Elections in British Columbia are always an uphill battle for the New Democratic Party and, despite polls putting it ahead, this one is no different.
As the electoral history of this province has demonstrated, a lot has to go right for the NDP to win a general vote. More often than not, triumph is the result of some breakdown in the centre-right coalition that has ruled British Columbia, under a couple of different political institutions, for all but 13 of the past 65 years. The conditions for that type of wholesale collapse are not evident this time around.
That certainly does not mean the NDP could not still win. To do that, it would have to persuade enough people who may have voted Liberal in the past (but are progressive-minded) to switch parties this time around.
Recent polling done by the Innovative Research Group (IRG) revealed results that, on many levels, the New Democrats have to feel good about. Given the findings, the party's message of "change" would appear to stand a good chance of resonating with voters.
For instance, more than six in 10 (62 per cent) of those surveyed by IRG agreed with the statement it is "time for a change in government" in British Columbia while 69 per cent concurred with the view "the BC Liberals act without listening to the people directly affected." (Interestingly, nearly 60 per cent of those who identified as BC Liberals agreed with that statement). Meantime, 66 per cent said they thought the "top people in the BC Liberals treat government like their own private club," while roughly the same amount felt the "government had lost touch with the needs of the average person."
IRG interviewed more than 400 British Columbians of voting age in late February and early March of this year.
This feedback would likely have been similar to what the NDP received when the party went into the field in the months prior to the start of the election, an encouraging response that would have helped craft its change mantra. On the surface then, this would seem to set the stage for one of those rare NDP victories in the province.
Not so fast, says Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research, and a veteran of political campaigns in British Columbia going back to the 1980s.
While British Columbians are undoubtedly dissatisfied with the Liberal government on many counts, Mr. Lyle does not believe that enmity is deeply entrenched. In his March poll, he asked those surveyed to respond to the assessment: "I am so angry at the BC Liberal party I will never vote for them again." Just 34 per cent of respondents agreed.
"That is a pretty low number," Mr. Lyle said in an interview. "People might be upset at the government, but how motivated are they to do something about it? That is the key question. And our poll indicated that the anger level is not very deep, so the Liberals would have to be encouraged by that."
He said the number was also small compared with the responses in other provinces to the same question. In Quebec, for instance, it was 46 per cent, Ontario, 43 per cent, and Alberta 42 per cent. So even though 55 per cent of people polled in British Columbia said it's time for a change, the level of anger inside that response is what campaign strategists are looking at. That will tell the parties how serious people are about going in a new direction.
"Are they saying, 'I wish I had a better government or I need a better government?" Mr. Lyle said. "And that is a big difference. People can be frustrated, but when push comes to shove, are they willing to change because they are completely fed up? Our polling shows that deep well of anger at the Liberals and Christy Clark just isn't there."
While Mr. Lyle holds the view the NDP is in tough given the significant seat advantage the Liberals hold, he is someone who knows first-hand anything can happen. He was campaign director for the Liberals in 1996, the year Gordon Campbell led them into battle and lost, even though the party received more of the popular vote.
Could that happen again? Mr. Lyle thinks so, but this time it could be the NDP at the bitter losing end of that equation.
"The more likely scenario this time would be NDP wins more votes, but Liberals win more seats because of the distribution of votes among seats," he said. "What has changed since '96 is the Libs have strengthened their hold on rural seats and the NDP have done better in urban seats. So that means, bottom line, the NDP could be a bit ahead in the polls and still lose the election."
Which would be almost too cruel to imagine if you're a long-suffering New Democrat.