B.C. election proved campaigns matter more than ever

The surprising majority win by Premier Christy Clark in this month's B.C. election showed that campaigns matter, especially in the last days leading to election day. And for the pollsters, it was strike three, writes the CBC's Bob Weiers.

While pollsters were talking to voters who didn't vote, Christy Clark stayed on message

Polls showed B.C. Premier Christy Clark's Liberals headed for at best a one-seat majority and at worst the opposition benches in this month's B.C. election. Instead, Clark won a majority government. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Campaigns matter.

Polls? Maybe not so much anymore.

That's the takeaway, after the surprising majority government win by the BC Liberals and Premier Christy Clark in this month’s election.

And, for the pollsters, it's strike three.

In Quebec, the polls consistently failed to show the resilience of the Liberal vote. In Alberta, most of the polls were not able to gauge the slide of the Wildrose Party through the final weekend, nor predict or project that Alison Redford's Tories would win a majority.

In B.C., the polls were flat out wrong. Not a single survey had the Liberal popular vote at or even near where it ended up at on election night. For example, EKOS, in a poll taken over the final weekend, had the NDP at 40.5 per cent and the Liberals at 34.5 per cent. On election night, the Liberals got 44.4 per cent and the NDP got 39.4 per cent.

In fairness to EKOS, they did offer this comment along with the release of that poll: "…it is very difficult to predict a seat forecast or even whether we will be looking at a majority or minority government on May 14th. It does appear, however, that the NDP will win the popular vote and will most likely form government. This result, however, is by no means certain."

Voters who don't vote

The closest any poll got to the final result was a Forum Research effort that had the Liberals 2 points behind, but, it at least projected that the Liberals could win a one-seat majority government. The Liberals won an eight-seat majority with a total of 50 seats.

So, what happened?

Clearly, pollsters are counting votes from voters who don't end up voting. And, these voters are more generally the ones who are telling the pollsters they intend to vote for a party that is not the government.

In B.C., those people were NDP supporters. These voters who don't vote, are also most likely to be people under 35 years old. Factoring this into polling results, especially when election turnouts are routinely coming in at 50 per cent of eligible voters, is obviously proving very difficult.

The campaign does matter, in particular the last 10 days and especially the last 48 hours. We’ve always known that. It’s why we cover and report on the campaign trail every day. But, the campaign is now more important than ever before.

Fewer and fewer people are committed to a party at the start of the campaign. More are willing to change their minds. Many people are completely uninterested in the political process altogether. In both Alberta and B.C., it was clear many people made up their minds in the final week, the final day, or in the hours or minutes before they actually voted.

Messages and mistakes

The B.C. Liberals, and Christy Clark in particular, ran a great campaign. A simple, straight-forward message, repeated daily. Hard-hitting and effective attack ads that changed the ballot box question from the NDP's "time for a change" to "do you want to trust the B.C. economy to the NDP with a weak leader?" Christy Clark won the campaign, she won the debate, she was the better communicator and she became the leader voters "liked" the best.

The B.C. NDP, on the other hand, failed to remind and reinforce the voters why it was time for a change.

They allowed the B.C. Liberals to set the agenda by playing it safe and running a so-called "positive" campaign. The NDP made tactical mistakes too. The mid-campaign announcement to reject the KinderMorgan pipe line expansion failed to bring the Green voters back to the NDP. Worse, for those Liberals who might have been considering a NDP vote for change, it reinforced their concern the NDP might be bad for business and the economy. Exactly what Clark was saying every day on the campaign.

On election night, the Green Party did almost as much damage to the NDP as the Liberal campaign did.

The Green Party won a seat for the first time in B.C. history. In five ridings, the Green vote, added to the NDP vote, would have been enough to defeat the Liberal candidate. In another five ridings that the NDP won in the last election, the Green vote was high enough to allow the Liberals to win those seats this time. Two NDP incumbent candidates were defeated in the process.

In the end, those five seats would not have made a difference in the outcome. The B.C. Liberals won it going away. The lesson learned here for the media, the pundits and the pollsters is that the old cliché that "the only poll that matters is the one on election day" is exactly and emphatically true.

Bob Weiers is a Senior Producer at CBC News, primarily assigned to elections and live events. He's been covering politics since joining the CBC in 1990. His first election as a member of the CBC Core Group (the production team that travels the country setting up all that's needed to do an election night show) was in Alberta in 2004. He's worked on every one since.