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Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: Lessons from B.C. for NDPers everywhere

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No one can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory quite like the New Democrats in my native British Columbia.

Still, while Tuesday's upset B.C. election victory by Premier Christy Clark and her un-liberal Liberals is inevitably going to be, well, upsetting to a lot of New Democrats, it is not really bad news for Thomas Mulcair and the federal NDP.

This, we might say, is the social democratic truth that dare not speak its name: an NDP government in a large province like British Columbia would inevitably have enacted policies that upset voters elsewhere in Canada and would have provided excellent targets for attacks by the ever-negative Stephen Harper Tories on Mulcair and the NDP.

So, as my mother used to tell me, every cloud has a silver lining, and this is the faint silver lining to the clouds blowing over B.C. today.

Pretty soon, I expect Premier Clark will sit down with Alberta Premier Alison Redford and politely negotiate a pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, Redford's home town.

But, as has been said in this space in the not-so-distant past, defeated B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix probably would have done much the same thing, which is one problem with running a low-bridge campaign that doesn't really seem to stand for anything much.

The majority of British Columbians who are opposed to pipelines from Alberta running through their back yards can be forgiven by their confusion about whom best to vote for to stop them.

Look, it's been an awfully long time since I lived in B.C. -- more than 30 years now -- and the place has become a foreign country to me. Someone closer to the West Coast scene can probably tell me how wrong I am about each of these points, and almost certainly will.

Still, it seems to me there are several telling lessons for New Democrats elsewhere in Canada, and for plenty of Liberals too, in the unexpected B.C. vote results on Tuesday night. Because I’m just a negative sort of guy, I've configured them all as Don’ts:

-    Don't be too quick to skid your leader. Who can doubt that if Carole James were still the leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party, she would have done better than Dix, and probably would be the premier today?

-    Don't run an issueless campaign from opposition. Low-bridging is for governments with a lousy record and popular leader. (Pierre Trudeau, c'mon down from above!) If you don't have a compelling narrative that's different from the government's, sooner or later the government is sure to start looking better than you do.

-    Don't promise never to use negative advertising. This is simple foolishness. Not only do Canadian voters tolerate negative ads, they expect them, even desire them. If you won't vigorously attack your opponents, you will be assumed to stand for nothing. How many times does this have to be said? Nice guys finish last. This is something for Justin Trudeau to think about too.

-    Don't succumb to poll-driven hubris. Alberta Premier Redford proved it in 2012. British Columbia Premier Christy Clark proved it again this week. Hell, Harry Truman proved it back in 1948 -- and that was before everyone under 40 only had a cell phone! Public opinion polls do get it wrong. They're a useful tool. But that's all they are. Always run as if you were far behind. Don't start naming your transition team before you’ve won the election, for crying out loud! Dix ran as if he was in the lead and he paid the price.

-    Don't forget your core supporters. In the case of the NDP, that would be social democrats, trade unionists, and even (ahem!) socialists. Maybe B.C. voters figured if only Liberals were running, they might as well vote for a real Liberal.

-    Don't assume Canadian political parties must be led by men to succeed. This should be obvious to everyone now. There's a trend apparent here, wouldn't you say? Canadian voters appear to like women leaders. Right now five of 10 Canadian provinces -- with about 87 per cent of the population -- are led by women. Maybe you should take this into consideration when you're picking a leader.

I'm also inclined to think that if you're a politician expecting to get elected, you should have your doubts about hiring political campaign operatives who are in partnership with people working for other parties. And that you should always pay your transit fare -- no matter how short a ride it is you're planning -- although in fairness accidents do happen. But I'm not so sure there are big, profound lessons in these two points.

Oh, and one other thing: if you're not prepared to fight a tough, meaningful campaign that pays attention to your core supporters -- you know, like Prime Minister Harper is a master at doing -- maybe you should go to church instead of into politics!

This is a moment of reckoning for Canadian pollsters

Pretty obviously, we have reached a moment of reckoning for Canada's pollsters.

If you only have three strikes before you’re out, Canada’s pollsters have only got one more election to get it right.

Here are four reasons, polling companies' claims notwithstanding, for Canadian pollsters' dramatic misses in Alberta last year and British Columbia the day before yesterday, not to mention their none-too-stellar performance in Quebec last fall:

1) Polling methodology is getting worse on average. Some pollsters will tell you their online panels are nipped and tucked into a perfect imitation of a traditionally random telephone survey, maybe even better. I remain skeptical. Pollsters like these panels because they cost less, and they eliminate the problem of people who won't talk to them. But the people who join panels are engaged by politics, and therefore a greater percentage of them want political change. This influences these polls' results and by osmosis exaggerates the desire for change shown in averages of several polls.

2) Polls don't tell who will vote. With voter turnout down everywhere -- and active voter suppression techniques in use by conservative parties to discourage people who want change -- Canadian pollsters are having trouble figuring out who will actually vote. Well, people who are satisfied with the government may not join online panels, but they do come out and vote. If pollsters can't account for this, they will keep getting it wrong. 

3) Canadian voters are becoming more volatile. Maybe it's instant online communications. Maybe it's shorter attention spans. Whatever it is, Canadian voters are becoming more volatile. Lifelong Tories, Grits or Knee-Dips? Forget about it! Every poll nowadays needs to come with a disclaimer: Results may not turn out to be exactly as illustrated. And maybe pollsters need to start doing Third World style exit polls.

4) Canadian voters are becoming more strategic. In both Alberta and British Columbia, it is said here voters who wanted to scare the governing parties but didn't really want change sent a message via the pollsters who called them. In other words, they're lying -- knowingly and with a plan -- to pollsters. The impact of this is magnified by over-reliance by online panels.

Pollsters need to figure this stuff out -- or become a laughing stock.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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