British Columbia·Analysis

Risky business: The challenge of chatting with voters

It is a fundamental part of the job of party leader. Getting out in communities across British Columbia and interacting with voters.

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark regrets the way she dealt with a voter last week in North Vancouver

The interaction created a buzz on social media, including #IamLinda trending 0:12

It was quick. It was to the point. And it has B.C.'s Liberal Party leader showing regret. 

Four days after a much talked about run-in with Linda Higgins, a voter in North Vancouver, Christy Clark is acknowledging she should have done things differently. Speaking to Jeff O'Neil on CFOX radio, Clark says she shouldn't have walked away.

"In retrospect, sure, of course I wish had stopped and spoken to her. I normally try to. But you go to these things and you are just whipping through and there is 100 people to talk to," said Clark.

Different leaders, different interactions

But in the last week, two incidents shed light on what it is really like to be a leader on the campaign trail. And how differently leaders can interact with people.

Last Thursday, Clark entered a grocery store as part of a campaign stop in North Vancouver. 

It's 10 seconds on the campaign trail that have had a lasting impact. Linda Higgins started talking to the Liberal leader, saying, "I never vote for you because...."

At that point Clark cut her off with, "You don't have to, that is why we live in a democracy."

Then Clark turned her back to Higgins, and walked away.

Linda Higgins' interaction with B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark led to a social media reaction, including #IamLinda trending.

Social media impact 

On social media feeds, many people are applauding the Liberal leader for the way she handled the moment quickly and smoothly.  She likely wasn't going to change Higgins' mind so why not just move on?   But many others believe it was rude and voters should be given a chance to express their opinions.

It was just one moment in a long campaign, but social media has made it possible for people to share and comment on it.

"Elections usually have several strange or intense moments — gaffes, citizens who shout at candidates, nasty attacks — all of that's normal," said recent UBC political science PhD graduate David Moscrop. "There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to elections, just new technologies and mixes of timing."

Horgan vs. heckler

A heckler interrupted NDP Leader John Horgan during a campaign stop on April 30, 2017.

Public appearances are always the biggest challenge for political parties. Unlike indoor rallies, where invitees can be controlled, events at parks or grocery stores are much harder to manage.

It's tough to connect with 'real' people, and being forced off your campaign message.

On Sunday, NDP leader John Horgan had his own interaction with a voter. It was handled in a much different way.

Horgan had a planned photo opportunity at a park in Vancouver, surrounded by parents holding their children, while others played on a jungle gym in the background.

But what Horgan didn't plan for was the man who stood behind the cameras and kept interrupting him about the costs of the party's childcare plan.

Watch the whole exchange

The two men exchanged words on the NDP's policies and financial record 3:44

The NDP leader engaged — good-naturedly at first.  But it went on for nearly 4 minutes.

The two men exchanged words on the NDP's policies and financial record, with Horgan ultimately offering to speak to the voter after the event.

The man didn't take him up on the offer, and walked away.

"Horgan was more constructive with his heckler, he genuinely seems to have wanted to engage — and good for him. But he let it go on way too long and he ended up looking like he couldn't control his own press event," said Moscrop.

Is there a right approach to hecklers?

"Politicians almost never win when this sort of thing happens — either they walk away and look distant, arrogant, and disconnected like Clark did, or they get into shouting matches with misanthropes and get drawn down to their level," Moscrop said.

Then there are the awkward moments that don't get the same sort of attention.

Last week, Horgan was riding on a busy SkyTrain car as part of an event around expanded transit in the Lower Mainland. He engaged in a conversation with a fellow passenger. Then, as the lengthy discussion wrapped up, the rider revealed to Horgan he was visiting from Whitehorse.

The risk of politics, I guess, is that sometimes voters won't vote for you and sometimes — they just can't.