Calgary Goes Wild(rose)

I predicted a Tory romp in today’s Calgary-Glenmore by-election. I was very wrong.

We can call this race for the Wildrose Alliance Party.

Your Choice For Change

As I write this, 58 of 66 polls are in. Paul Hinman of the Wildrose Alliance Party holds the lead with 37% of the vote. Avalon Roberts of the Liberals is in second place with 34%, and Diane Colley-Urquhart, the Tory candidate, is in 3rd with 25% of the vote. The vote share of those three candidates hasn’t budged more than a percent or two either way for most of the night.

By-elections are, at best, a snapshot of the voters’ mood at a given time. They aren’t predictors of how the electorate will vote in a general election – when more voters are tuned in and will turn out to vote.

Still, this is bad for the Tories. The Wildrose Alliance ran with the slogan “Send Ed A Message”, and voters seem to have responded. The voter turnout will be in the mid 30s, below the 45% achieved in the 2008 general election. In that election, the Tories ran veteran MLA and Minister of Justice Ron Stevens, who earned 50% of the vote. The second place finisher, Avalon Roberts of the Liberals, earned 33% – right about where she is in the polls right now. The Wildrose Alliance earned 8% of the vote. They’ve gained about 30% tonight, while Tory support is down 25%, or half their vote share. For reference, the 2007 Calgary-Elbow by-election saw a vote shift of +9 for the Liberals, and -13 for the Tories.

What hurts is that the Tories weren’t putting forward a run of the mill candidate. Diane Colley-Urquhart, a 9-year veteran of Calgary City Council, carried the banner for them this election. The Alliance candidate, Paul Hinman, had some profile, having served as MLA for Cardston-Taber-Warner from 2004-2008, and as Alberta Alliance/Wildrose Alliance party leader for that same time. Yet, he had no roots in the riding. The vote is a rebuke to the Tories, there’s no way around it.

We are likely 2 1/2 years away from the next general election, but the signal that Calgarians will stay home or vote for another party is strong and clear. With the right leader and message, they might be willing to take the leap in a general election, when the stakes are higher.

This result is also potentially good news for the Wildrose Alliance. Having elected an MLA through a by-election, they are in a stronger position to argue for a spot in the leadership debate come general election time.

This could be the first sign of a shift in Alberta politics, or it could be a historical footnote, like the by-elections in Olds-Didsbury in 1982, or in Calgary-Elbow in 2007. In any case, politics in Alberta is suddenly more interesting than it was when we woke up this morning. It’s also likely a more competitive political realm, which is a positive thing regardless of your beliefs.

Note: I’ll add more over the next day or so.

Update: Some Tuesday morning thoughts.
– In the original post, I projected turnout in the mid-30s. It ended up being 40.5%, not far off the turnouts from 2004 and 2008 (48% and 45%, respectively).
– There is good coverage of the by-election and its potential ramifications all over the web. I recommend checking out what Chris LaBossiere, Ken Chapman, Trish Audette, Calgary Grit, and Graham Thompson have to say about it. Tuesday afternoon update: Daveberta weighs in too.

In addition to the benefits to the WRA mentioned earlier, winning an urban riding such as Calgary-Glenmore is a huge boost to the party as well. Having won in Calgary now in addition to previously winning (and coming a close second) in a rural riding makes it harder for critics to portray the party as outside the mainstream. If you look at the demographics of Glenmore, it looks fairly close to those of Alberta (perhaps only its higher proportion of immigrants would be different), leading to a good argument that it can be considered, in general, a bellwether riding.

Finally, we should remember the psychological boost this gives to the Alliance heading into their leadership race. Having won a by-electio, they can demonstrate a payoff to both volunteers and donors, which will help them earn a continuing commitment from both groups.

Most of the talk about the by-election has focused on how its bad for the Tories. It’s also bad for the Liberals. Their vote share, dropped slightly from 2008, which dropped slightly from 2004. In effect, they’re stuck in neutral in this riding. They’ve fielded the same candidate three times in a row now, and in the most recent one the party was led by a Calgarian. This hasn’t made an impact at all. If the party wants to move beyond the status of token opposition, and be a credible challenge to the government, they have to be able to win ridings like this one.

Beyond the Liberal Party, this result is bad for all left-centre/progressive minded people. An upstart, leaderless right of centre party just won a seat, boosting their vote share by 30% over the general election in Calgary-Glenmore. Since the 2008 election, people on the left have spent a lot of time navel gazing about mergers, co-operation, as well as party name changes and forming new parties. Nothing has come out of this so far, save for the Democratic Renewal Project, which was overwhelmingly rejected at this past weekend’s NDP convention.

With a fresh threat attacking the Tories from the right, the Liberals, NDP, and all progressive/left-centre voices need to get their act in order quickly or risk being drowned out of the public debate. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Wildrose Alliance victory, it’s that campaigning hard and finding a message that appeals to voters is more important than cosmetic things like party names.

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9 Responses

  1. Alex,

    I might add that you missed the other historical by-election footnote, Calgary-Buffalo in 1992, where Rod Love received 15% of the vote before Ralph Klein’s Progressive Conservatives won 51 of 83 seats with 45% of the vote.

    I do agree, though, that we are more likely to see an uptake in political engagement in Alberta and that is positive.

    Enjoying your blog! Thanks!

    Troy

  2. Good point; I forgot about that one. Thanks Troy!

  3. Great analysis, Alex!

  4. I’m not sure I agree that this is bad news for left-of-center people in Alberta. Vote splitting on the right can do nothing but help the left parties win in relatively close ridings where now the PC vote will be split in half. Even in this riding, the Liberals did better than the PCs did.

    The only way this will be bad for Liberal & NDP is if WAP completely decimates the PCs. It wouldn’t be the first time in this province for a new party to come in and destroy all competition, but I don’t think it’s likely here.

  5. Thanks Dave!

    Graham: It’s bad news in the sense that the left-centre vote isn’t showing signs of growth. Maybe a vote split between the PCs and WRA will help them win an additional handful of ridings, but it’s likely to be a short-term aberration, not a long-term trend. Also, the Liberal-NDP vote share isn’t at a level where either party (alone or combined) is close to forming government, even if the right splinters.

    So…best case scenario. How many seats could go Liberal or NDP if they don’t grow their vote? 25? 30? Still far from a majority.

  6. Ah I see. You’re just saying it’s bad that the Lib+NDP didn’t manage to grow their share of the vote in the riding? I’m not sure I’d go that far. It seems neutral to me, but I think I see what you’re saying.

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