Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pre-election Analysis

When Tuesday morning rolls around and the results of the Alberta provincial election are known, the outcome will seem as if they were pre-ordained.

What I mean is if the Alberta Progressive Conservatives pull off a victory, pundits will point out this result was totally and absolutely inevitable either because a) Alberta’s becoming less “right wing” and more “cosmopolitan” or b) Wildrose leader Danielle Smith blundered when she didn’t denounce the outrageous comments of some of her party’s candidates.

On the other hand, if Wildrose comes out on top, we will be told this result was totally and absolutely inevitable because the Alberta PC dynasty was tired, corrupt and ready for collapse.

In short, political pundits are always brilliant in hindsight.

And so, I am going out on a limb by making a pre-election day analysis. Rather than relying on “hindsight”, I will use the much riskier “foresight.”

But before you read on, a word of caution: I live in Ontario. I am only watching the Alberta election from afar and largely through the prism of the national and eastern media. I have not made any thorough analysis of polling data, nor am I in touch with any sources “on the ground” in that province.

Much of what I am going to say is based simply on my own political instincts. Some might call it “guessing”.

And so with that important caveat in place, here’s my take of what will be obvious to all on Tuesday morning.

To begin with, I am not surprised a bit with the Alberta PC party’s drop in the polls. Recall that earlier this year, the PCs enjoyed 54% support in the polls while Wildrose languished at just 16%. Seemed at the time like PCs were in store for yet another easy majority victory.

Yet as I wrote back in February the “PC support has peaked and is probably pretty soft. That means it can go nowhere but down.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

The fact is, Albertans want change. And why not, the Alberta PCs have been in power since before fire was invented. What this means is that in effect, Albertans were primed and ready not to like newly minted PC leader Premier Alison Redford. All they needed were reasons to reject her.

And Redford obliged.

She pandered to public sector union bosses, she mishandled scandals, she increased government spending.
And in doing all these things, Redford seemingly went out of her way to alienate potential supporters.

Let’s not forget the Alberta Progressive Conservatives are supposed to be … well conservative. In theory, they are a “right wing party.” Much of their base was certainly conservative leaning. But in recent years, many conservatives, disillusioned with the PC party’s drift to the left, defected to Wildrose.

This was a serious problem for the PCs, but the trend was reversible.

Indeed, a sensible and obvious strategy for the PCs would have been to woo as many of these voters as possible back to the Tory fold. And make no mistake, this would have been eminently doable at little political cost.

I say that because Wildrose isn’t so much a party as it is an unwieldy and diverse coalition made up of libertarians, social conservatives, populists and Alberta nationalists. These are groups which don’t necessarily get along. In fact, they sometimes hate each other. The only thing keeping them united right now is that, for a variety of reasons, they all share a mutual dislike for the Alberta Tories.

In other words, Wildrose has ideological fault lines a mile wide. The PCs could and should have exploited this weakness. Simply put, they could have split apart Wildrose by appealing to different parts of its base. Surely, there must still exist in the hearts of one-time PC supporters some residual loyalty for the old Tory brand name.
But Redford made absolutely no attempt to rekindle that loyalty. Instead she pushed away her old supporters and embraced Red Toryism, hoping, it would seem, to recruit Liberals and New Democrats. In effect, she basically wanted to re-invent the PCs as a left of centre party, even if that meant conceding the bulk of the right wing vote to Wildrose.

If current polls are to be believed, that was a huge strategic error.

Mind you, certain things are outside of Redford’s control. For instance, in the past, Alberta PCs could always count on a sure-fire winning formula: Campaign against Ottawa.

What I mean is in days of yore, the PCs framed themselves as the only ones who could defend Alberta’s values and resources from the rapacious designs of Eastern federal politicians such as Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien or Paul Martin.

And for Albertans, furious about the disastrous National Energy Program, this was an argument that resonated.
But today things are different. Now Alberta has, in Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a friend in Ottawa. 

Indeed, Harper is an Albertan!

Unfortunately for the PCs this means they can no longer bash Ottawa.

And there is something else that’s different about this election: for the first time ever, the PCs face a legitimate threat from the right in the Wildrose Party.

Wildrose has a telegenic leader in Smith, it seems to have lots of money and seasoned political veterans are running its campaign.

And Wildrose has something even more important going for it right now: momentum.

Poll after poll shows the Wildrose heading for a victory on Monday. Yes, I know polls can be wrong or misleading, but just the perception of momentum can be a powerful force in politics. Voters are more disposed to back a party that appears to be gaining steam.

The Alberta Tories and their media allies have tried to counter this momentum with another potent force: fear.

They are declaring Wildrose leader Smith is “untested, untried and unfit” to lead. Or they suggest she is an “extremist” or a bigot.

Typically, such tactics reflect a campaign that’s in desperation mode. And when employed at this stage in a campaign such attacks rarely work. Or at least they didn’t work when used to derail Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher or Mike Harris or Stephen Harper.

It seems unlikely, to me anyway, that Albertans can be convinced to write off Smith, who comes across as pretty affable on TV, as a dangerous radical.
Also a sign of desperation is the fact that the PC party is seemingly pinning its hopes on “strategic voting”, a tactic that only works in the delusional minds of campaign strategists.

At any rate, I guess by now you have an idea of where I am heading with all of this.

My strong sense is not that Wildrose will win on Monday, but that, for all the reasons stated above, the PCs will lose.

Of course, my whole analysis might turn out to be completely wrong.

And if that’s the case, I am sure the reasons for my errors will be completely obvious on Tuesday morning.

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