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Campaign 2012: This Might Get Loud

Posted April 16th, 2012 in Alberta Election, News and tagged by Marc Henry

Last month, on this very page, I said voters are restless and this provincial election will be one to watch; unlike most Alberta campaigns, this will be one that matters to the election outcome. But the dramatic change in the interim has startled even we who were expecting it.


If a writ had been dropped in January, the Tories would have won a landslide.  They had a 20-point lead in the polls.  That edge withered to only 3-points (a statistical tie) over the Wildrose as the election began, and now the PCs are 13-points behind.  The Tories are trailing in every region of the province, save Edmonton, where they are essentially dead even with the Wildrose.  What a staggering change of fortune.


The list of self-inflicted wounds that brought the PCs to this point is well documented.  The electorate appears to have reached a tipping point with the Tories, and now the question becomes can Alison Redford tip them back, and how?


It’s a campaign – anything can happen – but the PCs have dug themselves a very deep hole, and there isn’t much time left to fill it.


Realistically, taking into account the Easter break and other realities of the campaign calendar, there’s really only about a week to ten days of quality “message days” left before the vote.


One thing is certain though; the second half of the campaign will be noisier (and potentially nastier) than the first half.


The strategy for the Wildrose and PCs going forward bear a lot of similarities.


For the PCs: 

#1 Stop making mistakes!

#2 Raise doubts about the “untested” Wildrose

#3 Put forward your platform for the future


For the Wildrose: 

#1 Don’t make any mistakes

#2 Put forward your platform for the future

#3 Raise doubts about the PCs based on past record


You’ll note that for the PCs, “raising doubts” takes priority over “platform”, while the reverse is true for the Wildrose.  There’s logic to that.


According to our last ThinkHQ/CTV survey, fully 51% of likely Wildrose voters say they made their decision within the past month.  Contrast that to likely PC voters, where 65% say they’ve been planning to vote that way for more than a month.


For the Wildrose campaign, the Tory gaffes over the past 4-6 weeks may have broken the camels back for many voters, but just as many don’t really know that much about the Wildrose platform.  But they do know Danielle Smith, and a majority (56%) like her.


It will be Danielle Smith’s job to reassure these voters they are choosing wisely, that the party will be a comfortable new home for them, and that the Wildrose can form a government they can trust.


They will undoubtedly continue to tell voters that based on a 41-year record, the Tories are not to be trusted, but for most voters, they are already pushing on an open door.


On the other hand, the Tories don’t have the luxury of time.  A sizable portion of the electorate is rejecting them, and there’s only two weeks left.


Alison Redford’s job will be to try to get voters to forget the past and worry for the future.  The message will try to poke holes in the Wildrose, their credibility as a party with no governing experience, and views that are “out of step with Albertans”.  (Experiment: count how many times the phrases “extreme” and “hidden agenda” get used between now and Election Day).


For the Tories, there is an imperative to make the voters who have turned away from them in the past month second-guess that decision, and change their minds at the ballot box.


At the same time, the PCs will need to put forward their plan, and show that this new incarnation of the Party is somehow different from the last.


And so, the million-dollar question that everyone is asking.  Can Redford and the Tories recover from this?  Answer: Sure.  When the polls have moved as drastically and swiftly has they have, the term “volatile electorate” seems a mammoth understatement.  But opinions are crystalizing, and the clock is ticking.


For the PCs to be successful, they’ll need to significantly turn up the volume, stop making mistakes, and walk a tight-rope between promoting their own version of the future and “talking smack” about Smith and the Wildrose (without getting personal about it).  Not an easy task with only two weeks to go.


The debate on April 12 will be a centerpiece for both parties in executing the strategy, but it has good points and bad.


The upside: Its very high profile; lots of people watch it and the media will tell those who didn’t what happened.  It’s also a chance for candidates to directly confront their opponents, and offer voters side-by-side comparisons. If Redford or Smith lands a knockout in the debate, it will shift voters.  If the debate is a tie, it simply solidifies voter’s intentions.


The downside: Debates chew up a lot of candidate and media time.  Candidates need to prep for debates and it takes away time for campaigning.  The media will begin focusing on the “pre-fight” for the debate at least a day in advance and day-of, then there’s at least another day of “Who won?” analysis to follow.  Debates are great for getting out an existing message, but it very difficult to try to announce something new during these 3 – 4 days.


Over the last several years, we’ve seen an interesting trend in Alberta political attitudes.  “Trust in government” has emerged as an issue on par with healthcare.  It’s a bell-weather issue.  When people trust the government, the issue is nowhere on the issue agenda.  Its not that people stop caring about “trust in government”, just that it’s not a concern for them right now.


In the closing days of this campaign, watch for “trust” to be a major theme from all parties, but particularly the two front-runners.


The Tories will be telling voters “You don’t know enough about the Wildrose to trust them.”


The Wildrose will be telling voters “You know too much about the Tories to trust them.”


Both parties will be turning up the volume on these messages over the next 2 weeks, and on April 23, you get to decide who’s right.


Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., an Alberta-based public and government relations and public opinion research firm.  ThinkHQ commentary can also be found in our Calgary Herald Election Insights Blog.