Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

How to win seats, despite the odds

Senior producer Doug Letto looks at what it takes to win an election where everyone believes the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

The election got underway this week, and for dozens of candidates, all things seem possible, including pulling out a win when the polls strongly suggest it will be a struggle.

Pick through the electoral tea leaves in Newfoundland elections, though, and choose your metaphor: you'll find instances where candidates turned back the tide, where they charted their own course, or where they simply laughed in the face of electoral death and lived to tell the tale!

1966 election

The election box score sure didn't reveal anything unusual on election day, Sept. 8, 1966. Thirty-nine seats for the Smallwood Liberals, just three seats for the Conservatives. It was Smallwood's sixth straight election win — 182 cumulative seats for the Liberals since 1949, and just 30 for the Opposition, including 26 for the Conservatives.

Just over a year later, on Oct. 20, 1967, heads would be turned because of byelection in Gander, 350 kilometres from the capital. A former Canadian National Telecommunications manager, who came up just 248 votes short in the 1962 vote, and more than 800 short in a second unsuccessful bid in 1966, made no mistake this time.

Harold Collins, seen during a December 2004 interview: 'The key is a good crew of people, the more the better.' (CBC)

Harold Collins took the seat that day, the first Conservative intrusion into Smallwood's hold on Newfoundland politics outside the capital.

Harold Collins is 86 now, and as sharp as when I first met him more than 20 years ago. He had just returned from a walk when I reached him on the telephone the week before this campaign started.

"I didn't like the way Smallwood was operating," he told me, as he explained getting involved in politics in 1962.

"The time had come for a new approach."

Collins was part of the generation bringing change and modern amenities to Newfoundland in the wake of Confederation in 1949. His team installed telephone service on the coast of Labrador and the island's south coast.

A pioneer, in more ways than one

He was also one of Gander's pioneers, and it was there in 1957 — "just after the town got started" — that Collins set up a home in the second house on Metcalf Street, the second-oldest street in Gander.

It was natural that one of its earliest residents would also become a community leader through his involvement on the town council, his church, and local schools.

Harold Collins talks straight. Ask him why he ended up with so much on his plate? "There was a lot of work to be done," he told me.

As we embark on the 2011 provincial election, with the latest polls showing the Conservatives in position to dominate the coming vote, Harold Collins' story is instructive. What does it take to challenge a dominant party and prove the pollsters wrong, or at least, make the election into a fight?

The truth is, Harold Collins' story isn't the only one we can draw on to show how a determined campaign can bring victory, or a  version of victory, from the jaws of defeat.

1999 election

Twelve years ago, there was widespread speculation that Liberal Brian Tobin would wipe the floor with the Progressive Conservatives and their leader Ed Byrne.

Yet, the Conservatives, in debt, and forced to run a "cash and carry campaign," in which Byrne and four members of the executive each borrowed $15,000 to get a bus on the road and phones in their headquarters, managed to win 14 seats and poll just over 40 per cent of the vote.

They also cut into Tobin's seat count by reducing his margin in the legislature from 37 seats to 32.

1984 federal election

Tobin had his own story of electoral perseverance. In the Mulroney sweep of 1984 — when the Liberals lost 107 of  their 147 seats — Tobin ran hard to keep the Tories off his back in Humber-Port au Port-St. Barbe.

He tried winning the old-fashioned way: by knocking on practically every door and shaking every hand he could find. He was returned to Parliament with the ninth closest margin of victory in Canada — 493 votes ahead of Corner Brook lawyer Mike Monaghan.

No short cuts

Harold Collins will be 87 in May and knows there are no short cuts to winning, that it's about fundamentals. He told me he lost his first election because he "didn't know a lot of ins and outs" of politics, including the importance for an organization to get the vote out on polling day.

By the time he won in 1967, Collins had learned the lessons about organizing for a successful election bid. "The key is a good crew of people," he told me, "the more the better."

Collins says winning candidates typically have community leaders on side, an important sign to voters that the campaign has broad appeal. But he says the most important thing is to have a strong crew for polling day, "you can't win if you can't get people out to vote."

And he knows the value of a good verbal comeback. He still recalls Smallwood's comment to a reporter a few days before his first or second election, that "the people of Gander didn't want their member to sit on the wrong side of the House."

Collins' reply was that the people of Gander "are not interested in where their member sits, it's where he stands."

He chuckled when he related that story to me.

"I got a few votes with that one."