Well that was interesting! When Rachel Notley won her party’s leadership in November, we reported that she was a potential game changer. That proved to be an underestimation.
Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party won a commanding majority of 53 of Alberta’s 87 seats last night ending the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party’s 43 year dynasty.
The Jim Prentice Conservatives also lost seats to the right, with a resurgent Wildrose Party winning 21 seats, led by Brian Jean who had only been elected leader a week before the election was called.
The PC’s were left with 10 seats and third party status. Interim Liberal leader David Swann won his seat as the sole Liberal and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark was elected in Calgary Elbow. One seat remains undeclared, as it is a tie between the PC and NDP.
The Anatomy of Defeat
While the Conservative campaign had its mistakes, the PC’s really lost this campaign before it began and were not nimble enough to pivot successfully to save themselves. A year ago, the party was mired in scandal and under 20% in the polls. Trust in government was almost non-existent. It led to the departure of Alison Redford less than two years after winning a
majority government. Prentice arrived as a savior of sorts – someone who would do politics differently, who would restore trust, and who would run the province like a CEO. His numbers quickly outperformed his government and the opposition. He looked unstoppable.
But then Prentice became the epitome of what he needed to oppose. Appointing two non-elected cabinet ministers was seen as a front to democracy. Alone, that was forgivable, in order to establish a new team. But the negotiated floor crossing of the Wildrose backfired. It was universally seen as antidemocratic and opportunistic. Conservatives didn’t want them.
Wildrose supporters felt betrayed. The public saw back room deals and an attempt to eliminate the opposition. Cutting a deal with his combined caucus to endorse their nominations ended the change dynamic.
Prentice began to set the stage for an early election. While there were genuine reasons to go early – needing a mandate and facing significant economic shifts – the public only saw a politician trying to take advantage of a weak opposition. Both the Wildrose and the Liberals were leaderless. Again the public began to brand Prentice as a political opportunist.
The final stage was set by the budget. Not so much the actual budget but the three month anticipation. The PC’s were on script for months – everyone will have to pay more and do their share. When the budget came out it, corporations were excluded from tax increases and the PC’s did not have believable talking points. The Premier became a politician looking out for his corporate friends.
Polls immediately post budget were bad and should have signaled pause. The right wing wasn’t happy that there were no cuts. The public sector saw cuts to healthcare and education. When you govern, a budget that makes no one happy usually means you’ve found the right balance. It’s a bit dangerous to campaign on.
Ralph Klein successfully campaigned on budgets. But the dynamics are different now. It is tough to campaign on a budget document. You have no ability to be visionary during the campaign, to announce change, to offer new. You essentially have to coast. It is a great strategy if you have the lead. But if you are trying to come from behind…
Behind the scenes the PC’s analyzed the polls and saw that Prentice was more popular than the party and the government in the lead up to the election. Many members of his team had Redford government exposure. There were parallels to 1993 when Klein ran on the Ralph’s Team ticket. The same strategy was created. All Jim. Team Prentice. They failed understand early enough that the Premier himself had become an issue. It was difficult to pivot once this became apparent.
As far as campaign strategy, it was determined long in advance that the primary goal was to defeat the Wildrose. If the NDP increased their footprint in Edmonton, that was OK. They set the battle as a one front war. Very quickly though, the NDP became the threat. The campaign made a significant change, to move completely away from the Wildrose and focused on the NDP. They believed they could not fight two enemies and the ballot question needed to be a clear choice between two parties. It was believed that a weak Wildrose would become weaker in that dynamic.
For the final 10 days of the campaign, the trials and tribulations of Jonathan Denis diverted attention and prevented the Tories from having their planned messaging heard. In the end, the only card was, “Are you afraid of the NDP?” Voters were not. Not at all.
The Genesis of a Win
The NDP may have been a bit lucky. But they had the right message from the right leader at exactly the right time. You have to be good to capitalize on momentum. And they were.
No one in the NDP campaign believed they could form a government when the campaign began, but they strongly believed that they could form a significant opposition and make gains across the province. Despite a small caucus and limited resources they brought in talented and experienced campaign managers from BC, Ontario and the Federal NDP. If they were to capitalize, they would need to run a professional modern campaign. That served them well when things got real. They had a solid rapid response team. Their war room was nimble. And when money started to flow in, they knew what to do with it.
As opposed to the Liberals, the NDP made sure they ran a full slate of candidates. While there are probably quite a few surprised MLA-elects right now, the decision to run candidates even in impossible ridings was critical – as they won many of those seats.
The NDP message was simple. It was based on a never spoken notion that Albertans could not only vote for a stronger opposition, that they could vote FOR something along key themes that matter to everyone. Left or right, wealthy or poor. While the PC’s talked future, they talked today. While the PC’s talked reducing administration costs in education, the NDP talked classrooms. It was about teachers and nurses, schools and families. They were careful to not be extreme in their party platform. They began to own the “change” word. They positioned themselves largely as a safe change vote.
The stellar debate performance of Notley was key, but it was how they took advantage of it was critical. Quite often third parties shine in debates and the voters move back to who can govern. The Tories, by only focusing on her, gave them the “She Could Govern” stage. Their campaign moved to reinforce it.
They then became very shrewd campaigners. They knew they were ahead and wanted to make sure they took no chances. They largely hid their candidates. They replaced lawn signs across the province with Notley signs. They knew their team was inexperienced and had not been vetted. They could (and eventually did) say
troublesome things so debates were avoided. They began to run the PC campaign playbook. All leader, all the time. No risks.
The Scope of the Win
Notley’s NPD captured 41% of the popular vote in an election that saw participation increase to 57%. It is where she captured the vote that is most interesting.
She dominated Edmonton. That is no surprise. But she won more than half of Calgary. She won seats in all the mid sized cities except Fort McMurray – Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Grande Prairie. She won the entire Capital region outside of Edmonton. And she won a half dozen rural seats. She has a caucus from almost every region of the province.
While there are no exit polls, to get this popular vote from across the province, you need to appeal well beyond the traditional left and right measures. Young and old, rural and urban, rich ridings and not so rich ridings supported the NDP.