Lyle, managing director of the Innovative Research Group.
Mr. Lyle believes the Liberals' campaign theme has been clearer than the New Democrats', something else that could be a factor in the latest results. "The whole thing about a debt-free B.C. says the Liberals know where they're going and they have a vision and plan. What's Dix's vision and plan? The NDP's is not to be the Liberals, one practical step at a time."
He believes that in the days that remain, the New Democrats may have to highlight the difference between themselves and the Liberals; that while the economy is vitally important, it's not the only issue. The environment and looking after the less fortunate are also crucial. Where the incumbents are one-dimensional, the New Democrats are three-dimensional.
Mario Canseco, vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion, believes a decisive factor is what happens to the Green and BC Conservative votes. Approval ratings for Green Party Leader Jane Sterk are much higher than they are for John Cummins of the Conservatives. But it's easier to imagine voting Green, perhaps, when the NDP has a healthy lead in the polls and a vote for Ms. Sterk's forces wouldn't jeopardize the election of a progressive-minded government. With the polls tightening, that calculus changes, Mr. Canseco believes.
And what about the momentum that the Liberals have? Does that count for anything? Mr. Canseco thinks that will ultimately be a question for former Liberals from the right flank of the party who are now potential BC Conservative voters. "The Liberals can now say: We could not unite before the election but this is your moment to come back into the fold. You have a chance to keep us in government. Don't throw away that chance by voting Conservative."
Christy Clark and the Liberals are gaining important ground. The question now is whether they have enough time to make up all the territory that they ultimately need. Right now the NDP still has a lead that would give it a comfortable victory on May 14.