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Alberta Election: A question of leadership on the ballot

The upcoming Alberta election, like most others, is more about leadership and less about issues, according to three Calgary political pundits.

Alberta’s provincial general election is scheduled for May 29. Though the writ hasn’t been dropped, both the ruling United Conservative Party (UCP) and the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) have been bouncing around the province making announcements on what they’ll give Albertans if they’re elected.

Currently, most polling has the party horse race in a statistical dead heat six weeks prior to the election.

LWC talked with UCalgary political science professor Lisa Young, ThinkHQ president Marc Henry, and long-time campaign strategist Stephen Carter about the upcoming campaign and what they anticipate the ballot question to be in 44 days.

While each was asked what issues would be on the mind of Alberta voters, the conversation circled back to one thing: The leaders.

“Leaders matter tremendously in Canadian politics, and we know that perceptions of leaders are generally strong predictors of vote choice,” said Young.

Young said that in the current context, NDP leader Rachel Notley consistently out-scores her party in terms of favourability. On the flip side, UCP leader Danielle Smith complicates matters for the party, as they typically poll better than she does.

“They’re going to want to talk about Alberta’s UCP, with Danielle Smith as sort of a spokesperson for it,” Young said.

Recent polling done by Janet Brown for CBC Calgary shows that of 1,000 surveyed Calgarians, 50 per cent have a low impression of Danielle Smith. That’s better than the 53 per cent from seven months ago.

Notley, however, is only ranked low by three in 10 Calgarians (30 per cent). That’s improved from 43 per cent in March 2018.

The narrative matters

Henry, a long-time pollster and former Chief of Staff for former Calgary mayor Dave Bronconnier, said the UCP – and Smith – have demonstrated an inability to stifle questionable leadership issues.

While the individual instances may not make a political mark, it certainly builds a character profile of the UCP leader, Henry said.

“The challenge that she’s (Smith) got is she’s handled the business with the prosecutors, and then (Art) Pawlowski so poorly that it now starts to impact people’s impressions of her as a leader,” he said.

He said the alleged prosecutorial interference was six weeks ago and it’s still coming up. Then the Pawlowski video.

“Like, what is the premier doing talking to that guy, and their inability to sort of take the oxygen out of that.”

Carter, a political strategist who has, among others, orchestrated campaign wins by former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, current Mayor Jyoti Gondek and former PC Party leader and Premier Alison Redford, said Smith is “horribly adept” at creating her own nightmares.

“She is reinforcing on almost a weekly basis what they (voters) are most concerned about, which is chaos under their own party,” he said.

“Because Danielle Smith has no capacity to kind of regulate or understand her impact on that voter set and keeps putting herself in positions of talking to Artur Pawlowski or trying to make healthcare guarantees that people immediately dismissed, she’s reinforcing her negatives, where she should be focused on her positives, but she seems to be incapable of that.”

Some may consider these one-offs as inside baseball, something the typical voter doesn’t pay attention to. Carter said it reinforces an existing stereotype – particularly for the less engaged voter not digging into party platforms.

“When there’s something there, there’s activity simply reinforcing existing narrative, then that reinforcement becomes all powerful,” he said.

Young said it comes down to trust. She said it contributes to a building narrative that Smith makes statements and then is forced to retract:  Cancer patients blamed for being sick, unvaccinated being discriminated against, alleged prosecutorial interference and the call with Artur Pawlowski come to mind.

“I think to the extent that that whole saga matters, that it contributes to an existing narrative that Danielle Smith doesn’t consistently say the same thing, that perhaps she can’t be trusted,” Young said.

Further, Young said there’s a danger in some of these issues showing Smith sympathetic to those politically extreme.

OK – but if there are important issues, what are they?

An ambulance drives past the Calgary Cancer Centre. OMAR SHERIF/FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Consistently, healthcare and affordability (inflation, housing, food) pop up as issues important to Albertans going into this election.   It’s still early, however, and the election writ hasn’t yet been dropped.

For those who care about the issues, Henry said that affordability and healthcare often top the list. The strength of these issues is party dependent, he said.  UCP, NDP and undecideds would all rank their top issues differently.

UCP voters rank oil and gas, inflation, Alberta representation and economy, then healthcare. NDP voters rank healthcare, inflation, trust, social programs and economic diversification as their issues, Henry said.   

Most people are starting to lean one way or another based on what’s important to them.

“For those who are maybe undecided it’s starting to feel a bit like a fear and loathing election, where it boils down to, people aren’t necessarily all that enthusiastic about any of the options, so they end up picking the one they think is least harmful,” he said.

Carter said he thinks the issues for Albertans have generally been the same for the past three years – healthcare, inflation, the economy, and for many, education.  Where there’s variation, he said, is in how they feel about the party approaches to those issues. 

“So, my thinking is that if this election is held on healthcare, if this election is held on education, the majority of Albertans regardless of area, feel that the NDP do better for them,” he said.

“If it’s held on economic opportunity and personality, I think that Danielle Smith would win.”

Young said with the campaign not even officially started, the leaders are out trying to shape the ballot question they want.  In Calgary, Young said that’s likely going to centre around trust.

For others, it will be healthcare. Some Albertans will have standing up to Ottawa as their issue.

“It’s still not entirely clear to me what that question is going to be for people,” she said.

Battleground Calgary: The path to victory

While the horserace may show things extremely tight, the consensus is the NDP has a more difficult path to victory.  With Edmonton mostly orange and rural Alberta mostly blue, and some smaller urban centres turning orange, the final battleground is considered Calgary.

The recent Janet Brown polling showed 17 of Calgary’s 26 ridings either likely or possible NDP ridings. That leaves nine for the UCP.

Carter said that the NDP can’t lose sight of the 17 where they’ve favoured. Likewise, the UCP can’t try to win all of Calgary.

“My view would be for both parties, to focus on your strengths,” he said.

“The NDP have healthcare and education, UCP on economy, and try and win those four seats that are going to be definitive.”

Henry said the difference between the NDP picking up 19 seats in Calgary versus 16 or 17 isn’t all that much. In the 2019 election, he said some Calgary ridings had the UCP winning by 23 or 24 points, with the average at 19.  In many Calgary ridings today, the NDP is winning by five points.   

The challenge here again, Henry said, is Smith.

“I don’t know whether that same enthusiasm is there with conservative voters this time around because you actually have a fair number of conservatives, somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent who say they want to vote, are leaning conservative, but they really don’t like Danielle Smith,” he said.

Young said a real concern for the NDP is voter turnout. They appeal to younger voters, but that group is traditionally less likely to vote.

“Get out the vote is going to be tremendously important for them, especially in some of those ridings where the margins would likely be very narrow,” she said.

“They’ve certainly worked really hard at putting in place machinery for the party in those places, but they don’t have the kind of get out of the vote machinery I think that the conservative establishment has.”

Carter said, however, if the reluctant UCP voters don’t come out, that buoys the hopes of the NDP in many ridings.

“Those reluctant UCP voters are really only deciding if they want to vote for Danielle Smith,” he said. They won’t vote NDP, he said. They’ll just stay home if Smith isn’t a viable option.

Solving the leadership question

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and Finance Minister Travis Toews. ALBERTA GOVERNMENT FLICKR

All three said, in one form or another, that we’re just in the phony-war phase of the Alberta election. It’s early, and lots can change.

There’s still time for Smith to salvage leadership questions, said Carter. Focus on the positives.

“The biggest positive is that she’s just a wholly likable person,” he said.

“She needs to be in the public spotlight as a positive force, and she’s drawn to negative issues.” 

He said she’s got to be out of the spotlight for at least 10 days. The nagging issues need to be left behind.

“When she comes back, she needs to be friendly Danielle Smith,” Carter said.

Henry said the UCP has to manage its issues better. Their path to victory is easier than the NDP. They don’t even have to win a majority of seats in Calgary.

“It’s like little unforced errors. They’re self-inflicted,” Henry said.

“They need to stop that in theory if they’re going to win.”

Young said it feels like we’re balancing on the fence. A wind blowing one way or the other could influence the Alberta election, she said.

The big question, she said, is what makes that wind blow.

“This is a case where, possibly, the campaign matters,” she said.