Pundits, polls and pack journalism - BC's wild year in politics

Pundits, polls and pack journalism: BC’s wild year in politics


Pundits, polls and pack journalism - BC's wild year in politics

by Sid Tafler

As 2013 winds down, veteran BC journalist Sid Tafler looks back at the province’s 2013 election and the surprising (to some) victory of the BC Liberal Party.

On the night of the BC election, a supporter of Green Party candidate Andrew Weaver told a TV reporter he was overjoyed at Weaver’s win in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. Then he added that he was devastated at the overall result – a fourth consecutive Liberal majority.

Well, I guess the take-away message is, if you don’t vote to defeat the party in power, you vote to elect them.

That’s just one lesson of the May 14 election, in which the Liberals supposedly overcame a substantial NDP lead to win a surprise victory, even increasing their seat count by four.

I say supposedly because only the naïve, including most of the political media in this province, would have thought the NDP – who have only won three elections of 23 in the last 80 years – were a shoo-in as the campaign began in mid-April. That’s just a little better than a 10% success rate, or a 90% failure rate.

It could be argued that if the NDP lost the election, so did the political media, who might have done better if they did more reporting and less repeating. Throughout the campaign, members of the press gallery and the rest of the media were fixated on the polls, which formed the subtext of the entire election, instead of the issues, the campaign itself and, most importantly, the record of the government seeking our confidence in a new mandate.

Polls apart

But what about those opinion polls? Didn’t they all say the NDP was sure to win the election?

Well, we should all know by now that polls, in the age of cell phones and voter apathy, are predictably unreliable. Take two other provincial elections last year as examples. The polls were wrong in the Quebec election, predicting a PQ majority government (the result was a PQ minority, with the supposedly spent Liberals virtually tying the PQ in the popular vote and nearly winning re-election) and wrong again in the Alberta election, in which the upstart Wild Rose party was predicted to cruise to victory (instead the Conservatives cruised and the Wild Rose crashed).

Notice the commonality here with these two elections and the Liberal victory in BC? In all three cases, the party in power attracted much more support on election day than they did in the polls.

The conclusion is that opinion polls, mostly conducted months or weeks before the election, are about the past – the government’s record. Hypothetically, if I were to vote today, a month before the election, I would throw the bums out. Look at all those scandals and, hey, they hiked my Mom’s care home fee by 40%. But the actual election, those 30 seconds I spend alone in the voting booth, are about the future, my fears, my job, or the job I hope to have, which the government in power is promising. So let’s play it safe and throw the bums in. In a nutshell, how you would vote may be very different from how you do vote, or even if you vote.

If they’re so unreliable, why did the B.C. media give the polls so much credence leading up to and during the campaign? The only answer I can provide is laziness or a failure of motivation. It’s so easy to be handed the results of a poll and then slice and dice the numbers, get reaction from the parties, candidates and pundits, compare it to last week’s poll, rather than dig around for real campaign coverage and analysis. It’s great publicity for the polling companies, and it’s FREE! But as Christy Clark said as she licked her fingers after the election, you get what you pay for.

Would vs. Will

There are other psychological factors at play when the polls predict a victory for the NDP opposition. Some soft NDP supporters feel they don’t have to bother to vote — after all, it’s such a bother to draw two lines over a piece of paper to form an X. Others feel they can vote Green — sure, let’s have a Green MLA or two in a legislature dominated by the NDP government.

The absence of all those non-voters of every political persuasion or state of indecision is a major factor, especially since they form — and distort — part of the sample of respondents to opinion polls. “Here’s how I would vote,” they tell pollsters, but on election day, they don’t bother. In the early 1980s, the turnout of eligible voters in BC was in the 70% range, but in the 2009 and 2013 elections, it sank to the low 50s. The difference is 600,000 people in B.C. who would rather watch Duck Dynasty than choose which government decides trivial questions like how our children are educated, whether the doctor will be there when you have a heart attack, or what you’ll pay for hydro or even if BC Hydro will exist in the years to come.

Back in 1984, I commissioned and conducted a poll of the Victoria riding for Monday Magazine a few weeks before the federal election. As the results of our in-house poll came in, I felt a little guilty compiling the numbers and sharing them with readers. What right did I have to know the intention of the electorate before they voted? As it turned out, the poll — phoning and methodology supplied by UVic students — was almost a mirror image of the result on election day. In the 1980s, people still answered their phones, read newspapers (remember them?) and believed it was their civic duty to participate in the electoral system, by actually voting, and even telling nosy pollsters what party they supported.

So what happened between then and now? Here’s a partial list: mobile phones, electronic voice mail, call display, digital autodialing, privacy concerns, a disengaged, diminished media, and of course, the forementioned voter apathy and alienation.

These factors form high barriers between pollsters and potential voters. While you’re trying to reach me, I’m in the bar with my cell phone, and the land line you’re calling is out of order because I cancelled it last year. Or I check call display and don’t answer because I don’t know who you are — or because I do and don’t want to talk to you. Or I pick up the receiver, then hang up again during the telltale one-second delay while the auto-dialer in your calling system shuttles the call to a live pollster. Or you actually reach me, but no, I won’t tell you how I’m going to vote, because it’s none of your business, and who the hell are you anyway?

Other pollsters use robocalls or online polls, but the evidence is, these methods may be even less accurate than live calling.

The difficulty of reaching voters also seriously affects the political parties themselves, especially the NDP, which uses hundreds of volunteer callers at sweaty campaign phone banks calling for hours on end – and, in many cases, getting little usable data from voters. It seems like a terrible waste of time, but the callers are eager and unpaid, so at least it keeps them busy and gives them the illusion of helping the campaign.

So the misdirected campaign run by the supposedly poll-leading NDP was the fourth wobbly leg of the election footstool, already unbalanced by misleading polls, absentee voters and distracted media.

NDP campaign to blame too

Adrian Dix and the other brain trusters in the NDP backrooms decided they were going to redefine politics in B.C., from the stick-and-knife fight of the last century to a genteel garden tea party. The NDP would stay positive and refuse to stoop to the level of name-calling and mud-throwing of the nasty, supposedly desperate Liberals. Fine idea, except they never asked Christy Clark nor the rest of us if we approved.

So when the Liberals attacked Dix, often with lies and distortions, just as often he didn’t respond, nor did he exploit the government’s nasty scandals and disastrous mismanagement and policy flops (BC Hydro, BC Rail, HST, BC Ferries among others).

Just imagine telling your professional hockey team to refrain from body-checking because it’s not nice. You’d lose every game, until your players limped off the ice and quit.

And Dix utterly failed to articulate his own vision of government. The Liberals did it in a single word: Jobs (whether you believe them or not).

So just what did the NDP stand for? During the campaign, I scoured the websites of Victoria area NDP candidates like Carole James, Rob Fleming, Jessica Van der Veen. What local policies did they support — funding for the new Johnson Street bridge, approval or not for the highly controversial sewage treatment program (mandated by the Liberal government, but considered wasteful and misguided by many people in the capital)?

I found nothing about policy on these candidates’ pages, neither provincial nor local — a big goose egg. The message was vote for us just because. These websites are crucial, because a quick browse online is how many people make last-minute decisions these days about where to eat dinner, go on holidays, or pick the party that will run the province for the next four years.

The campaign, other than out-moded joe-jobs like door-knocking and phoning, was being managed by the heavy thinkers at party HQ in Burnaby, who gave the voters fuzzy messaging and the Liberals a pass on all their wrong-doing, failed policies and dubious promises. Like the navigator of the Queen of the North, they blithely ran into a reef and scuttled the ship.

And there the ship will remain until they find the courage to choose a capable new leader and conduct a thorough overhaul of party personnel and tactics aimed at running a party and campaign designed for the 21st century.

And the rest of us? We must learn to ignore the polls, demand more of our media and vote both for and against the parties running to form the government.

Sid Tafler is  has been a journalist in BC for 30 years. He is a former contributor and columnist for the Globe and Mail and editor of Monday Magazine.


5 thoughts on “Pundits, polls and pack journalism: BC’s wild year in politics

  1. I agree about complacency contributed to the loss. I spent two years warning anyone who would listen about it, warned the party many times, plastered comment boards…but I’m only one person, only one vote.

    From complacency came adventurousness: some erstwhile NDP supporters thought it was safe to vote Green. Overall, the Green vote-splitting phenomenon wasn’t as pronounced as it had been in the previous two BC elections, when the Greens definitely contributed to BC Liberal wins. However, in my Comox Valley riding, where the past five elections at both levels have been denied the NDP because of Green support, the Green vote actually increased by about 25%—that’s substantial.

    Complacency was such an easily recognized threat to the NDP that one has to wonder how it was used tactically by rivals or whether polling numbers were intentionally inflated to increase the effect (motive and opportunity existed). We do know the NDP’s riding by riding polling was lacking, so which ridings needed extra effort could not be discerned. Obviously someone must have presumed it wasn’t necessary. The BC Liberals, in contrast, cake-walked to the finish on a few eye-popping promises. The fact that the NDP seemed to be sleepwalking to the finish as if they had it in the bag probably exacerbated the complacency effect.

    I happen to know MLAs, ministers and former ministers advised Dix more than once to get a new suit and start mixing it up yet he stubbornly refused, citing his desire to run a “positive” campaign. But I don’t believe it. I think Dix was afraid if he started ripping into the government’s sorry record they would respond with a furious volley of accusations regarding his memo transgression fifteen years earlier. Dix watched support drop dramatically as the campaign proceeded, then got spooked into making a completely unnecessary policy shift on Kinder Morgan, ostensibly to hold Greens off his flank. Neither strategy worked.

    I got worried when I heard to the words, “positive campaign”. I thought, “Aw, he’s just saying that. Just wait: when the campaign gets going he’ll unleash the hounds.” Unfortunately my fears were confirmed upon meeting our NDP candidate. A nice lady, yes, but too nice. She deftly stick-handled around committing to any position—-except the same ones as the BC Liberal incumbent, saying the candidates didn’t have their policy directive yet. She’d obviously been told not to “go negative”. Every hot button issue which she could have used to damn the BC Liberals to oblivion was responded to with “we’ll find a balance” or “we’ll study this before making a decision”. Are you kidding? What about the Raven Coal Mine proposal? What about the cable ferry and BC Hydro? I realized then we were probably doomed. The victorious Don MacRae, now a BC Liberal cabinet minister, announced the rejection of the mine’s application within a day or so of winning. Now there’s someone who was listening and that single act will probably hold him in good stead.

    I simply can’t believe the theory that Bosenkool and Topp were enemy operatives who talked Dix into a losing strategy. It’s more likely that Dix was too influenced by the Jamesite faction of which he is a solid member. Still, it’s hard to believe he didn’t understand, after the existential caucus revolt, that her own positive campaign strategy was the malady that needed purging. Nope, I think it was his fear, and futile hope, that he could leave memo-gate behind by not provoking his rival with the accusations of perfidiousness they so blatantly display. Didn’t work— Christy slagged him anyway.

    In retrospect I’m wondering to what extent disgust at the NDP’s pusillanimity drove erstwhile supporters to cast their vote elsewhere (although I actually think the spike in Green support in the Comox Valley came largely from disaffected BC Liberals), perhaps enough disgust, rather than complacency, to not bother voting at all.

    To be fair, Dix had to carefully handle a party still nursing an untested JB Weld on their near split. I was struck by the general lack of gusto at the leadership convention. Nobody dared breath a word about brother Dix’s reputation with regard to memo-gate. Further, a palpable whisper campaign was waged against John Horgan—a firebrand, hothead, bull in a china shop, too aggressive. It’s a sad irony that lack of aggression cost the election—sadder that Horgan has declined the opportunity to run for leader again.

    I felt like screaming, “Wake up, NDP! Split a few lips, bust a few heads!!” I’m worried that if the new leader doesn’t assume an overtly aggressive stance, or worse, mentions the words “positive campaign”, it’ll be like ripping a ghastly fart in an express elevator to the basement.

    I’m hoping for two things: First, the leadership candidates, the members and supporters finally understand that, as Carole James and Adrian Dix proved, the words “positive campaign” are mortally toxic; second, that the next campaign be handled by a committee with authority to adjust strategy as needed and not allow the leader or his/her consultants have final say on anything. The NDP is literally on its last legs; one more loss will be fatal. It has to get this right or it’s all over.

  2. I agree with everything you’re saying Sid (and not just we are both ex-Monday Mag Editors!) but I think that in the end, Dan, your first responder in the Comments here, has nailed the key issue: voter apathy. Actually, apathy is not quite accurate. My sense is that many if not most people who don’t vote these days are doing so quite consciously. To them, to vote is simply to endorse a bankrupt electoral system and they refuse to be an enabler. And let’s be frank, it’s not the non-voting public that is refusing to change the situation. It’s the political parties and those who work for them who continue to put self-interest ahead of meaningful reform and who refuse to acknowledge the clear and rising message the public is sending them. Instead, they run election after election in pursuit of minute shifts in voter preference and a spiraling decline in overall participation. In short, a race to the bottom. Is it any wonder then, that election polls are highly unpredictable and ultimately reveal nothing except the current level of public disengagement?

  3. Voter apathy is connected to one thing and one thing only; the dissatisfaction of the present system and how the results appear to the average voter.
    In the past many have spent the time researching and then going to the booth only to discover later on that voting has made little if any significant difference in their lives or the lives of common folk they know.
    I mean when you can turn on the TV and see the pundits decide who is to be leader before they have even counted votes past the Manitoba border, it leaves one with a feeling of enormous insignificance.
    Provincially there have been about 113 years of politics in BC. A total of nine years under an NDP government.

    This is less than 10% of the time and if the NDP political machine was a business model it would have been in Chapter 11 and long ago discarded for a better model.

    As long as the present NDP Jamesite crowd promote from within expect the same result next time around. Only when the public witness’s new blood entering the admin of the NDP will they have a chance at something more significant than loyal opposition.

  4. Can’t recall where I picked this up, but it is not my writing. Maybe someone will recognize what I have shamelessly plagiarized and transmuted to these pages.

    For the provincial election we just had:
    There was only about 3,000 less voters in 2013 from 2009 in total.
    The Liberal/Conservative combined vote in 2013 was approx 780,000. The Conservatives gathered nearly 77,000 votes. The Liberals dropped to around 723,000 from their 2009 count of nearly 751,000.
    Roughly 28,000 Liberal supporters voted Conservative this election, and another 43,000 voters chose the Conservatives versus the Liberals as opposed to 2009 when the Conservatives were non-existent. These 77,000 votes are clearly a protest against the Liberals, and allowed the electorate to park their vote as such without having to “hold their nose” to vote Liberal or to “burn their soul” and vote NDP. The combined votes for the Lib/Con was 49.18%.
    Clearly the problem for the NDP was that their supporters failed to come out and vote. The NDP/Green combined votes was 47.5% of the vote. The Liberals got 44.4%. In 2009, the NDP/Green vote combined for 50.25%. The Green got 8.10% in 2009 and 8.01% in 2013. The NDP dropped from 42.15% in 2009 to 39.49% in 2013. This is actually close to the percentage they won with in 1972 (39.59%), 191 (40.71%), and 1996 (39.59%).
    It does not appear that the disenchanted Liberal went and voted for the Green Party since their percentage is the relatively the same for the last two elections.
    I believe in the end, the “soft” NDP supporters got too complacent or maybe they did not like trust Adrian after all as their Leader and decided to stay home. With the increase in the combined Liberal/Conservative vote from 2009, it is possible that the Liberals actually lost 50,000 or 60,000 or 70,000 voters from 2009 who chose the Conservatives, but these lost supporters to the Conservatives were replaced by “new” supporters of the Liberals who decided to vote because of a fear of an NDP Government. Who knows where the 77,000 voters for the Conservatives came from…disenchanted former Liberal voters from 2009 or new voters. Not sure why a new voter would bother have voted Conservative, so it leads me to believe many of these voters were former Liberal supporters. Therefore, since the Liberals only lost 28,000, it is possible there were either 30 – 40,000 new voters or some bizarre shift of voters from the NDP to the Liberals and/or Conservatives (not likely) to account for the 48,000 less voters to the NDP. The Green Party had about 4,000 less voters in 2013 from 2009, therefore, very unlikely disenchanted Liberal supporters defected to the Greens.
    The first past the post system of electing representatives will continue to throw curve balls into our democracy. It is logically crazy that Governments with 39% of the vote can form a majority. This is a great system that allows corrupt Governments to maintain power.
    The liberals just got in with 22% of the total of eligible voters. Harper got in with 23% of total eligible. FPTP has to go.

    1. We don’t vote at large (except in Vancouver civic elections); the percentage of a win is the number of seats a party got divided by the total number of seats in the Assembly. The BC Liberals got over half.

      BC rejected pro rep twice—thrashed it the second time. Single-Member-Plurality will be with us for the foreseeable.

      There’s only one thing wrong with the system: the people in it, including those who don’t bother voting and those who get elected but disappoint once in office.

      We are in some kind of despondent funk over the quality of our governance, reluctant as a peaceable people to take what we can’t get through the twisted democratic process. We really have no excuses, especially in BC where we have Recall—and across Canada too few of us vote.

      The system need only be properly applied, that is, policies plainly not in the public interest need to be challenged, in court, if necessary. Errant politicians need to be prosecuted, “special” prosecutors need to be abolished. Ordinary law provides for adequate penalty; it cannot act as a deterrent if it isn’t prosecuted.

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