Election Night Report: Vancouver-Fraserview

This is one tough crowd. Suzanne Anton is in the apartment block attached to the Finnish Canadian Rest Home, hunting for seniors who’ll buy her message. Response so far has been poor. Are you Finnish? Are you all hockey fans? One woman passing the afternoon out on the balcony barely responds. My best friend in Duncan was Finnish. Do you know the German consul-general? His wife is Finnish. Inside, a fellow avoids eye contact, saying he has voted Liberal all his life but this time he just can’t get excited either way. Faced with such indifference, Anton-battling to retain the Liberals’ hold on this riding of Vancouver-Fraserview-has her answer ready: All right, if you don’t like the party, consider voting just for me, the candidate. I live on the south side. I helped fight for this area when I was a city councillor. I’ll make sure a seniors’ centre gets built here.

In the run-up to the May 14 election, Anton has pitched this message hundreds, thousands, of times in a frantic effort to get out those few votes that might make the difference. (Fraserview has been Liberal since Gordon Campbell first came to power in 2001; in the last election, Kash Heed beat out first-time NDP candidate Gabriel Yiu by 750 votes.) Spurring her on is the mantra her team developed about her opponent: Yiu’s a tired candidate people have already made their minds up about. He’s not as well known in the Chinese community as the NDP would like everyone to think. He’s lost this riding before.

Back at campaign headquarters, squeezed between the Yu Kee Barbecue Kitchen and the Killarney Market in the strip mall at East 49th and Elliott, Rowena Lim is working Fraserview her own way. A West Side mom who came to know Anton through the all-powerful children’s soccer network, she has spent hours each day in this southeast corner of Vancouver, making endless calls to Chinese-speaking homes, knocking on doors, filling the office with upbeat chatter about how great Anton is and what a hopeless campaign the NDP is running. By contrast, Colin Simkus seems a little exasperated. The Liberal voter contact chair, a husky 27-year-old with a booming voice and hair that looks like baby bear fur, indicates that Anton is being less than peak efficient. She should be sticking to the motherland, the parts of the riding that his team of data-crunchers has calculated to be Liberal-vote rich. The Finnish complex where Anton just spent 60 precious minutes? Yiu got 42 votes there in the last election; then-candidate Kash Heed got 33. Statistically, it’s an iffy area to spend her energy. Keep reading…

At this point, 24 hours before the polls close, it seems easy to comprehend the data and understand the direction it’s pointing: an NDP conquest across B.C. widely and in this riding specifically. But if the 2013 provincial election has taught us anything in hindsight, it’s that numbers are reliable only when taken in exquisitely understood context. On the wall behind Simkus hangs a map that lays out past voting behaviour in the riding. At its centre, in shades of blue, are the areas where Liberal voters outnumbered NDP ones in 2009. Anton has walked almost all of those blocks. Further out stand red-shaded chunks representing the write-off zones, filled mostly with NDP voters unlikely to have their minds changed. It’s not that those areas have no Liberal voters; they just aren’t populous enough to warrant a visit.

The map has several other red don’t-bother zones: the co-op housing pressed up against Boundary Rd., the new developments below Marine Dr., even sporadic crimson splotches in the blue heartland. (Why those eruptions of traitorous NDP votes? Social housing. Campaign manager Walter Schultz describes the residents as people who rely on government cheques and subsidies, so don’t care about taxes or the economy-things that the Liberal government and its voters do care about deeply.)

Gabriel Yiu has the same map, only in reverse. His team knows where their territory is, but unlike the Liberal brain trust, they’re happy to see their candidate make forays into ground previously held by the enemy. When Yiu goes out door-knocking among the blocks of ostentatious new houses near Victoria Dr., it’s with the blessing of his wonks. Wherever he can, he tells his story, often in Cantonese: I’m local, my children went to these schools, I run a small business, I know this area, I’ll fight for it. Suzanne Anton isn’t from South Vancouver; she’s from the West Side. When that doesn’t seem to be working, as happened at the door of one woman who peppered him with questions about the NDP’s platform, he launches into the sins of the Liberals: BC Rail, the convention centre cost overruns, the BC Place roof, the carbon tax that penalized schools.

Yiu also travels with a sidekick. People like Kester Wong (and Rowena Lim) are a natural part of every campaign, volunteers who get drawn in by personal, not political, connections. Wong, in fact, claims he can’t remember who he voted for in the last provincial election, which the team takes to mean he’s embarrassed to say he voted Liberal. But this time, after meeting Yiu in a local park, the outgoing retired hotel manager has grown into a mainstay. In his Tilley hat and shorts, Wong tours Yiu around the blocks near his house, introducing him to neighbours, leading him to back doors and basement suites for more voters.

In a race for the undecided and convertible voter, Yiu seems to be winning. And yet, a little over 24 hours later, he will be rejected a second time, leaving his campaign office by the back door without even stopping to speak to the waiting Chinese media. Anton, by contrast, will defy the odds, the polls, the political scientists, and the UBC election market to join Christy Clark in victory. Keep reading…

To the general public, it might seem as though elections are all about inspiring messages for the future (“Skills training!”), dire warnings about opponents (“Fact-free!”), and carefully parsed statements about balancing the budget someday, somewhere. To those who run campaigns, that’s secondary. The best message in the world is useless if people hearing it don’t get off the couch. One experienced strategist says a party can gain up to eight percentage points in an election just through good voter contact. Elections become all about training the candidate, the volunteers, and the paid phone teams on two things: find out who your voters are, then get them to the polls. Efficiently-no campaign these days has endless volunteers or endless dollars.

Efficiency begins by understanding the city and the riding. In 2009, six of Vancouver’s 11 ridings went Liberal, capturing Yuppies in Fairview and Kitsilano, high-end older professionals in Dunbar and Kerrisdale, and then the whole southern slope of the city, which doesn’t fit the popular clichés of Vancouver. With not a Lululemon-clad jogger or plaid-wearing longboarder in sight, Fraserview is closer in spirit to Abbotsford than Strathcona. As both the NDP and Liberal campaign managers in the riding had carefully noted even before the writ was dropped this spring, this area is one of the most ethnically diverse in the province: 47 percent Chinese, many of them the generation that moved out of the Chinatown ghetto decades ago; 14 percent South Asian (the generation that settled in Vancouver long before Surrey became the go-to); a newly developing cluster of Filipinos; remnants of the German families who first gathered around Fraser; and a mixed remainder. It’s older than the rest of the city, and packed with multi-generation families in a chaotic collection of World War II bungalows, Vancouver Specials, and grand new mini-palaces festooned with fake rock and etched-glass doors.

This is not a place where people rush out to buy the New York Times or tune in to the news every night to track the latest twist in politics. “Low-information voters” is how one campaigner described them. Their interest in fracking and pipelines is minimal, but they care deeply about anything that threatens their household security-crime is a big concern; so are education, taxes, and the economy. Fraserview is the B.C. riding that had the highest vote, in numbers, against the HST in the referendum two years ago. “Their faith in the Liberal party to keep taxes low was shaken,” said Derrick Harder, Yiu’s campaign manager, days before the election. That eye for the dollar shows up federally (Conservative Wai Young is the MP here) and municipally. In most of the rest of the city, Vision Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson trounced Anton in the 2011 mayoral race, but here in the southeast, Anton got 6,200 votes. Robertson got only 5,000. Keep reading…

May 14, election day. Walter Schultz is fretting. The Liberal campaign manager has been involved in well over a dozen Vancouver election campaigns, including Carole Taylor’s 2005 win in Vancouver-Langara. He believes campaigns run best when they combine precision targeting with fun and food. (The back table in the Liberal office is always packed with chips and muffins, cut fruit and vegetables, packs of water bottles and juice.) Early on, Schultz decided to augment the data on voters in the riding collected by the central campaign-an automated interactive-voice-response system that made thousands of robo-calls nightly to capture how voters were shifting-with an intense local campaign. He insisted on hiring his own paid callers who would sit in quiet offices away from campaign headquarters. (He worried that if he relied on the central campaign’s phone bank, those above him might yank callers away on election day to deploy somewhere that seemed more winnable.)

His team is also taking advantage of changes from Elections BC. Until this year, parties typically tracked whether their identified voters were showing up by sending a volunteer to each polling location (whatever school or hall the election was being conducted in). Every registered voter in the province has a number and a barcode. Campaigns get access to that list, which links that data to names. The scrutineers sitting behind the tables typically had a “bingo sheet”-a piece of paper with the numbers of those voters who have told the campaign callers over the previous weeks which party they’re planning to vote for. As a party’s “numbers,” its voters, come in, those digits are crossed off-that’s how campaigners knew who to keep haranguing to come out to vote. This year, though, Elections BC is allowing scrutineers to take pictures of the number lists to send back to the office. The Yiu campaigners stick with the old bingo system, but Team Anton opts for the smartphone route. On E-Day, a school or hall with 10 polls can be staffed by just one scrutineer, who can email all the number lists back to Colin Simkus and his crew to tick off the numbers and run new sets of lists: all the voters with Chinese names who haven’t voted yet, broken down by poll; all the other voters who haven’t voted yet, also broken down by poll. Armed with the information from the 2 p.m. “data dump,” Schultz decides to pull everybody scrutineering at polling stations to go door-knocking instead. Walking with his arm around Anton outside the office, he tells her things are going fine. But secretly, he’s worried: turnout hasn’t been great. He hops into his black SUV and delivers the latest computerized results to his two paid phone-banking teams, all Chinese or Punjabi speakers, one set up in the banquet room of a tandoori restaurant on Main, one at an electronics company on Kingsway.

Over at NDP headquarters, by contrast, Harder is feeling cautiously optimistic. With a history organizing David Eby’s nearly successful byelection run against Clark in 2011 and Murray Rankin’s squeaker win in Victoria last year, he was sent into Fraserview to do what his central-campaign masters called a classic get-out-the-vote. After all, that gap in 2009 was only two percent of registered voters. “Anton needs to hold 9,000 votes here, when her leader’s not popular. And she’s speaking in a language that only 25 percent of people in this riding grew up speaking.” Identified voters turned out in high numbers for the NDP at advance polls; the voters who identified themselves as Liberals didn’t seem to. He believes Yiu is on his way to victory-what he can’t know is that at least some of the voters his campaign thought were committed to the NDP changed their mind in the last couple of weeks. As the world is about to find out, the New Democrats have a critical weakness: their central campaign back in Burnaby used real people and real old-fashioned phones, rather than the current technology that helps phoners spend their time talking rather than waiting. They’ve taken advantage of none of the automated calling the Liberals have used to track how opinion has shifted each day. (It was a system considered so important that when the campaign started to run out of money in the last two weeks, Clark supporter Bob Rennie rounded up $140,000 to fund it up to the last day.)

Until the polls close, no one can know how sharply this story will turn. Schultz, scrutineering at the Elections Canada office, expects to be there fighting until early morning. The first poll comes in, heavily favouring Yiu. But the results steadily improve. While Schultz is locked in the counting room witnessing the turning of the tide, Anton anxiously waits at Fraserview Hall, uncertain whether to give a victory speech or concede. Finally, close to midnight, long after the election has been won everywhere else, she gets up on the stage, her blinding fuchsia dress outshining even the hall’s elaborate decorations. “People were mainly interested in the economic issues,” she tells those still patiently assembled. “That’s why I won-or…I hope I have.”