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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20 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. “How the media and &hellip  |  November 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    […] Just because I know this will set off a big argument. Here you go, Bob Penner’s analysis. […]

  • 2. Leon  |  November 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I am not surprised at all given the current deplorable state of the media who have not only abdicated their traditional role in the Democratic process that they are expected/needed to play by the community at large, but they have also been coopted by various corrupt leaders and institutions to carry water and maximize exposure of proprietary content/issues at any price (via hyperbole, sensationalism, speciousness, exaggeration, general distortion). This betrayal is part of what #occupy recognizes and protests against. The MSM have been so thoroughly caustic to their supposed constituents and are completely responsible for their current debilitated state and imminent demise.

    We are living in an era where analog/traditional media is morphing into something mostly digital that lends itself profoundly to the democratization of information (and all of the correlating ramifications that more truth brings), as opposed to its former “processing and distribution” model by a comparatively small number of entities. The MSM has demonstrated abject ineptitude in recognizing how this new climate and its obvious trajectory affects their very relevance and survival. I can’t imagine who is directing their executives as they continue to push the accelerator whilst being over the cliff. My prediction is that they will even be further compartmentalized and marginalized until they all but disappear, and I am excited about the silver lining which that portends. They just don’t seem to understand who their true benefactors are; but they will.

  • 3. Josh Coles  |  November 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Brilliant points Bob. I don’t have any data to back me up but I would add another thing the NPA got wrong Occupy: undecideds scented that Anton would get militaristic on the Occupiers.

    But the last thing most undecideds want, I posit, is another “riot.”

    Correct Ms. Anton?

  • 4. Jason  |  November 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Bob, gives a nice transparency into the thinking behind the campaign. Especially thank you for you and your team’s hard work getting Vision elected again and keeping Vancouver progressive!

  • 5. Minami  |  March 17, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks to the staff of Innes Navigation. The skipper that I talk to was very kwaelndgoble and answered all my questions. He even made a few suggestions that I didn’t think to ask. Your office staff was always there to talk to me and help me out. I will recommend you to all my friends. Thank you very much.

  • 6. urbanizta  |  November 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Perhaps the biggest winners of Occupy during the election were the mainstream media, as it appears that Vision and NPA had to increase their expenditures in order to get attention. Did the Province, Vancouver Sun, Courier, 24-Hours and Metro get a greater-than-expected spike in political advertising revenues? Perhaps the editor’s fascination in Occupy wasn’t only for the sake of an interesting story.

  • 7. Tally Cola  |  November 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for this insightful article, Bob. I thought it was always very silly for the NPA to focus so much on Occupy, as if it wasn’t a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of things, and related to a global movement that just happened to coincide in time with the elections. It’s also interesting to see that bike lanes and chickens weren’t the big issues that some vocal few insisted they were.

    I would like to point out that Occupy Vancouver isn’t “over” though, just currently without a base camp. They might decide to not have tents set up at all and just meet regularly for meetings and workgroups, which of course decreases the visibility, but the movement itself is still happening. Anybody concerned with global inequality is more than welcome to come to meetings to discuss possible solutions when this distraction of the tents is finished with.

  • 8. TEA & TWO SLICES: On &hellip  |  November 23, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    […] of the day: AY604, “This is the worst episode of House Hunters ever. #OccupyVancouver”How the media and the NPA got it wrong in the Vancouver election. Don’t believe the hype! AKA, your enemies were right.And yet Christy Clark does the exact […]

  • 9. AnneH  |  November 23, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Just as we are constantly hearing the depressing news that everyone dislikes negative campaigning but nonetheless it works, the happy news is, wow, people aren’t stupid after all!

    I’m very cheered that Vancouver voters are too smart to be manipulated like brainless sheep to suit an agenda, that a clear majority looked at the big picture, and didn’t fall for a short-term distraction… that the other campaign could only have have been secretly hoping would become a full-on debacle.

    Thanks, Bob, it great to know we don’t need to go Rove.

  • 10. Brent Gibson  |  November 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    I hope that you are right, Anne – but I fear that it was the extremity of the blunt NPA instrument rather than the negativity itself that put people off – even a neg campaign requires a modicum of finesse – something that these angrly little people couldn’t grasp. I subscribed to Klassen’s blog in the name of diversity about eighteen months ago, but only lasted about six months – it was not so much about dialogue as diatribe.

  • 11. Jeff Murdock  |  November 26, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    “the happy news is, wow, people aren’t stupid after all!”

    Actually, people are stupid. Since Bob reports that affordability was a top issue, people should have voted for Sandy Garossino, the only council candidate with anything intelligent to say about affordability.

  • 12. Bob Penner  |  November 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks for everyone who commented and liked, further comments can be found on the cross posting by Frances Bula at Francesbula.com. I hope to publish another post related to the Vancouver election on Friday. Bob.

  • 13. Michael Francis McCarthy  |  November 23, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis – and for Frances for pointing me in your direction. Best, Michael

  • 14. Ian Reid  |  November 23, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Excellent analysis Bob. Without the data I wrote basically the same thing on my blog, but you nailed the details. It seemed to me that Anton’s final number was a base vote with few independents.

    I think her whole campaign was a mistake if the object was to win. It was clear to me that that was never really the goal. Rather it was to gather the base and win a few extra seats, preparing for next time. I also think voter suppression was an NPA goal, because a strategy focussed on motivating the base means results improve with lower turnouts.

    And the media did miss the real campaign. I can’t think of another campaign where the gap between the media and the voters was greater and I’ve been around a long, long time.

    BTW: great campaign.

  • 15. Bob Penner  |  November 24, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Hi Ian, thanks. Funny I just read your Vancouver Observer commentary, and you make almost all the same points and more, without the benefit of the internal data. I encourage people to take a look at that in VO. ” NPA got mad when they should have gotten smart” http://tinyurl.com/6qbp5ym

    I think it is very true than the NPA campaign was based more on anger (Rob MacDonald’s in particular I think) than strategy, and some of that anger comes from a loss of entitlement to run the city as they used to.

  • 16. Monte Paulsen  |  November 24, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Thanks, Bob. Useful and thought-provoking. I have two questions:

    (1.) How did NSV affect the vote split? Is there any evidence that NSV stole NIMBY voters from NPA? From COPE?

    (2.) Though I can’t imagine how it would occur, but what might happen if anti-density voters (eg, NIMBY groups from right and left and weird) were to join and challenge pro-green-density voters (eg, Vision, the Ladner wing of the NPA, and those COPEsters beaten into exile by Tim Louis, etc.)?

    In other words, are we mature enough to quit the tired infighting over “developers” and start having an adult discussion about where we are going to house the next 100,000 Vancouver residents?

    (Not to mention how to do so in a way that is both affordable and net-zero-energy.)

    And, again, thanks for your steady hand this past campaign.

  • 17. Bob Penner  |  November 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks Monte. NSV in our polling was basically too small to measure, so I couldn’t tell where their vote was coming from. I assume they drew a bit from all of the parties, but also largely from those people who are predisposed to vote “other”. Probably Wendythirteen whoever she may be, bled a few to Helten, as did the other lower mayor candidates. The total other mayoral candidate vote this time is about what it always is, actually a little less, even with there being fewer of them. So that pool moved around, probably.

    On the development/density discussion, one good place to have that discussion is within Vision, different ideas on this are represented within the party and everyone recognizes that the needs of neighborhoods and need to be balanced with a need to accomodate more people affordably in an environmentally sustainable way. Not easy but we have good people working on it, and we could always use more.

  • 18. Punk  |  November 26, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    You don’t know who wendythirteen is!?!

  • 19. Eleanor Gregory  |  November 26, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Sound analysis. Glad I followed the link from Frances Bula’s blog to read this.

    What I would like to know is why did COPE do so badly? I’ve read the various rants and theories but haven’t read anything that helps me figure this out. As a former school trustee, I really appreciated the work that Jane Bouey and Al Blakey did during their various terms on the board and thought that Gwen Giesbrecht, from her experience on DPAC, had a lot to offer.

    Any ideas?

  • 20. What Really Happened! &la&hellip  |  December 5, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    […] Vision pollster Bob Penner offered a particularly salient observation about our tactics relating to Occupy Vancouver: 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. […]

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