The writ has dropped. B.C. Premier John Horgan announced voters will go to the polls on October 24 in a provincial election. After three and a half years leading a minority government, Premier Horgan says the election is needed to give British Columbians the opportunity to make an important choice—which leader and which party do they want to provide stable government and lead the province’s economic and health recovery?
The BC Greens—the BC NDP’s minority governing partner—and the opposition BC Liberals say an election during COVID-19 is risky, unnecessary and a violation of the NDP and Greens’ Confidence and Supply Agreement. They say this election is just a “power grab.” They would prefer holding the election in October 2021, the date set out in B.C.’s fixed election date law.
But Premier Horgan says his relationship with the BC Greens and governing mandate have deteriorated. The BC Greens broke with the NDP on two pieces of legislation over the summer including a COVID-19 response bill. Premier Horgan says B.C. needs a stable government to lead the province through COVID-19 and its many challenges, and the Greens’ actions show they can’t be trusted to ensure that stability.
Supporting Premier Horgan’s position is a surprising and influential political figure. That’s Andrew Weaver, the former leader of the BC Greens. Mr. Weaver says the NDP-Green agreement has run its course and it’s time for British Columbians to choose a new government.
History will be made
We’ve heard it before, but these really are unprecedented times. And if there’s one thing we know for sure about this election, it’s this: It will be unlike any other election in B.C. history.
COVID-19 has fundamentally reshaped the way we live our lives—how we work, how our kids go to school, how we spend our free time. That has all changed, and this provincial election will follow the same course. Candidates and campaigns face the reality that, in a COVID world, what they did to succeed in the past will be insufficient to succeed 32 days from now.
But democracy must go on, and so political campaigns must progress. Canvassing voters door to door, campaign rallies, town halls, local all-candidates debates at the community centre, the B.C. burma shave, kissing babies—all of these strategies and tactics will be obsolete this campaign. They are victims of public health directives to avoid large groups and maintain physical distancing.
So how will the political parties and interest groups engage voters this time around? Certainly, there will be a greater reliance on some tried and true methods. That includes earned media, TV advertising, literature drops and phone calls.
But the one tactic that will dominate COVID-19 campaigns will be digital. This time around, we can expect to see intimate live Q&A sessions replace rallies, online surveys substitute local policy roundtables, and lots of paid ads. Campaign strategists who used these tactics as a complement to their ground game in 2013 and 2017 will need to step up their data prowess. Having top digital talent who understand how to wield the power of precision targeting—which can move votes in swing ridings and ultimately decide election outcomes—will be key.
Parties will also need to contend with an audience that is inundated with messages from big budget advertisers who have pivoted to digital as a result of COVID-19. Campaigns will need to be sharp and concise with their messaging to cut through the noise—a strategic imperative for a campaign that will be waged from the air versus the ground. To achieve this, we can expect strategists to take a page from their American counterparts, who’ve used social media to frame ballot box issues through masterful use of quirky one-liners, 280-character policy pillars and memes.
Landing these “viral” moments will give crucial visibility to local candidates who will need to grapple with a digital landscape that has evolved significantly since 2017. Gone are the days where candidates could pay their way into the newsfeed. Today’s campaigns must comply with strict partisan advertising rules that require advertisers to verify their identities—a process that can take more weeks than campaigns have available. Without this, candidates will struggle to reach local voters on critical platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which have increasingly become pay-to-play.
Local campaigns who understand this new dynamic—and who have a strong, established social media presence—will have a considerable advantage over those who do not. The same will apply to third-party advertisers who, in addition to registering with Elections BC, will now have to undergo the same rigorous authorization process on social media before taking political flight.
With just 32 days to go, this could prove challenging for advocacy organizations caught off guard by the early election call. Navigating this complex digital landscape to advance your organization’s interests quickly will require expertise—and NATIONAL’s integrated public affairs practice is here to help. Contact us now to meet our team of election and advocacy strategists who bring their diverse experiences and proven track records in crafting compelling messages and mobilizing target voters to building winning engagement campaigns.
——— Jeffrey Ferrier is a former Vice-President at NATIONAL Public Relations
——— Jillian Stead is a former Director at NATIONAL Public Relations