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Beyond "throw the bums out" in Alberta: Why campaigns matter


Post-election punditry is as much about story-telling as it is analysis and so far pundits (especially conservative ones) have tended to tell one story –Albertans were angry at the PC government’s spending scandals and arrogance, and so "threw the bums out."

That’s only part of the story, and for the conservative-minded it’s the easiest part of the story to accept. It’s comforting to think of Alberta as a bastion of conservatism, where the recent government merely executed the agenda badly. But it's not sufficient to explain why the result was such a resounding mandate for the province's first ever NDP government. 

The anger at the PCs did not by necessity create a stampede of voters to the NDP. The reality is that there were clear alternatives. They could have held their noses and stuck with the PCs, as they did last election. Or they could have been swept away by the Wildrose commitment never to raise taxes or cut services. Instead, in every part of the province, they chose Rachel Notley and her progressive platform.

To make sense of this outcome, you need to look beyond the story about voter's anger, and accept something Premier-elect Rachel Notley herself has pointed out – the perception that Alberta is an inherently conservative province is false.  Alberta isn't one kind of political culture at all. It is culturally and politically complex and dynamic, with geographic, demographic and ideological diversity comparable to other provinces. 

In all elections, however, the strength of the campaign matters. It is a key vehicle for making choices clear to voters. This is the early days of post-election analysis, but at this point it's safe to identify two key measures that show the strength of the NDP campaign, and help explain the outcome.  

The first is the increase in voter turnout. Anger at the PC government could have left voters with a feeling of futility, demotivated to vote feeling that all politicians are the same and that as history had it, the PCs would carry the day again regardless. The positive, hopeful, and authentic tone of the Notley campaign was effective at overcoming the dour and negative tone emanating from Prentice (and Liberal Party Leader David Swann, who looked like a reluctant participant in an unpleasant meeting). 

Both anger and fear can overcome voter apathy, as fear of a Wildrose government saved the PCs in 2012 and pushed voter turnout to 54% from a dismal 40% in 2008.  But it was the sense of hope for real change that saw a further increase in voter participation to over 58% this election. This suggests that the Notley campaign ignited interest beyond the "always-voters" to the "sometimes-voters" who find it easy to tune politics out. 

Another key measure of the influence of the campaign is the strength of NDP support right across the province. The NDP won in ridings from Peace River to Vegreville to Medicine Hat. In addition to the 53 ridings they won, they came second in an additional 17 ridings. They were competitive in almost every riding in the province, and in no riding did they get less than 15% of the vote. You don't have to do too much math to conclude that massive numbers of long-time PC voters chose the NDP in this election. 

This kind of massive shift in the electorate can't be explained by simple anger. The NDP campaign provided the needed reassurance – in the form of a talented and authentic leader, a near-flawless execution of communications, and a strong, clear platform – that it could govern in a way that reflected the values of Albertans. This was reinforced by a growing collective sense that the party could actually win. The result was that enough voters everywhere and from all political stripes seemed to switch to the NDP. 

As the old saying goes, the voters are always right. As a corollary to that logic, the voters were right not just about wanting to be rid of the Progressive Conservative government. They were also right about choosing the progressive option to replace them.

Graham Mitchell is the Director of Leadership and Training at the Broadbent Institute.

Photo: Don Voaklander. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license