Pre-Occupied: How the media and the NPA got it wrong in the Vancouver election

November 23, 2011

This is the fourth Vancouver election in a row where I have been a pollster (the last three for Vision Vancouver), and this was the oddest I’ve seen here – or anywhere else I’ve worked for that matter.

One issue, Occupy Vancouver, set the tone and dominated the coverage throughout. Many media commentators said that the election was a referendum on Occupy – that it was a “defining moment” or a “key leadership moment.” One reporter told me his editor was “obsessed with Occupy.” No doubt he was – but the people of Vancouver weren’t.

In our polling, Occupy Vancouver never even showed up on the list of top 15 unprompted issues for voters.  Nor, by the way, did chickens. Separated bike lanes were there, but the number of people who were pro bike lanes was always significantly higher than those opposed. The actual top issues were affordability, homelessness, and transit. Environmental issues in various manifestations were prominent as well.

As for how the Mayor handled Occupy Vancouver, though some public polls referred to a significant percentage of people who thought the Mayor was handling Occupy poorly, those polling reports never said which people didn’t like the job he was doing —  which most of the time is key to understanding a poll politically.  In this case, those who disagreed with the Mayor’s handling of Occupy were in large part the same people who opposed much of his agenda – people who were voting overwhelmingly for Suzanne Anton anyway, i.e. her base.  There’s a pretty good chance that if they thought the Mayor did a poor job on Occupy, they also hated separated bike lanes.

The NPA hammering Occupy Vancouver may have motivated those voters more (although motivation was already an advantage with the smaller, angrier, more concentrated NPA base).  But at the same time, Anton’s focus on Occupy also hurt her with some voters: many felt she was politicizing the issue for her own political gain. While these voters were mostly in the Robertson camp, they could also be found among Anton voters, and significantly among the undecided as well.  Mostly though, for the vast majority of voters, how the two contenders handled the occupation issue wasn’t a vote-deciding issue at all.

And the NPA would have seen this too (that is, if they had accurate or useful polling, something that remains uncertain).  So why the NPA preoccupation with Occupy?  Here are some theories:

  1. A mistake: they believed the media and their own hype (a common campaign error).
  2. They had little else that was working so were prepared to try something new.
  3. They were internally divided, with some believing correctly that a campaign on bike lanes and chickens was a ticket to nowhere. Focusing on Occupy may have helped solve the argument.
  4. They were banking on Occupy blowing up much more, with a raid or riot, thereby changing the campaign dynamics — a change they desperately needed. Fortunately that didn’t happen. The Mayor’s steady hand on this, and on other tough issues he has inherited, is why a lot of people want him to stay their Mayor.

It did get Anton on the news, and the sheer volume of extra coverage probably did help her somewhat, given her low recognition and approvals at the beginning of the campaign. Almost any coverage had to have some positive effect, given her starting point.

And no doubt some voters, although not a large number, disagreed with the Mayor’s position on Occupy from the left or the right, and he lost a few votes as a result. But not many.

So, if Occupy Vancouver wasn’t the vote-decider that the NPA wanted, what was its effect on the election?

Its most significant effect was to block other news coverage. Vision’s agenda and record are well supported by the public in Vancouver, but they didn’t hear much about that agenda – at least not from the news media.  It was even harder for COPE, who had less access to the media to begin with (and very little after Occupy), and fewer resources than the other parties to go over top of the media with paid advertising.  Occupy may even have hurt the NPA. Focusing relentlessly on it may have stopped them from searching out more significant issues that might have actually resonated with voters.

But all this was minor; for those that speculated that we in the Vision campaign sat around terrified of Occupy Vancouver and its effect on the election – they were wrong. Given Occupy’s prominence, we obviously did have to spend time on it, and watch it carefully. And that was frustrating at times.

Media coverage of elections is problematic at the best of times – and this wasn’t the best of times.  The occupiers are mostly gone now, and the mud is being bulldozed back into place on the art gallery lawn. In the end they didn’t have much effect on the outcome of the election (nor unfortunately on the problems of income inequality, but that’s another story). But the media’s relentless focus on Occupy Vancouver’s every move, and the politicians’ every reaction to it, did limit more useful information from reaching voters, and we all missed an opportunity for a more substantive political debate, something that – at least in part – election campaigns are supposed to be about.

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