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B.C.'s Big 'No' to Conservatives

And other surprising election twists and turns.

Tom Barrett 30 Jun 2004TheTyee.ca
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You could tell things were winding down on election night when a Global TV national anchor quoted that celebrated pundit Gomer Pyle. But Pfc. Pyle's "surprise, surprise, surprise!" catch phrase was still pretty apt.

Certainly, no one was more surprised Monday night than the pollsters and the pundits, all of whom ended up looking a little Gomerish.

And the more you pick over the bones of Monday's election, the more surprises you get. Here's a few:

B.C. urbanites reject Tory agenda. Well, yes, they did. But the fact is, B.C. urbanites didn't behave that much differently from their country cousins when it comes to voting trends.

From the boondocks to the Big Smoke, B.C. turned away from the new Conservative party. Massively.

Overall, the Conservative share of the B.C. popular vote was down 13.7 points from the Alliance party total in 2000. (All figures for the 2004 election are from preliminary numbers provided by Elections Canada.

That means that the new Conservatives lost well over a quarter of the support the Alliance won here in 2000. And the picture is even bleaker for the new Conservatives when you compare their showing to the combined totals for the Alliance and the old Progressive Conservative party. Monday's result represents a drop of 20.5 points from the Alliance-PC vote - a loss of well over one-third of the combined right-wing support from 2000 in B.C.

Rural areas cool to Conservatives, too. Many of the seats lost by the new Conservatives were in the province's large urban and suburban areas, it's true. But the Conservatives lost votes all over. In fact, not one Conservative in the province improved on the Alliance share of the 2000 vote.

Take Randy White, who racked up the biggest majority of any candidate in B.C. Mr. "to heck with the courts" won 61.3 per cent of the vote in his Abbotsford riding but was still down 9.6 percentage points from the Alliance share in 2000.

Yes, there were some big drops in the Vancouver suburbs. The biggest drops in right-wing support in the province came in Dewdney-Alouette, Fleetwood-Port Kells, Langley, and Newton-North Delta. All of these ridings saw the Conservatives lose between 18 and 21 percentage points off the Alliance share.

But the Conservatives ended up winning all of these seats.

Luckily for the Conservatives, they went into the campaign in these ridings with huge margins. They actually did better at holding on to the Alliance share of the vote in the ridings they lost - they just didn't have such big margins to play with in those constituencies.

Conservative Ted White, for example, dropped 13.62 per cent of the Alliance share and lost. You could say that was urban (or suburban) B.C. rejecting the Conservative agenda. Except that the voters in a bunch of upcountry ridings were even less inclined to stick with the Conservative agenda.

In Kootenay-Columbia, the Conservative vote underperformed the Alliance share by 14.77 percentage points. In North Okanagan-Shuswap, the drop was 15.07 points. In Vancouver Island North, it was 15.76.

Again, the Conservatives won all of these ridings, thanks to larger historical margins - although Vancouver Island North, where Conservative John Duncan was hanging on by 124 votes at last count, could end up falling to the New Democrats on a recount.

Or consider another narrow Conservative victory, the constituency of Southern Interior. In this riding, which is not exactly an urban hub, the Conservatives beat the NDP by a minuscule 1.5 per cent of the total vote after incumbent Jim Gouk, a former Alliance MP, saw his share drop by 11.37 points.

Speaking of points, the point of all these numbers is that British Columbians turned away from the new Conservatives in roughly equal proportions everywhere. What's more remarkable is that this came in the face of what was being billed as a national surge in favour of the new, united right.

Unite and conquer? On paper, it always looked great. Merge the Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties and you win all those ridings where the total of the two parties' votes was greater than the winning party.

In this case, though, one plus one didn't equal two.

The premise of this unite-the-right argument was always suspect. Polls showed that a lot of people who voted PC in the past would sooner vote Liberal than Alliance. Let's face it, anyone who continued to vote for the PCs after their 1993 collapse likely had some reservations about the Alliance.

So what happened Monday?

The new Conservatives did increase their share of the popular vote nationally, by 4.1 percentage points.

But the party's share was down 8.1 percentage points from the combined Alliance-PC totals of 2000.

A surprising show of Liberal strength. Given that they were supposed to get hammered over the sponsorship scandal, the B.C. Liberals did do quite well. After all, they actually increased their seat total to eight from the five they would have received if the 2000 results were redistributed onto the new boundaries.

But what's surprising about the apparent Liberal surge is the fact that the party gained seats while increasing its share of the B.C. vote by less than one percentage point.

Which just goes to show that elections are funny things. The NDP trailed the Liberals by exactly two percentage points in the popular vote, yet they won three fewer seats.

Green spoilers. The Greens do appear to have had a "Nader effect," although it's still hard to be specific about how substantial that effect was.

If all the Green votes cast in B.C. had gone to the NDP instead, the NDP would have won an extra nine seats. Six would have come from the Conservatives and three from the Liberals.

Assuming that all of Monday's Green voters would have otherwise voted for the NDP is a rather suspect assumption, however. The Greens themselves say that 40 per cent of Green supporters would not vote at all if they couldn't vote Green.

The Greens say about 30 per cent of their supporters name the NDP as their second choice and a further 30 per cent split roughly equally between the Liberals and Conservatives.

University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff has called that argument plausible, although he believes it's more likely that one-third of Green supporters wouldn't vote at all, with another one-third making the NDP their second choice and the remaining one-third split between Liberals and Conservatives.

If that's true, it reduces the impact of the Greens substantially.

Take Victoria, for example. If you give all of the Green votes to the NDP, the NDP wins handily. But if you transfer one-third of the Green vote to the NDP and another one-sixth to the Liberals, David Anderson still wins.

In Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, the NDP would have needed to win more than half the Green vote to beat Liberal Keith Martin. The same is true of Newton-North Delta, where the NDP lost to Conservative Gurmant Grewal.

In Saanich-Gulf Islands, the NDP would need more than three-quarters of the Green vote to win.

And in Nanaimo-Alberni, the NDP would need virtually every Green vote to win. The NDP would also need almost all the Green support in Vancouver Kingsway to win there. The relatively low Green total in this riding suggests that the fear of the Nader effect probably spooked many left-wing supporters in Kingsway away from the Greens.

The fact is, some of the strongest Green support - as predicted by Ruff -- came in places where the Conservatives won large victories. Green candidates did quite well in Kootenay-Columbia, where the party took 6.3 per cent of the vote, and Kelowna, where the Green candidate took 7.5 per cent.

"They may do well in areas where you wouldn't think they would be strong, like, well, Kelowna," Ruff said a week before the election.

As Gomer Pyle might have said, "Shazam!"

Veteran political reporter Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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