Will voters be in a giving mood in South Surrey-White Rock by-election?

A federal by-election has been called for December 11th in South Surrey-White Rock, which will provide an interesting read of the political thermometer two years out from a general election.

Traditionally, this area has been inhospitable to Liberals.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time the South Surrey-White Rock area had a federal Liberal MP – not in my lifetime.  They took a pass on Trudeaumania (and candidate Bill Vander Zalm!) in 1968, electing an NDPer. At that time, Surrey and White Rock were encompassed in one riding – how times have changed.  Since 1974, the Conservatives have owned the riding.  Voters were Scrooge-like toward my old friend Reni Masi (later elected as MLA) who ran twice as a Grit in the area, but gave like Santa when it came to voting for Progressive Conservative Benno Friesen.

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On December 11th, will South Surrey-White Rock voters continue to be Scrooge-like toward the Liberals?  Or give like Santa?

Gordie Hogg tried in 1993, unsuccessfully, as a Chretien Liberal, losing to upstart Reformer Val Meredith.  MLA Wilf Hurd resigned his seat to try it on as a Fed Lib in 1997 and lost; Hogg then took Hurd’s seat in the Legislature and served for 20 years.

Will this time be different?  After a brief two-year stint in Ottawa, Conservative Dianne Watts resigned her seat to contest the BC Liberal leadership.  If successful in her quest, she will be on a very short list of people who have served as Mayor, MP, and MLA.  In the meantime, Gordie Hogg may do the same if elected on December 11th, becoming the first to do so since (I think) Gerry McGeer, the former mayor of Vancouver, who accomplished that feat, plus senator.

The Liberals are bullish and must be encouraged by not only Hogg’s candidacy, but a strong turnout for PM Justin Trudeau last week in White Rock.

Let’s take a look at 2011 and 2015 numbers for BC and  South Surrey-White Rock:

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The Conservatives hung on in 2015 – barely.  Despite Dianne Watts’ profile as longtime mayor of Surrey, the Conservative vote dropped from 52.9% to 44%.  Taking a closer look, however, it appears that Watts ran ahead of the curve, salvaging the seat.  In 2011, the Conservatives ran 1.16X the BC popular vote, whereas in 2015, they were 1.47X ahead.

The Liberals were shot out of a cannon in 2015 compared to 2011.  The Liberal vote in BC increased 2.63X, but in South Surrey-White Rock, the gain was only 2.18X.  Had the trend been replicated there, Judy Higginbotham would be the MP.  There are extenuating circumstances – Judy wasn’t supposed to be on the ballot.  The longtime Liberal warrior jumped in when the initial candidate was ejected mid-campaign for a since-forgotten gaffe.  Arguably, the Conservatives benefited from that bit of luck.  At the outset of the campaign, it must have looked like they would cruise to victory with Watts and, by the end, they were in an unexpected fight of their life.  It’s one of the few toe-holds they have left in Metro Vancouver.

With the Liberals leading the Conservatives by about five points in the BC popular vote in 2015 but losing this seat, it stands to reason that the Liberals need to be as popular relative to the Conservatives in BC now in order to win the by-election, and trust that Gordie Hogg’s profile in the area lifts them a few additional points over former MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay, who has parachuted in.

The NDP is not a factor here.  I’m sure that strategists at Big Orange are devising ways to drive up Justin’s negatives in the by-election to aid the election of a Conservative.

The latest public polls (caveat emptor) are contradictory regarding federal party standings in BC.   Angus Reid has a four-point CPC lead; Nanos has a six-point Liberal lead; and Abacus has an 11-point Liberal lead.

Then there is turnout.  The 2015 general election had a 75% turnout.  It was a high turnout election to begin with, but in South Surrey-White Rock, they have voting circled in their calendars – it’s an event.   I would expect a drop in turnout like any by-election but not as steep a drop as other places.  Older people will disproportionately vote in a by-election compared to a general election (I have no data at my fingertips to back up this claim, but I think it’s true).  That should give the Conservatives a bit of help.

The Upshot:

The Conservatives had a stronger candidate in 2015 relative to 2011, and the Liberals had candidate trouble.  The Conservatives over-performed; Liberals under-performed.

The Liberals have recruited a strong candidate in 2017; the Conservatives have a good candidate but she is not personally well-known in the riding.  Advantage: Liberals.

The atmosphere in BC is the wildcard.  The Conservatives have a new leader in Andrew Scheer – are they better or worse off than 2015?  Likely worse off as Scheer is not very well-known or defined.  CPC has to make the by-election ballot question about the Liberals and Trudeau, not about local representation.

To that end, just how damaging are the Morneau-small business tax changes?  This riding should feel this issue more than most – it’s full of upper income, white collar professionals with a small ‘c’ conservative tilt.  Many of the people who voted Liberal last time in South Surrey-White Rock are the type of voters that Scheer needs to attract.  If anything, this by-election is a litmus test as to whether that issue – which dominated federal political headlines in August-September, has any teeth at the ballot box.

In three weeks, we’ll know if the voters are feeling like Santa or Scrooge when it comes to the mid-term government.  For the Liberals, this is a seat they never win so they have little to lose so long as they manage expectations.   For the Conservatives, it will be tough loss for a new leader, on the heels of losing a Quebec seat to the Liberals recently, though also an opportunity for momentum for a new leader trying to get established.  Right now, the Conservatives look like they have their work cut out for them.

 

 

 

 

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