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Opinion

Everyone Seems to Pick Christy Clark, but not Will McMartin

And if your inner wonk is up to it, here are calculations that make our pundit a contrarian.

By Will McMartin 25 Feb 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Will McMartin is a veteran political advisor and analyst. Read his previous columns here.

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Christy Clark: Way ahead in popular polls.

Surely it's a mug's game to try to pick the winner of the BC Liberal leadership contest taking place on Saturday.

But, since when did The Tyee play it safe? After earlier predicting the odds of victory for our top three picks -- 4-1 for Christy Clark (see here), 3-1 for Kevin Falcon (see here) and 5-2 for our top choice, George Abbott (see here) -- there's little point in not going further and contemplating (guessing?) how the actual voting will play out this weekend.

(The Tyee did not rate three of the six declared candidates: Mike de Jong, Moira Stilwell and Ed Mayne. The latter two have since withdrawn from the contest, and both have endorsed Abbott. De Jong remains in the race but few expect him to win.)

100 votes per district

British Columbia has 85 provincial electoral districts. The BC Liberals have decided that each riding should have an equal voice (100 votes apiece) in the selection of their new party leader.

This is not as weird as some of the mainstream media have purported. Each riding, after all, elects the same number of representatives (one) to the Legislative Assembly, because all electoral districts (in theory) are supposed to have an equal voice in our province's affairs.

Of course, riding populations vary considerably. Analysing the 2006 census, BC Stats has reported that the number of residents ranges from a low of 20,530 in Stikine, to a high of 59,140 in Comox Valley.

On top of that, some electoral districts are BC Liberal bastions where the number of party members is in the thousands, while others are veritable wastelands with supporters counted in the dozens.

Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer reported a few months ago that when the leadership contest got underway, Kelowna-Mission had the greatest number of BC Liberal members, 2,506, and Port Coquitlam and Vancouver-Hastings had the fewest, 43 apiece.

Naturally, the different leadership contestants and their campaign teams sold tens of thousands of new memberships over the past three months. On Feb. 8, the BC Liberal party reported that from a base of 36,000 in early November, membership had increased by "over 50,000" to a number "approaching 90,000."

More recently, the party announced that as many as 6,000 memberships had been disallowed.

By the simple process of dividing party membership (between 80,000 and 85,000) by the number of electoral districts (85), we can determine that the average number of eligible voters in each riding is nearly 1,000.

Again, however, a few ridings (mostly BC Liberal fortresses) will have many thousands of party members, while others (NDP strongholds) will have barely a few hundred.

Lessons from Ontario

How will this would work on Saturday? As an example, let's say that 1,500 members cast a ballot in electoral district "A," while just 50 members vote in electoral district "B." Despite the disparity in the number of ballots cast in those two ridings, each has an equal number of votes -- 100 -- in the overall count.

Let's go further and say that on Saturday, 750 of the 1,500 first-round ballots (that is, 50 per cent) in riding "A" go to Christy Clark, while 25 of the 50 ballots (also 50 per cent) in riding "B" are marked for George Abbott.

Clark and Abbott each would get the identical number of votes -- 50 -- based on their winning 50 per cent of the ballots in their respective ridings. Even though Clark had 750 supporters in riding "A," and Abbott had just 25 in riding "B," both would receive the same number of votes toward their overall total.

The point is, the number of supporters recruited by each of the four candidates is important, but not vital to the final outcome. That's because: (a) membership numbers vary between ridings; (b) many of the mass sign-ups of party members were in a small number of ridings, notably in Surrey and the Fraser Valley; and (c) not all party members will participate in the vote.

As stated earlier, the BC Liberal party has nearly 85,000 members who may vote on Saturday. But how many actually will cast a ballot?

The 2009 Progressive Conservative leadership contest in Ontario offers many useful comparisons to the BC Liberal race now underway in our province. (See sidebar.)

In Ontario, Tory membership increased fivefold, but on voting day just under 60 per cent of eligible voters exercised their (party) franchise.

That seems like a reasonable figure for the BC Liberal tilt, so let's calculate that about 51,000 voters (60 per cent of 85,000) will participate in the election on Saturday. The average number of voters per district will be about 600, but, again, that will vary considerably between individual ridings.

How it will be tallied

How to tally the ballots to get an overall total? First, each electoral district's 100 votes will be allocated to the four candidates according to the percentage of ballots each obtained in that particular riding.

Next, each candidate's share of the 100 votes in every riding will be added up province-wide. The candidate who first reaches 4,251 votes (85 electoral districts multiplied by 100 votes in each riding, divided by two, plus one) will be declared the winner.

To help determine how the contest may play out on Saturday, we'll break down the province into five large geographic regions.

Interior-North has 24 electoral districts (and therefore 2,400 votes towards the 4,251 needed for victor on Saturday). We'll estimate the total number of ballots cast at 14,500.

Abbott is the only candidate who resides in this region, and he's won endorsements from eight MLAs (Barnett, Bennett, Foster, Lake, Letnick, Rustad, Slater and Thomson). Falcon is backed by four (Bell, Bond, Pimm and Stewart).

Fraser Valley-Surrey has 17 ridings (1,700 leadership votes), and also should see about 14,500 ballots cast on Saturday. (Many party memberships were sold to the large South Asian communities in North Surrey and Abbotsford.)

This is home to de Jong and Falcon, but where the former has no endorsements in the region, the latter has five (Cadieux, Coleman, Hayer, Les and Polak). Abbott has three local MLAs in his corner (Hawes, Hogg and van Dongen).

Fraser North (From Burnaby through Coquitlam, New Westminster, Port Moody and Port Coquitlam, to Maple Ridge and Mission) has 11 ridings (1,100 leadership votes) and an estimated 6,000 ballots.

Clark used to have a seat in this region, but she now resides in Vancouver. She's also gained just a single MLA endorsement (Bloy), while Falcon has three (Black, Dalton and Horne) and Abbott one (Lee).

Vancouver-North Shore-Richmond has 18 electoral districts (1,800 leadership votes) and 10,500 ballots. Clark calls Vancouver home, but does not have a seat in the city, and has no endorsements from BC Liberal MLAs.

Abbott is supported by six local Liberals (Heed, McNeil, Sultan, Stilwell, Thorntwaite and Yamamoto), and Falcon has five (Hansen, Howard, MacDiarmid, McIntyre and Yap).

Vancouver Island-Coast has 15 ridings (1,500 leadership votes) with an expected 5,500 ballots to be cast. The region has become a NDP fortress in recent decades, and none of the BC Liberal leadership hopefuls reside here.

Abbott and Falcon are endorsed by two MLAs each (Coell and McRae for the former; Cantelon and Chong for the latter).

Making projections

Let us project some numbers for Saturday's tilt. In the North-Interior, let's say that Abbott's favourite-son status and MLA endorsements help him to win a total of 5,800 ballots (40 per cent of the 14,500 total in this region). Next is Falcon with 4,350 (30 per cent), while Clark has 3,625 (25 per cent) and de Jong trails with 725 (five per cent).

Falcon and de Jong both will do well in their home region of Fraser Valley-Surrey. Let's put the former on top with 5,075 ballots (35 per cent of the total in this region), and the latter 3,625 (25 per cent). Close behind are Abbott and Clark, both taking 2,900 ballots (20 per cent apiece).

Fraser North should be a real dog-fight, and let's guess that Clark and Falcon get an identical 2,100 ballots (each with 35 per cent of the total), while Abbott has 1,500 (25 per cent), and de Jong trails with 300 votes (five per cent).

The densely populated Vancouver-North Shore-Richmond area is where Clark absolutely has to do well. Let's put her total at a generous 4,725 ballots (45 per cent), well ahead of Abbott and Falcon with an identical 2,625 (25 per cent each), and de Jong, 525 (five per cent).

Vancouver Island-Coast, the New Democratic Party bastion, is a mystery. Let's put Clark and Falcon ahead with 1,925 ballots apiece (35 per cent of all ballots in this region), and Abbott close behind at 1,375 (25 per cent). De Jong has 275 votes (five per cent).

Under this scenario, the three front-runners will be closely bunched: Falcon with 16,075 first-round votes (or 31.5 per cent of the total), followed by Clark at 15,275 (30 per cent) and Abbott with 14,200 (27.8 per cent). De Jong trails with a respectable 5,450 (10.7 per cent).

Clark, the putative front-runner (and overwhelming favourite of the mainstream news media), could enjoy a first-count lead with only marginally-better-than-projected results in the North-Interior, Fraser Valley-Surrey and Vancouver Island-Coast regions.

It's very difficult, however, to see her with the massive first-count advantage prophesied by press-gallery pundits.

By the same token, Abbott could (although it seems doubtful) slip into a narrow first-count lead, with better-than-expected results in Fraser North, Vancouver-Richmond-North Shore and Vancouver Island Coast.

After the first count

The foregoing examines the total first-count ballots. Those same results, under the weighted-vote system, would look like this: Falcon enjoys a razor-thin advantage with 2,675 votes; Clark is close behind with 2,660; Abbott has 2,400; and de Jong is last with 765.

De Jong then would be dropped off the count and -- under the preferential ballot the BC Liberals have decided to use on Saturday -- the next round of ballot-counting would involve only his supporters' second-choices. So, where will de Jong's second-ballots go?

According to this analysis, about two-thirds of de Jong's supporters reside in the Fraser Valley-Surrey region, and many are South Asians. The region is Kevin Falcon's home, but prominent Indo-Canadians have advised community members to make George Abbott their second choice.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that Falcon and Abbott each could get 300 or so (about 40 per cent) of de Jong's second choices, while Clark picks up about 150 (20 per cent).

The second-round results, then: Falcon, 2,975; Clark, 2,825; and Abbott, 2,700. Incredibly, fewer than 300 votes could separate the top three candidates, and the one with the fewest will be dropped before the third and final tally.

Vital endorsements

Now for our final assumption. Abbott has publicly stated that he prefers Falcon over Clark, a clear signal to his supporters that they should mark the former as second-choice on their preferential ballots. It probably is safe to say that Falcon's supporters similarly will mark Abbott as their runner-up option.

Clark, simply, does not appear likely to pick up many second choices from either Abbott's or Falcon's supporters. And that means the only way she can win the party leadership is to have a massive (really huge) lead on the first ballot. While not impossible, it looks to be a mathematical challenge.

Our choice(s) for the winner on Saturday, and next premier of British Columbia: either Kevin Falcon or George Abbott.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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