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Is there such a thing as an underdog in the lead?

Posted October 1st, 2011 in Alberta Election, Alberta Politics, News and tagged , by Marc Henry

What’s more difficult? Being an underdog who must overcome steep odds to achieve an unlikely win or being the “odds-on” favorite who must fend off all challengers to try to hold on to a lead? That’s a question that Premier Alison Redford may be able to answer next spring.


Flashback just a few months ago and pity poor Alison Redford. A bright, energetic but relatively obscure Cabinet Minister running for Tory leader against several better known, financed and organized competitors.


Her response: a strongly executed “underdog strategy”. Armed with a pocket-full of policies, she set about raising her profile and engaging party voters through a combination of social and “earned” media. “Earned media” being news coverage as opposed to paid advertising: infinitely cheaper, but hard to get.


And it worked, obviously, she won. But a ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc. survey of Albertans conducted just before the second round of balloting on October 1st yields insight into just how effective her underdog strategy was.


Just three months ago, two-thirds (66%) of Albertans didn’t know enough about Alison Redford to rate her approval. By late September, her profile nearly doubled, along with her personal approval numbers – 40% approval vs. 22% disapproval.


By comparison, her opponents took on more “negatives” than “positives” during the same time period. In July, only one-in-five (19%) of Albertans disapproved of Gary Mar – by late September, his disapprovals jumped to 29%. Horner fared even worse. His “negatives” nearly doubled, from 16% to 31%.


The same is true when measuring campaign “momentum”. In late September, when Albertans were asked if their opinion of each of the final three PC leadership candidates had improved, stayed the same or got worse, Redford was the clear winner: 20% “improved” vs. 7% “got worse”, for “Net Momentum” of +13. Compare that to Gary Mar with -4 and Doug Horner with +1.


Redford is no accidental Premier. She won because she outsmarted and outworked her opponents. Her success is very much in keeping with Albertans’ perceptions of who ran the best campaign. In a way, her victory is even a vindication of the now much-maligned PC leadership selection process.


There is a certain comfort and freedom in being the underdog – a much higher tolerance for risk-taking. We saw this in Redford’s campaign. The overarching theme was “Change”, and there was little concern for attacking the status quo, even if that ruffled the feathers of many of her colleagues and elements of the party rank and file.


But when she took the oath of office on Friday, that all changed. David has now become Goliath.


Alison Redford is no longer the underdog; she’s the Premier, and a Premier whose party is leading in the polls. In our September survey, the PCs enjoyed a 16-point lead over the Wildrose (40% of decided vote vs. 24%), with the rest of the opposition trailing in the mid-teens.


Redford’s personal approval numbers now rival Danielle Smith, with the other opposition leaders well behind. And that was before she became the leader and assumed office. In the near term at least, logic would suggest that the halo of the new Premier will drive her and her party’s numbers upward further.


It’s clear that Premier Redford knows how to “come from behind”, but the million dollar question now becomes: Can she hold a lead?


The “nothing ventured, nothing gained” comfort of being the underdog is gone. Premier Redford now has everything to lose, and a rocky road ahead. There are weighty challenges before her, including:


  • An extremely compressed timeframe to convincingly implement the program of “change” outlined in her leadership platform. An election is now only 7 to 9 months away – very little time to affect meaningful change or recover from mistakes.
  • Mending fences with her caucus. Leadership races are inherently divisive and become very personal – caucus unity between now and the election will largely depend on Redford’s actions.
  • Re-engaging the PC Party with Albertans. Only 72,592 people took part in the 2nd round of leadership voting on October 1st. That’s less than one-half the number that voted in 2006. Its 5,000 votes less than Ed Stelmach got in 2006. Clearly there is a sizable bloc of former PC activists who just “sat this one out”. Are they gone for good, or can she win them back?
  • New members of Cabinet. A “Change Agenda” will undoubtedly mean new faces around the Cabinet table, and green Ministers are Ministers most prone to making mistakes.
  • New staff for the Premier’s office who have little provincial governing experience, and very little time to getting up to speed.
  • Dealing with any “unexploded bombs” left over from Stelmach’s administration.
  • Two sessions of the Legislature, where the Opposition will be wanting to test the new Premier’s mettle. Wildrose campaign-style TV ads ran before she even took the oath of office – Wow! -Its clear the Opposition parties aren’t going to allow Redford to have an easy honeymoon.
  • Delivering on promises and meeting expectations. The policy-heavy Redford campaign now has the difficult task of assigning priorities to these commitments and delivering on them – many of which have serious price-tags and risks attached; e.g. AISH funding, restoring education funding, a Healthcare Public Inquiry, just to name a few.
  • A fragile world economy potentially impacting Alberta’s exports and revenues. There will be a budget before the next election, and expectations will be high that the new Premier can deliver as good or better than the last one. To some that will mean cutting spending and deficits, to others it will be preserving and enhancing services.


In a sense, Alison Redford is embarking on a 7 to 9 month long job interview – she’s “interim” until voters, if they choose to, provide her with a mandate of her own.


Coaches often tell their players, “No matter how big the lead you have, always play like you’re behind”. Sound advice in sports and in politics. If Redford runs her Government like she ran her campaign, she will prove a very formidable force in next spring’s election. The question remains, is she willing (and more importantly able) to be an underdog in the lead?