Defying the polls, again

British Columbia Liberal Leader Christy Clark pulled off an upset for the history books on the West Coast on Tuesday night, confounding every pre-election poll and prediction, retaining power for her centre-right coalition.

British Columbia Liberal Leader Christy Clark pulled off an upset for the history books on the West Coast on Tuesday night, confounding every pre-election poll and prediction, retaining power for her centre-right coalition.

Clark entered the 28-day campaign almost 20 points behind New Democrat Adrian Dix, who ran an error-free, but timid, campaign trying to ensure that voters here would feel no fear of switching to a party that had only governed in the province three times before. Yes, British Columbia had surprised, as it has before. Ninety minutes after the polls closed, it was being declared the “West Coast miracle.’’

But the Clark victory marked the second time in less than two years that major pollsters got an election in Western Canada wrong — brutally wrong. Both times they heralded change which never came.

It was barely a year ago that Alberta pollsters had prematurely declared Alberta Progressive Premier Alison Redford dead before a late-minute swing away from Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith gave her a victory.

There was a thought that there were too many significant differences between the two provinces for it to happen here, but there we were again.

The campaign appeared to turn on trust and voters would not seal the deal with Dix, a former party backroom strategist who was involved in scandal in the former NDP government of Glen Clark.

Clark overcame it all.

She bucked what we were told was a mood for change in the province, she ignored scandal, shrugged off internal dissent and dismissed withering poll numbers.

She also somehow kept the question of the harmonized sales tax — seen as a blatant betrayal of voter trust by the Liberals when it was introduced shortly after the 2009 campaign — off the radar.

Instead, she successfully turned the ballot question from one of voter fatigue to one of the economy and leadership and turned Dix into the political equivalent of the Maple Leafs in the third period of game seven.

In the Vancouver Convention Centre about an hour after the polls closed, a sinking reality took hold.

A crowd waiting to party instead stood silent, slack jawed. There appeared to be immediate lessons which could be drawn from the upset.

Dix seemed to fritter away a lead by not striking back at Clark’s attacks on his character and making a virtue of running on the high road, banking on a hunger for change after 12 years.

Clark appeared to also successfully prey on deeply inbred fears of an NDP government stifling economic growth and killing jobs.

Dix had announced his opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by Kinder Morgan on Earth Day, early in the campaign, giving Clark a chance to brand him Dr. No and sow further doubt about the economic future of the province.

She pounded away at Dix with voters in commercials warning about the NDP “never changing,’’ and his lack of strong leadership.

Dix sold himself as non-threatening. He also came across as uninspiring. Clark placed Dix’s visage on a weather vane, flip-flopping in the wind in a particularly effective 30-second spot.

Clark had whittled away at a huge pre-election lead built by the New Democrats. Final polling data showed her well behind and thought to be facing peril on a number of fronts.

There was, in fact, a business group in Vancouver so disgruntled with her leadership that they had been named the 8.01 crowd, hoping to unseat her a minute after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

A double defeat — an election loss to Dix and a defeat in her homeriding of Vancouver Point-Grey — could have hastened her departure and possibly sparked the tearing down and rebranding of the coalition she heads, one which has been plagued by infighting. (She did in fact lose her own seat, and now must find another to contest in a byelection.)

She had blunted much of that internal dissent with a campaign that kept the party afloat before Tuesday’s stunning turnaround. In the campaign’s final hours, Clark’s Liberals played the “red menace” card and kept up its attack on Dix’s role in the government “memo-dating” scandal as proof that he cannot be trusted.

Clark, enjoyed a burst of momentum after winning the leadership in 2011, but soon found herself facing the reality of a longer and longer path to victory as the 2013 vote approached.

There were 85 seats up for grabs with four main parties in the mix, but the Conservatives under former MP John Cummins fell off the map with a stunningly inept and gaffe-prone campaign. He lost his own seat and the party elected no members.

The Green party’s Andrew Weaver made history with a victory on Vancouver Island, the first provincial win for the party in Canada.

But that particular bit of history would be a footnote to the history made by Clark, Canada’s new comeback kid.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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