Politicians love to say it, especially when they are doing badly in the polls. Premier Kathy Dunderdale, whose party has been trending third in provincial opinion polling, has said it herself: the only poll that matters is the one on election day.
Well, in a byelection in Carbonear-Harbour Grace, provincial election officials just counted the ballots in the only poll that matters, and Dunderdale’s Tories were left likcing their wounds.
It’s something of a startling message — or, at least, it should be. Carbonear-Harbour Grace is a district that, until recently, was represented by one of the most powerful Tory politicians in the province. Jerome Kennedy held down, at one point or another, virtually every top post that you could get in cabinet. The district has done well under the Tories, and the governing party certainly threw everything they had at the campaign.
The last few weeks have been a veritable landslide of good news announcements, with the hyperbole reaching the point where Finance Minister Tom Marshall decreed in the House of Assembly that, in this province, we are all lucky to be living in a “golden age.”
In the end, though, it was the Liberals’ Sam Slade, a former mayor from the area, who took the vote, cruising to a win that was probably more comfortable than anyone would have expected, more than 400 votes ahead of his Tory competition.
What does the victory mean? Well, you can look at it several different ways: it might be premature to suggest from a byelection in just one district that the voters are looking for a change in government (although the Liberals have already said pretty much that).
What it says more than anything else is that there aren’t any safe seats for the Tories; that the next election will at least be more hotly contested, and that anyone who slid in on Tory coattails last time might be in for a fight.
The other thing you can almost count on? Tory members who have been in office a long time, especially those who are now fully pensionable, will be looking to their guts to see if they have the stomach for a full-fledged battle, or whether it’s time to let someone else fight the 2015 election.
Most of all, though, this should be taken (at least by the government) as something of a warning.
There’s another saying about polls — well, about byelections, anyway. Governments regularly lose them. Why? Because it’s a nice, safe, easy way for voters to signal that they’re unhappy with the direction that the government’s taking, without having to change out the current crew entirely.
The only question when it comes to that particular message is whether the Tories are listening.