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It’s been a while, but Alberta is about to see a “real” provincial campaign

Posted February 1st, 2012 in Alberta Election, News and tagged , by Marc Henry

Anyone who thought the provincial election would be over before it began may be in for a surprise.


Based on a survey of 1400 Albertans by ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc. completed last week, the race to be Alberta’s next Government is tightening, and it signals that for the first time in almost 20 years, the next provincial election campaign will actually matter.


The Horserace Today

Over the last month or so, we’ve seen modest shifts in Albertans’ electoral preferences.  The PCs have dropped 4 percentage points, now sitting at 42% of the decided vote.  Meanwhile, the Wildrose has gained 4 points to 29%.  As a result, the gap between them has closed to 13 percentage points, down from 21 points only two months ago – hardly neck-a-neck, but with an election less than 2 months away, a noteworthy shift.


Meanwhile, the New Democrats and Liberals trail well behind at 13% and 12%, respectively.  These two parties appear destined to dogfight over a mere handful of seats, mostly in the provincial capital.


The PC vs. Wildrose race is most competitive in Calgary and Southern Alberta.  For instance, in Calgary the gap between the two is only 6 percentage points – two months ago, the spread between them was 15 percentage points.


Though the horserace is tightening a bit, the provincial electorate remains quite fluid.  Almost one-quarter (23%) of Alberta voters are undecided at this point.  Even among those who have made a decision, only 49% are “very certain” about their ballot choice on Election Day.  Most Albertans are “open to persuasion” between now and then.


The Campaign


The last truly competitive provincial election was in 1993, when Ralph Klein led the PCs back from the brink against Lawrence Decore’s Liberals.  Before that, it was the 1971 election where Peter Lougheed ousted the long-serving Social Credit Party.


These are instances where the campaign “mattered” in the sense that events of the campaign had a clear, direct and significant impact on the outcome.  Given the current dynamics of the Alberta political horserace, the 2012 campaign will matter.


There are two broad elements to a campaign:  First, there’s the message; this is usually personified by party leader, but includes local candidates, platform, communications execution, and so on.  Basically, it’s everything the party’s is saying and doing to attract voters.


Then there’s the “ground campaign”; it may have message elements to it, but the primary focus of the ground campaign is to identify your vote and get it to the polls on E-Day.  It’s about voter ID and GOTV (Get out the vote).


In truly competitive campaigns, delivering on “the message” and “the ground” is essential, and they are usually associated in spikes in voter turnout.


Traditionally, Alberta doesn’t have an inspiring record when it comes to voting.  Ed Stelmach won a landslide in 2008, but with only 40.6% of eligible voters casting a ballot.


Alberta conventional wisdom says that lower voter turnout reflects support for (or at least the lack of cohesive opposition to) the government, and over the years low voter participation has certainly rewarded the governing PC Party in the Legislature.


But our February survey suggests that a low voter turnout in the 2012 campaign would actually harm the PCs.  When we look solely at those who are most likely to actually vote (~50% of decided voters), the current race between the PCs and the Wildrose becomes even closer.


Province-wide the gap closes to 8 percentage points, and in Calgary and Southern Alberta, it’s statistically dead even.


For the PCs, this is an unusual problem.  They have a significantly larger pool of likely voters to draw upon, but these voters are not as motivated to go to the polls.   And if they stay at home in sizable numbers, that’s trouble for the Tories in Calgary and Southern Alberta.


As voter attitudes sit today, turnout below 50% would clearly benefit the Wildrose Party.


Why is this?  At least one of the reasons is the underlying attitudes associated with the vote itself.  Those planning a vote for the Wildrose cite things like “sending a message”, “getting more Opposition MLAs”, “keeping them honest” and alike.


For many of them, the vote is more than just having a say in electing a local MLA; it’s about making a statement toward the Government and the ruling PCs.  It is as much about voting against something they don’t like as it is voting in favor of something they do.


In stark contrast are likely PC voters.  They are generally happy with the government’s direction (more so since Alison Redford took the helm), but their feelings are far less intense.


It creates an interesting dynamic.  While the Wildrose Party currently enjoys a smaller segment of the vote, their voters at this stage are more energized.


Does this mean that Alberta is headed toward regime change in April?  Far from it – the Tories still enjoy a 13-point lead, placing them in majority government territory.  In Edmonton, Northern and Central Alberta they still enjoy a sizeable lead over the other parties.


But our February survey does make for a provocative prelude to the General Election.  Party fortunes are shifting and the electorate is far from hardened in their choices.  As we start to count down to the election in days rather than months, indications are we are about to experience something truly rare in Alberta politics: an election campaign which will have a meaningful impact on the outcome.


Marc Henry is President of ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., an Alberta-based public & government relations and public-opinion research firm.