Can Nova's Scotia's Liberals blow a big lead too?

The numbers for the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia and its leader Stephen McNeil look fabulous with less than a week to go until the votes are counted.

Two pollsters, including one commissioned by Sun News Network, have found support for the Liberals among committed and likely voters to be miles ahead of the incumbent NDP government and Premier Darrell Dexter. (in the video above, pollster David Coletto and I go through the numbers.)

But we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we? Days before the vote last spring in B.C., opposition leader Adrian Dix and the NDP were miles ahead of the incumbent Liberal government and Premier Christy Clark. A year earlier in Alberta, polls published on the weekend before the vote showed Danielle Smith and the Wild Rose Party miles head of the incumbent Progressive Conservative Alison Redford.

Clark and the Liberals crushed Dix and the NDP — Clark actually got a bigger majority government — and Redford and the PCs crushed Smith and the Wild Rose.

The Clark and Redford wins were also in line with a trend we’ve seen across Canadian politics for the last two years of voters being extremely hesitant to choose change. Starting with the federal election in the spring of 2011 that incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper would win, the incumbent premier has prevailed in provincial elections in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island. The only incumbent to lose during that period was Quebec Liberal Jean Charest — and fell short by a whisker even though polls in that province predicted he’d take a drubbing.

In every case, the incumbent’s core message to the electorate was that the opposition leader was “not worth the risk.” It didn’t matter if it was a Conservative like Stephen Harper with that message about a Liberal opponent or a New Democrat like Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger with the same message about a Progressive Conservative opponent — voters bought it.

You won’t be surprised to learn that in Nova Scotia, Dexter and the NDP are now pushing their message hard that McNeil is not worth the risk. (Watch for the tagline here)

So, with days to go, can Dexter do what Clark and Redford did, overcome a massive deficit to an opposition leader in the public domain polling and pull off a victory?

Our pollster, David Coletto of Abacus Data, believes it’s possible although, as he says, the window may be closing fast. (Watch the video above)

I think that, unless McNeil or the Liberals shoot themselves in the foot, they will not suffer the fate of the BC NDP or Alberta’s Wild Rose.

That’s because in both B.C. and Alberta, the opposition parties did something during the election that confirmed in voters’ eyes the charge levelled at them that they were, in fact, “not worth the risk.” In B.C., Dix, in a mid-campaign gamble to win votes he believed were leaking to the Green Party, vowed to block expansion of an oil pipeline taking Alberta bitumen to tankers in Vancouver’s harbour. This became known as the “Kinder Morgan surprise”, named after the pipeline operator, and, gave the Liberals their opening. Here is Brian Topp,the NDP campaign manager, explaining that in his post-mortem memo on his failed campaign.

Our move on Kinder-Morgan gave the Liberals a very helpful two-pocket pool shot that they played right through to the end of the campaign. It gave them an opening to turn our apparent inconsistency into a character issue about our leader – surfacing their heretofore flimsily disguised personal attack strategy and bringing it into the core of the debate. And it simultaneously allowed them to build on their argument that changing the government was too economically risky – their core case for re-election.

Clark’s Liberals kept hammering home in their messaging that they were all about jobs and the economy and Dix was an anti-development tree-hugger. Fair or not, the politics worked and Clark won.

In Alberta, Danielle Smith had to put out fires late in her campaign involving candidates who made some politically incorrect comments about social issues. Smith was trying to drive a campaign about government accountability and economic progress and these issues sidetracked the campaign.  Her campaign remained distracted on this issue for a couple of days at the end while Redford and the PCs stuck with the “not worth the risk” meme and a message of economic stability. Voters chose stability.

Here’s Brian Topp again:

Why did Wildrose lose so convincingly?

An anonymous member of the Wildrose campaign team offered the view, widely quoted, that several “bozo moments” did them in. “Bozo moment” being the kind of disrespectful and divisive shorthand an angry political strategist might use to describe a duly nominated candidate for office who has chosen to think what they want, say what they want, and (presumably) later vote as they want. In the case of Wildrose, that meant a candidate wishing to promote the idea that gay people will burn in lakes of fire, and another who advocated the idea that it is a political advantage to be a Caucasian — statements that, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith seemed to suggest, sunk her campaign in its last days and thus prevented her team from getting to implement any of their proposals.

But as the Alberta election testifies, our political system also brutally punishes political teams who fail to maintain the tightest possible order in their ranks — at least as far as anyone can see — at every stage of proceedings including elections. “Bozo moments,” policy disagreements, strategy debated in public: Any chink of light is seized on as evidence of unfitness for office.

So far in the Nova Scotia campaign, McNeil and the Liberals have been about as bland as you can get, playing a classic front-runner game by avoiding any semblance of bold statements or vision. The party has some positions on any number of issues, mind you, but if you really parse them out they’re not too far from either the incumbent NDP or the third party Progressive Conservatives. McNeil is taking heat because his “platform is thin” and because he  “is not above massaging the facts in his pursuit of the premiership.”

Moreover, in Nova Scotia politics, unlike in B.C. or Alberta or some other provinces, the ideological gap between the NDP, Liberals and PCs is a lot smaller. So, when Dexter tries to sell voters on the narrative that McNeil is “not worth the risk”, voters are not seeing “validation” of that narrative the way voters did in B.C. and Alberta when the incumbent started making those charges.

So-called bozo moments can happen any time in a campaign but, so far at least, the Liberal campaign in Nova Scotia has been free of those and the “validation” they would provide voters of the Dexter narrative that McNeil is “not worth the risk.”


One thought on “Can Nova's Scotia's Liberals blow a big lead too?”

  1. David Akin like the rest of the bitter Tory hacks at the Sun can’t stand the fact the Liberals are going to win Nova Scotia big. Your Tories are dead in the Maritimes pal. The Newfoundland Liberals have a huge lead in the polls and will crush the tired and corrupt Tories there. The only right wing governments in Canada that will be left are the Sask Party and the free spending Tories in Alberta. Harper and is Tories also trail in federal polls that show 70 per cent of Canadians think it’s time for a change in Ottawa. Time for the Sun to tell us again how Canada is now right wing country and the Tories are the natural governing party. What a crock.

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