BC Election 2013 Wildcard: How 'bout those Canucks?

When fan favourites win big games incumbents get a boost, scholars discovered.

By Steve Burgess 26 Apr 2013 |

Steve Burgess, when not writing about film or travel, produces trenchant political thumbsuckers like this one.

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Ahhhh, that explains it.

Pundits are saying the B.C. election campaign won't really start until the leader's debate on Monday. Not so fast. It may be that the real election face-off will come slightly later in the week. NHL playoff series are set to start Tuesday and Wednesday. The real political battles of spring 2013 could be fought in front of the net.

Sports and election campaigns certainly share a great deal of cheerleading and gung-ho rhetoric. But the link between playoffs and politics may be stronger than that. A 2010 Stanford University study looked at the correlation between incumbent electoral success and college football results.

Researchers Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo wanted to test the degree to which irrelevant factors affect elections. In addition to studying the electoral impact of major weather events they looked at the performance of local college football teams in games played within a week of the election. Examining results over a 44-year period ending in 2008, they found that a win by the local football team had a measurable positive impact on incumbent vote totals, and that the effect increased -- almost doubled -- for more popular and successful teams.

There are few teams anywhere as popular as the Vancouver Canucks. True, the strike-shortened 2013 NHL season has been a desultory and unsatisfying affair thus far. The Canucks won their weak division but rarely looked inspired in doing so, suffering numerous injuries and slouching their way through low-scoring victories over opponents that were, if not entirely hapless, possessed of very little hap. Christy Clark and the Liberals would not get much bump from this year's Vancouver squad.

Playoff ready

But then the hockey regular season is comparable to the daily grind of governance. It's during elections and playoffs that the stakes go up. And with this week's impressive victory over their powerhouse rivals the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canucks may well have served notice that they intend to repeat their 2011 run to the Stanley Cup finals. That's got to be good news for the incumbent Liberals who would benefit from a B.C. electorate in flag-waving, feel-good mode. We Are All Liberal Canucks, etc.

Naturally Adrian Dix and the NDP will be just as vocal in their support of the 'Nucks. It's not like the Nordiques era in Quebec, when Habs fans tended to be Liberal while Quebec supporters were more likely to vote PQ. In BC there's no alternative. Still, a social democratic party will probably be perceived as less likely to support a wealthy, privately-owned sports franchise -- particularly if issues of subsidies and tax breaks arise. And then there's that research showing incumbents as the ones who benefit from local team success. It doesn't matter how fervently the opposition waves its team flag or fluffy blue/green pom-poms. Victory must surely result from conditions created by the governing party -- it was they who built the regulatory framework for an improved power play and top-notch goaltending. When considered together with the beautiful cherry blossoms recently on view all over Vancouver, Liberal indicators will be up -- assuming the Canucks look good early.

It puts Dix and company in an awkward position. However much they may privately hope for a Canucks collapse they cannot let on. The party can at least be grateful that the Philadelphia Flyers are in the Eastern Conference, meaning the Canucks will not be exchanging blows with big goons dressed in orange. If the process was more rational the NDP might profit from vigorous support of potential opponents St. Louis or San Jose -- nowadays everyone loves sharks and of course music. But as the Stanford research shows, it just doesn't work that way.

Upon further analysis

There are important caveats to this Canuck-driven campaign scenario. This year's playoffs are starting late, allowing only two weeks of play before Election Day on May 14. The vote will probably take place shortly after completion of the first round. One series victory will not be enough to build euphoria in this tough market. On the other hand, an opening round loss by the Canucks might see the provincial vote conducted under martial law -- a scenario that could provide the Liberal government with unique electoral opportunities.

There is a larger problem for the Liberals however. The Stanford study suggested that the largest sports-related poll boost amounted to no more than three percent. With the NDP holding a lead of roughly 20 points in most surveys, it appears the political burden on the Canucks will be considerable. Premier Clark might be required to engineer a tentative post-season Luongo trade for the Leafs' Nazem Kadri, and then score a live locker room endorsement from a naked Ryan Kesler.

Even then it would be tight. But first things first -- let's see the Canucks reach the second round. We can discuss Corey Schneider's cabinet portfolio later.  [Tyee]

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