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Dog-eared Tory playbook failed to score for BC Liberals

British Columbia’s unique pandemic snap election is over, and while we wait for postal votes to be counted, the outcome of a majority mandate for the BC New Democratic Party (NDP) is not in doubt. Research Co.

British Columbia’s unique pandemic snap election is over, and while we wait for postal votes to be counted, the outcome of a majority mandate for the BC New Democratic Party (NDP) is not in doubt.

Research Co. and Glacier Media asked a few questions of British Columbians who participated in this democratic process and found a public that holds differing views on the campaigns.

More than half of the province’s voters describe the campaigns of the BC NDP (59%) and the BC Green Party (53%) as “positive.” The electorate is divided when analyzing the performance of the BC Liberals, with 41% saying their campaign was “positive” and 46% branding it as “negative.”

Casual political observers may point to specific events as the moments that defined this race. The numbers, which we tracked from start to finish, show that the contest was effectively over before it began.

There was an extraordinary emotional advantage for the BC NDP. Premier John Horgan enjoyed an approval rating of more than 60%, in a province showing the highest level of satisfaction in Canada with the way COVID-19 has been handled. The pandemic that made the BC NDP remarkably popular also blocked the BC Liberals from campaigning the way they have magnificently done in the past: shaking hands and filling auditoriums.

The BC Liberals appeared to adopt the playbook of the 2005-06 federal Conservative Party foray that ended Paul Martin’s tenure as Prime Minister of Canada. The policy cornerstone of that campaign was a promised reduction to the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The idea was introduced after a relentless effort that focused on the ethical dilemmas plaguing the federal Liberal Party over the “sponsorship scandal.”

The 2005-06 Conservatives were successful because they planted the seed of doubt in an electorate that was already wary of the Martin government, established an emotional connection with voters and ultimately offered a policy morsel that could garner headlines and was easily relatable. This year, the BC Liberals failed because their efforts to pin the BC NDP into a corner on the decision to call an election were futile – regardless of how many ill-designed surveys purported to show a majority of residents in absolute dismay.

Asking the wrong question will garner data that can confuse candidates, campaign organizers and reporters – but never voters. There was no visceral reaction against the BC NDP once the writs were dropped. Without a negative response towards a popular leader, there was little hope of courting voters with a promise of a revamped Provincial Sales Tax (PST). By the midway point of the campaign, BC Liberals leader Andrew Wilkinson trailed Horgan on every single issue tested, including economic management.

The third week of the campaign was dominated by a virtual roast for a retiring candidate. What could have been a five-hour story on a weekend became a quagmire, partly because of the inability of supposedly seasoned organizers to figure out just how damaging the footage was.

In our “exit poll,” more than half of British Columbians who voted in this election (55%) said they would be “very upset” if the BC Liberals formed the government again. A different leader would have made the party more appealing. The opinion of voters on former Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who led in the first four rounds of the BC Liberals leadership election in 2017 only to be overtaken by Wilkinson in the final count, remains extremely positive.

We found that 39% of voters in British Columbia would have cast a ballot for the BC Liberals with Dianne Watts as leader. This includes 44% of those aged 18 to 34, 43% of Metro Vancouverites and 23% of those who voted for the BC NDP. Under Watts, campaign controversies would have been handled differently and there would have been an opportunity to court New Democrats.

The “exit poll” also compared the behaviour of the province’s electorate in this provincial election with what voters did a year ago when they cast ballots at the federal level. The results show that the identification of provincial and federal NDP voters remains strong. More than two in five British Columbians who supported the New Democrats federally in 2019 (42%) did so provincially in 2020.

What is striking, and an issue that definitely affected the fortunes of the main opposition party, is a crack in the coalition of federal Conservatives and Liberals that had proven immensely successful in previous elections this century. We found that 60% of British Columbians who voted for the federal Conservatives in 2019 stayed with the BC Liberals in this year’s provincial election, while 17% went to the BC NDP. The numbers are bleaker among federal Liberal voters, with 31% voting for Wilkinson’s BC Liberals and 25% supporting Horgan’s BC NDP.

The re-elected government will have to assemble a cabinet that will be more diverse on gender, ethnicity and region than ever before. The notion of a centre-left party that would link the two partners of the last minority mandate is contentious. Almost half of BC NDP voters (46%) would welcome this idea, but only 30% of BC Green Party voters are willing to join.

The future success of the BC Liberals, whether in their current form or after a rebranding exercise, will hinge on becoming attractive to pragmatic voters who flocked to the BC NDP this year. A movement to reunite the centre-right is attractive, with 62% of those who voted for the BC Liberals welcoming a merger with the BC Conservatives. A quick glance at the results in the Fraser Valley makes this argument even stronger.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.


Results are based on an online study conducted from October 22 to October 25, 2020, among 832 adult British Columbians who voted in the 2020 provincial election. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.