The enormity of the Tory problem...

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A few thoughts on the Virginia Waters byelection

This is what a watershed moment looks like.

Let’s just get some perspective and look at the enormity of the situation. Cathy Bennett won a seat that was formerly held for more than a decade by Kathy Dunderdale – a frontbench minister and eventually premier of the province. In 2011, Dunderdale won the seat with 60 per cent of the vote; the Liberals didn’t even crack double digits. On Wednesday evening, Bennett only beat Danny Breen by 40 votes, but that’s still a stunning reversal from the 2011 numbers.

This comes on the heels of last fall’s Carbonear-Harbour Grace byelection, where the Liberals reclaimed a seat of another frontbench minister – former finance minister Jerome Kennedy. The Liberals have been first in the CRA quarterly polling since August, and in the past year they’ve managed to go from six MHAs in the legislature to 12.

It’s easy to say that the Liberals have a lot of momentum right now, but there’s another way of looking at it that’s even more bleak for the Tories: it’s getting hard to remember the last time the PC party had a good, clean, unambiguous political win. They haven’t been winning byelections, they haven’t been winning in the public opinion polls, their big policy wins – CETA, Muskrat Falls, public service collective agreements, etc. – have gained zero traction with public opinion.

Seriously, when was the last time the Tories scored a political win?

A lot of people have been drawing comparisons to the pair of byelections in 2001 that elected Trevor Taylor and Wally Young for the Tories at the dawn of the Danny Williams era. I was reporting from Cathy Bennett’s camp while the numbers were rolling in and I ended up talking to a guy who was in a pretty good position to draw those parallels: Tom Osborne.

Back in 2001, Osborne was sitting in opposition for with the Tories and the momentum was on their side; a couple years later, Osborne would ride into government with the PC party. Now, here we are more than a decade later, and Osborne is sitting in opposition with the Liberals and the momentum is on their side. Osborne told me this has a similar feel to 2001.

I asked him if it felt like déjà vu.

He just laughed and said, “This is pretty cool.”

 

The 12th premier's problem

Tom Marshall seems to be having a lot of fun as premier – he cracks jokes constantly when speaking to the media, and he always seems to have a bemused expression on his face. Marshall is, by a wide margin, the funniest politician I’ve ever covered, (runners-up include Gerry Byrne and Danny Williams.) Don’t underestimate the guy. Marshall is a seasoned politician, and easily one of the smartest people in the legislature, but these days he also seems like a guy without a care in the world and nothing to lose.

He’ll pass whistleblower legislation (hopefully, eventually, although we still haven’t seen the text of the legislation a month after it was announced ... hint, hint ... I’d really like to see the text of that legislation, guys.) He’ll steer the government towards adding radiation to west coast health-care services — which will play well in his hometown of Corner Brook. Marshall will also start the ball rolling on the ATIPPA review, and this as yet undefined Open Government Initiative. Then, in early July, he'll stroll off into the sunset – probably after cracking a couple more jokes to whichever reporters happen to be standing nearby. On July 6th, after the Tory convention is over, the polls, the looming general election, the pension situation and all the other massive political problems facing the Tory government won't be Marshall’s problems anymore.

On July 6th, it'll be the next guy’s problem.

And I can tell you right now, the Liberals are feeling pretty good about their chances against the next guy. Amid all the back-slapping, high-fiving, hugging and cheering at Bennett headquarters Wednesday night when the final results came in, a staffer bellowed “Coleman! We’re coming for you!” (Apologies to Bill Barry, but the consensus among the people I talk to is that Frank Coleman is the frontrunner by a huge margin in the PC party leadership race.)

Right now, the Liberals are better organized, they’re above 50 per cent in the polls and they seem to be able to win byelections just about anywhere in the province. In the past couple months, I’ve also started hearing rumblings that they’re close to settling the party debt, which will put them in a much stronger financial position.

This is the enormity of the 12th premier’s problem. When he takes over on July 6th, he’ll have exactly one year or less to turn all of this around ahead of a general election in 2015. Back in 2010, when Dunderdale was sworn in as premier, she inherited a PC party that was sitting at 75 per cent in the polls. (The CRA news release headline that month was “Williams’ Popularity as a Premier Unmatched in Canadian History.”) Dunderdale could essentially coast for a year and then win a majority government in the 2011 election. For Coleman or Barry, though, coasting will not be an option. In the next year, the 12th premier will have to do something truly dramatic to win back public support if he wants even a fighting chance at winning the next election, because if the political landscape doesn’t change, he doesn’t have a hope in hell.

 

The Williams effect

Danny Williams was all over the place in the last couple weeks of the Virginia Waters byelection. It got so crazy towards the end that the Tories were literally issuing news releases to invite the media to watch Williams and Breen eat lunch. Seriously.

We know he’s still super popular. I don’t have access to the parties’ internal tracking polls, but I’ve been told that Williams shifted public opinion and boosted Danny Breen. But the bottom line here is that the Williams effect, whatever it was, was at least 40 votes short. If Williams can’t win it for you – a guy whose popularity is “unmatched in Canadian history” – then you might be in big trouble.

 

Voter turnout

There was some talk Wednesday evening about voter turnout. People were bemoaning the fact that only about half of eligible voters showed up to the polls. Setting aside the bigger issue, that voter engagement has been steadily declining across North America for a while now, the Virginia Waters byelection wasn’t really all that bad.

Byelection voter turnout is generally lower that general election turnout. You don’t get the same saturation of news coverage that an election gets, you have different campaign dynamics and the issues tend to be different. I did some quick and dirty math, comparing the voter turnout of the last eight byelections to the turnout in the same districts in the 2007 and 2011 general elections. You can see my spreadsheet here. The bottom line is that on average, byelection voter turnout in those eight districts was around 47 per cent. General election turnout was around 57 per cent in those same eight districts in 2011, and around 62 per cent in 2007.

Byelection voter turnout tends to be lower. That’s normal.

That lower voter turnout is important, by the way, in the context of Virginia Waters. Part of the reason I ended up at Bennett's camp Wednesday night is, frankly, I thought she was going to win it. It's more fun to cover winners than losers, and I wanted to be there to report on what looked like a watershed moment for the Liberal party.

A big part of why I thought Bennett would win is because from what I saw of the campaign, the Liberals were much better organized. When voter turnout tends to be low, that favours the party with a better organization. If you can identify the people in a district who will definitely vote for you and then make sure, come hell or high water, that they show up at the polls, you have an advantage in any election. If you can get your people to the polls in an election where a lot of other people aren't showing up, you have a bigger advantage.

The Tories sent a lot of MHAs and cabinet ministers out door knocking during the byelection, and that probably helped a bit. But it's no substitute for an army of motivated volunteers going door-to-door, figuring out which houses have committed Liberal supporters inside, and then haranguing those people on election day and making sure they vote. That's the sort of thing that wins elections.

I'm not deep enough inside the Liberals or the Tories to give you a definitive ruling on which party is better organized right now. But I rode the Liberal bus for two weeks during the 2011 election, and I saw some of their campaigning in Virginia Waters in the past month. Based on that, I can firmly tell you that the Liberals have more volunteers, better organization and a more effective machine than any time in recent memory.

As if the Tories don't have enough to worry about already — that should worry them, too.

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