The race to replace Christy Clark as BC Liberal leader concluded this month with Andrew Wilkinson defeating Dianne Watts on the final ballot. Both Wilkinson and Watts have connections to the Lower Mainland, where a large number of swing ridings from the last election are located. Wilkinson is the MLA for Vancouver Quilchena while Watts was the MP for South Surrey White Rock Cloverdale prior to being mayor of Surrey. This suggests that both have an ability to build Liberal support in one of the more competitive areas of the province. It is worth examining the relationship between these candidates, as well as the others, with the success of the Liberals in different ridings in the past two elections. While success in swing ridings in a Liberal leadership race will not necessarily translate into success in a general election, it demonstrates that the leader has support amongst the partisans that will play a vital role in winning the ridings that the Liberals will need in the next election. The three strongest leadership candidates, Watts, Wilikinson, and Michael Lee all did quite well in the ridings that were competitive in the last election, suggesting that all three will have an important role to play if the Liberals are to be successful in the next election.
Like the federal Conservatives, the BC Liberals use a riding based points system to determine their leader. Each riding in the province is worth 100 points and each candidate wins 1 point for every 1% of the vote they win in each riding. The party also uses a preferential ballot. To win a candidate must have at least 50% of all available points. If after one round of counting no candidate has a majority of points, the candidate with the fewest points is eliminated and their votes are moved to that candidates’ voters’ second choices. This system allows me to compare each candidate’s level of support in a riding to the BC Liberal’s margin of victory of defeat in the past two elections (with winning margins counted as positive margins and losing margins counted as negative ones). Redistricting between the 2017 and 2013 election makes this comparison more difficult for the 2013 election, but fortunately Pundit’s Guide BC has estimated 2013 vote shares for the 2017 riding boundaries.
On the first ballot Michael Lee and Dianne Watts had a significant advantage in close ridings. The two graphs below show the average support for each candidate in ridings that the Liberals either won by 10% or less or lost by 10% or less. The first graph looks at ridings which were close in 2017. The second looks at ridings in which the average margin between the 2017 and 2013 elections was close. Lee and Watts are more or less tied in ridings that were close in 2017 while Watts is the stronger candidate by two percentage points in the ridings that had a 2017/2013 average margin that was close. This suggests that it will be important for the Liberals to keep both active in the party in the run up to the next election. Both were able to mobilize substantial amounts of support in ridings the party will need to win to be competitive in the future.
Though the first ballot demonstrates that Lee and Watts did well in Liberal swing ridings, the final ballot shows that Wilkinson also has support in these ridings. On the final ballot Wilkinson averaged a 1 percentage point lead in ridings that were close in 2017 and almost a 2 percentage point lead in ridings that had a close average margin between 2017 and 2013. While Wilkinson certainly needs to reach out to Lee and Watts supporters in order to win in competitive ridings, he is not completely dependent upon them.
A comparison of Wilkinson’s and Watts’ support across all ridings shows divergent trends. The graph below shows Wilkinson’s support was higher in ridings in which the Liberals did better in 2017 compared to ridings in which they did worse. By contrast, Watts did better in ridings that the Liberals did in worse in than she did in ridings where the Liberals did better. However, Wilkinson tended to do better than Watts regardless of how well the Liberals did in a riding. There is a substantial gap between Wilkinson’s and Watts’ vote share in the ridings clustered around the 0 Liberal margin in the graph. This further demonstrates that Wilkinson has substantial support in competitive ridings. Watts’ vote shares are also substantial, and so her supporters cannot be ignored, but Wilkinson will not be reliant on them to win close ridings either. Both sides will have to work together in order to be competitive.
Of the three strongest candidates not to make it to the last ballot (I omitted Sam Sullivan because of his low vote share across all ridings), Michael Lee stands out as the strongest in close ridings. Lee’s support goes up as the Liberal margin of victory decreases, and there is a bit of a gap between Lee and the other two candidates in the ridings that the Liberals either won by a narrow margin or lost. Both Mike De Jong and Todd Stone did better in ridings where the Liberals were stronger than they did in ridings where the party was weaker. Stone’s average support only passes Lee’s in ridings where the Liberal won by over 30 percentage points, while De Jong is stronger than the other two candidates in only a handful of ridings. This highlights the particular need for Wilkinson to reach out to Lee’s supporters. They make up substantial shares of Liberal supporters in close ridings, while Stone’s and De Jong’s supporters tend to be concentrated in ridings that Liberals already win by substantial margins.
The BC Liberals were lucky in that all three of their top candidates posted good showing in the ridings that they were close in in 2017 and 2013. As such, a victory by any of the three candidates would have put them in decent position to contest the next election. Assuming that the election is contested under a first past the post electoral system (which may not be the case), the party will need supporters of all three to work together in order to ensure the party is competitive in swing ridings across the province.