This pandemic provincial election 2020 presents a rare test case into just how important old-school campaign door-knocking really is to a political candidate’s prospects for election.
While local Liberal candidates courted Surrey voters’ support on door steps throughout the city, NDP candidates did not.
On Sept. 22, the day after he called B.C.’s 42nd provincial election, BC NDP leader John Horgan sent a bulletin out to his party faithful noting that this campaign “will be different.”
“To keep British Columbians safe – which is my highest priority – our campaign will be a little different this year,” he wrote.
“There won’t be any big, in-person rallies. BC NDP volunteers won’t be knocking on your door – although they’re going to call, text, and email as many people as possible.”
And that’s how it played out for Surrey’s NDP MLA candidates.
Dr. Stewart Prest, a political science professor at SFU, said while it’s unlikely door-knocking would single-handedly determine the outcome, it could help tip the scale in a close race.
“There’s lots of different ways to make contact with voters, but it can make a difference when there are a number of voters who are generally undecided and looking for more information,” he said. “Having someone show up at the door and take the time to explain why they’re doing it…I think that can make a difference in those cases where someone is really not sure. It would matter more in an election that is closely fought.”
On the other hand, Prest noted, there’s the risk that voters might resent a politician showing up at their door during a pandemic. “It’s probably part of the reason why the NDP chose not to do it,” he said.
In the past, people didn’t particularly see this as a threat. But times have changed.
“Now, people are really concerned about protecting their own personal bubble, particularly older voters, people who may be a little more vulnerable to the coronavirus, they may be really on guard and not welcoming strangers. I think there’s certainly a risk.”
Prest said he would expect that the Liberals would “try to be respectful in how they go about” door-knocking. “But there is a potential here that it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.”
While seeking support in person, door-to-door, is a valuable campaigning tool, Surrey-Newton incumbent and NDP candidate Harry Bains acknowledged, “Our voters’ health and safety is more important than our electoral win.”
Garry Begg, incumbent and NDP for Surrey-Guildford, echoed that. “We’ve chosen not to knock on doors, although we do leaflet drops,” he said. “We don’t want to be the ones that give somebody COVID-19, or get COVID-19, right.”
On the other hand, Marvin Hunt, incumbent and Liberal candidate for Surrey-Cloverdale, said he visited “a couple thousand” households during the campaign.
Asked if he encountered any blow-back for door-knocking during a pandemic, Hunt replied “I’ve had three people comment on it, and usually it’s a house where they have a very small staircase.
“You keep the distance, you reach out to hand them the literature. We haven’t found this problem,” he said.
Bill Brooks, the campaign manager for Surrey-Green Timbers Liberal candidate Dilraj Atwal, said Atwal received a “good response” at the doors. Canvassing for support on door steps is “totally” important to a campaign, he said.
“In this situation, with a pandemic, that’s now moved into the second wave, you’ve got to be very careful,” he said earlier this week. “So masks are in order. Even if the people answering the door aren’t wearing it, we make sure our people knocking on doors are.
“With the COVID thing you’ve got to be careful and, touch wood, nobody comes down with it after this is all over,” he said. “Why would someone in their right mind, knowing you’re going into a second wave, call an election?”
Rachna Singh, incumbent and NDP candidate for Surrey-Green Timbers, explained the NDP’s rationale behind not knocking on doors during this past election campaign.
“We wanted to keep ourselves safe, the volunteers safe, and we didn’t want any kind of news coming out of it, like if even one of the volunteers or one candidate got sick, this would be drastic, not just for the campaign, but the whole thing, the safety regulations that we have been advocating for so long,” she said.
“None of us, not even a single candidate, door-knock.”
Asked what he thought about candidates going door-to-door trying to shore up votes during a pandemic, Surrey-Whalley incumbent and NDP candidate Bruce Ralston replied, “The Liberals have, I don’t know how they do that with the COVID restrictions.”