Fighting the enemy indirectly: Mulcair, Harper, Redford, Smith and the oil sands

Canada’s Official Opposition Leader, Thomas Mulcair, predictably, took up the banner of attacking Alberta’s oil sands and claiming they were crippling Canada’s manufacturing sector by inflicting Dutch Disease on Canada’s economy. I will leave the economic debate to the economics. Instead, I want to discuss how politicians fight their opponents indirectly. While this is not technically the same as attacking a straw man, it is similar because, though a politician claims they are challenging one thing, in reality, they are actually challenging another.

While western Canadian leaders decry Mulcair’s anti-oil sands comments as ‘divisive politics’, can anyone really blame him? The NDP only won three seats in the Prairies, so it only make sense, strategically, that he would court vote-rich Ontario where many ridings in manufacturing centres are held not by the NDP, but by the Conservatives. What better way to win them over then by blaming their hardships on the oil sands and the pro-oil sands Conservatives? Note that Mulcair’s criticism focuses on the pain of the eastern manufacturing industry and not the environmental issues that regularly plague the energy sector. This shows the NDP is confident the post-materialist left is solidly within their camp and does not need to be chummed with environmentalist rhetoric, allowing them to focus on a pro-industry, pro-manufacturing, pro-labour message. Why attack the Conservatives when most Ontarians supported them and when they take credit–rightfully or wrongfully–for keeping Canada in relatively good shape, vis-a-vis the rest of the western world, during the recession? Far better to attack the Conservative’s credibility indirectly by portraying the west as a bogeyman, and then painting the Conservatives as being guilty-by-association.

Premiers must stick up for their province when they come under fire, so, of course, Christy Clark, Alison Redford, and Brad Wall mounted a counter-offensive against Mulcair. Alberta Opposition Leader Danielle Smith also waded into the fray. However, Smith’s target was not really Mulcair, but Redford, whom she alleged was not doing enough “to be a champion for the development of the resource.” (Smith was more vocal on the Rob Breakenridge Show, but audio from her interview is not yet up on the web site.) Smith is more concerned about Mulcair’s comments insofar as she can accuse Redford of being an ineffective defender of Alberta. Redford, being the very intelligent leader she is, will likely ignore Smith so as not give the Wildrose any more attention than necessary. However, if forced to comment, Redford will likely accuse Smith of sowing the seeds of division within Alberta instead of presenting a united front against the enemy in the east. Similarly, I would not be surprised if Smith would speculate that the reason Redford is not being more vocal  is because Redford owes her victory in part due to NDP supporters.

As an aside, while I do not usually comment on BC or Saskatchewan politics, both Clark and Wall face NDP opponents in their respective provinces, which makes is a convenient side-benefit of fighting the NDP federally.

Such is the reality of politics–that it is often easier to attack an enemy indirectly than to face them head on. (The military analogue would be to invade France by attacking Belguim first in order to avoid the Maginot Line.) Mulcair attacks Harper by attacking the west. Smith attacks Reford by attacking Mulcair. Even the Alberta Liberals have accused the PCs of not standing up to the feds enough in an attempt to build up support in Alberta, which just goes to show that everybody does it.

While politicians appeal to the principle of unity, consensus is impossible, and a party really only needs 50 percent plus one in order to seize or maintain power. Thus, how they push their policy agenda requires strategic decisions about which segments of society to court and which ones to antagonize. If discord is inevitable, necessity dictates that political actors will seek to sow its seeds in a way that suits their favour.

Second choices in the 2011 and 2004 elections

I found out the 2011 Canadian Election Study data has been made available to the public, so I just had to download it and start going through the data. (If you are unfamiliar with the CES, a short description of it is at the bottom of this post.) The CES Team outputs several official publications and presentations on the data, so there is little that I could contribute to the great work that they already do. (Though, as an aside, it is a dream of mine to work on the CES, even as a research assistant.) Rather, I look at particular topics of interest to me. Today’s post is about second choices.

Even without going into the topic of strategic/tactical voting, measuring voters’ second choices collects valuable data. From this data, one can infer the number of ‘blue Liberals’ or ‘red Tories’. That can also help show which parties had a broad appeal and were able to appeal to voters as a credible alternative to their preferred choices.

The following tables are crosstabs of vote choice by second choice for the 2004 and 2011 elections. Why these elections? 2011 is most recent, and 2004 is the first election with the current party configuration (i.e. where there is a united Conservative Party of Canada, or CPC ). For both elections, respondents from Quebec were excluded from the analysis.

2004 vote by second choice, ROC

2nd choice Vote
Lib CPC NDP Total
Lib 66.9% 75.4% 40.3%
CPC 41.4% 24.6% 22.2%
NDP 58.6% 33.1% 37.4%
Total 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

Source: Canadian Election Study 2004

2011 vote by second choice, ROC

2nd choice Vote
Lib CPC NDP Total
Lib 34.3% 65.8% 33.6%
CPC 24.0% 34.2% 17.2%
NDP 76.0% 65.7% 49.2%
Total 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

Source: Canadian Election Study 2011

Obviously, a degree of change is to be expected, given that the 2004 election resulted in a Liberal minority and the 2011 election resulted in a CPC majority. However, how the changes in patterns of second choices is substantial. Whereas Liberals’ second choices in 2004 were about a 41 to 59 split in favour of the New Democrats, that ratio has since widened to 24 to 76. The Liberals used to be the second choice of about two-thirds of Conservatives, but by 2011, the Liberals and NDP exchanged places, and the latter are now the second choice of most Conservatives. Ideologically, it seems counter-intuitive that a conservative would favour the NDP over the Liberals as a second choice. However, due to the regionalized nature of party competition in Canada, there are some regions where the contest is predominantly between the CPC and NDP. Moreover, the CPC’s majority in 2011, and the decrease in the number of Liberals whose second choice is the CPC, could also indicate that they were able to successfully appeal to voters who usually vote Liberal but whose second choice is the CPC.

Finally, the most interesting—to me, anyway—finding is that, in the 2011 election, the NDP was the second choice of almost half of all voters in English-speaking Canada. Whereas the Liberals were the second choice for a plurality of voters in 2004, in 2011, the NDP was the second choice of almost a majority of voters—and increase that comes at the expense of both the Liberals and CPC. This provides further evidence of the broad appeal of Jack Layton and the NDP’s efforts over the last couple of years to moderate their image to not only appeal to a broader cross-section of the electorate, but to deliberately squeeze the Liberals out. Given that the CPC has, in spite of having a majority government and in spite of fulfilling a few ideological promises, resisted pressure to revert back to its decidedly ideological stances of the past, the Liberals are facing an existential problem of how to define themselves when the best parts of its policy stances are being co-opted on both sides.

This was a quick analysis done on a single variable between two elections, so I do not want to make too much of this. However, with the last remaining old-line party trailing Canada’s new parties that are in a statistical dead heat (May 12, 2012), I cannot help but wonder if the Liberals will suffer the same fate as the Progressive Conservative party of old. If so, then, from a party systems perspective, Canada could be experiencing one of the greatest political realignments of its history.

(For additional read, I recommend looking into John Ibbitson’s ‘Death of the Laurentian Consensus’ thesis. This blog post by The Reeves Report summarizes it well.)

About the Canadian Election Study:

The Canadian Election Study (CES), it is a study done by a team of political scientists who specialize in public opinion and voter behaviour for every federal election. There are three ‘waves’ of surveys: a campaign-period telephone survey that is done by a rolling cross section throughout the campaign, a post-election telephone survey, and a follow-up paper survey that is now done on the internet. The study covers many topics outside of how people voted like their attitudes and beliefs, political activity, volunteer work, and demographics

Internal conquest: what non-conservatives must do first if they want to win

Alvin Finkel, co-chair of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project and ChangeAlberta, wrote a blog post on Sunday wondering what the next step for Alberta’s ‘centre-left’ is, and I thought I would respond with a blog post of my own.

First, electoral behavior research regularly shows that the average citizen does not think in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and that many citizens do not really understand what those labels mean.

Second, if one takes Alison Redford’s policy agenda, strips out names, reduces it to general principles, and gives a summary to a class of Political Science 201 students, the class would likely be split in guessing whether that agenda was put forward by a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ party. Moreover, there would be similar results if one repeated the exercise for Peter Lougheed’s policy agenda. What this illustrates—besides the uncanny ability of the PC party to take the pulse of the people—is the enduring strength of pragmatic, non-ideological politics in Alberta. Redford is on the right track when she dismisses the importance of ideology.

As an aside, consider the esteem to which Lougheed is held in various circles. Within the PCs and most political observers, he has reached apotheosis. Many Liberals will also sing Lougheed’s praises. Some will even crack the joke that a Liberal premier once ruled Alberta, and his name was Peter Lougheed. New Democrats and Wildrosers, however, tend to have a more cloudy view of Lougheed, and their respective objections tend to be predictable on an ideological basis. (If you do not believe me, do your own mini-survey!)

Third, I highly doubt that Liberals, New Democrats, and Alberta Party-ers agree on 98 percent of issues. Have you seen debates between ND ideologues and ND pragmatists? Or, between pro-name-change and anti-name-change Liberals? How can there be accord between parties when there is hardly accord within parties?

While Finkel laments the ‘narcissism of small differences’, such is the reality of politics. Furthermore, the practical issues of who would get to lead and what the name would be of a hypothetical ‘grand coalition of non-conservatives’ would be even greater issues to surmount.

What is the solution to the problems of coordinating non-conservative parties and voters? It is not more dialogue. It is not strategic voting. It is not electoral reform. It is quite simple: remove the need to coordinate in the first place.

There are countless stories of feuding sibling states that were unified, and by ‘unified’, I mean ‘one leader of one sibling state conquered the other sibling states and imposed unification’. China, Britain, Italy, Germany, and Saudi Arabia are all great states in different continents and in different times that were unified by great leaders through hard-fought conquest. The parallels between war and politics need not be explicated to understand this point. The very conquering of the federal PCs by the Reform Party clearly illustrates a contemporary Canadian example.

I do not think that a formal merger needs to—in fact, I do not think it could—take place. Rather, one among the parties of the non-right needs to subdue to the others and become the dominant banner under which non-conservatives stand. Alberta’s own history has shown that there is little room for one non-conservative party, let alone two. That has been used as evidence to support Alberta’s generally conservative nature, or hostility towards non-conservatives. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Laurence Decore came closer to unseating the PCs in 1993 than the Wildrose did in 2012, and he was not only a Liberal, but a Liberal in a time when the NEP was fresh in people’s minds. The other fact about 1993, which is often overlooked, is that Decore wiped the NDP off Alberta’s electoral map, which is not the first time that one of the two main non-conservative parties has done that to the other. That shows that it is within the realm of possibility for a non-conservative to form government in Alberta, but that the removal of competition from other non-conservative parties is a prerequisite.

The solution is not complex, but quite simple: destroy your competitors for hegemony amongst non-conservatives. That the NDP moved towards the centre and the Liberals moved to the left during this election campaign indicates that both of them understand there can only be one of them. The Alberta Party, in rejecting both the NDP and Liberals, seems to have an understanding of this argument as well, though I doubt if the majority of their rather idealistic membership has the stomach for realpolitik, when their raison d’etre is to move away from such ‘old-fashioned politics’.

Of course, even if one party among the NDP/Liberals/AP were able to conquer the others, there is no guarantee they would actually be able to unseat the Tories. Alberta has not elected a ‘non-conservative’ government since 1930, but that was a different era, and the United Farmers were also agrarian prairie populists—something to which none of the non-conservative parties of today could lay claim.

I could go on, but I am already starting to ramble. The bottom line is that, if non-conservatives want to succeed, they will need to be forcibly united under one banner. If that sounds undemocratic, bear in mind that democracy does not actually ‘seek’ consensus but imposes consensus through the will of the majority. What I am suggesting is nothing more than the imposition of consensus among non-conservatives in a way that functionally reduces their political choices to one party, thus obviating the near-impossible task of coordinating votes.

The political football of MLA pay

Politicians are one of the most reviled groups in society, and incidents like the ‘no-meet committee’ only fuel the citizenry’s perceptions of a culture of entitlement and privilege among not only politicians, but their ilk. The recent report on MLA pay, while recommending elimination of the transition allowance, clarification of committee pay and the effective trimming of backbenchers’ salaries, is under fire for suggesting a substantial (over 30 percent) increase to the premier’s salary. Premier Alison Redford immediately decried the proposed increase as overly generous and has said she will not take it. Regardless of what one thinks about politicians’ salaries, the issue illustrates an interesting conflict between the principle of impartiality and political necessity.

When MLAs’ salaries went up in 2008, there was a large public outcry over not only the increase, but the way in which it was decided, which was by the politicians themselves. Unsurprisingly, there were calls for MLA pay to be set by a third party, which would prevent politicians from interfering with the process for their own benefit.

‘Benefit’ is an interesting term because the common assumption is that the only ‘benefit’ politicians could extract from interfering with the process is a financial one. However, there is also the issue of benefitting politically. How? By acting counter-intuitively and lowering their own salaries in an effort to gain political capital (or, at least, not lose further political capital).

Am I dismissing politicians’ sincerity when they say they think they are overpaid? Not necessarily. However, if one is cynical enough to think politicians are “only in it for themselves,” then surely one must also be cynical enough to admit the possibility that politicians who refuse raises are only doing so to curry favour with the public.

This brings me to the tension between the principle of impartiality and political necessity. While Redford stood her ground about the impartiality of the review being conducted by former Justice John Major during the leaders’ debate, the public outcry over the issue of entitlement before and during the campaign necessitated her about face once she saw the size of the raise she would be getting.

Ironically, this also illustrates the selective castigation meted out by public opinion. To be technically precise, Redford is flip-flopping by abandoning her promise that MLA pay would be set impartially, and she is interfering with the process for her political benefit. However, if she did not flip-flop, then she would be just another overpaid politician who is only in the business to benefit themselves.

Do I think she made the right decision? In response, I ask, what is the ‘right’ decision? She arguably has made the ‘right’ decision, in terms of political necessity, and I think that is how public opinion will play out.

As a slight detour, I do not think politicians’ salaries are actually the real issue here. Professional athletes, corporate executives, and Hollywood celebrities are all paid exponentially more than politicians, and the average person does not seem to mind, or at least does not mind enough to stop watching television or going to hockey games.

Politics, however, is something that is hard to understand and something that happens underneath a big dome in a far off place, well-removed from day-to-day life. Because no one really knows what politicians do, it is hard to conceptualize how much they should be paid or what comparable benchmarks for their salaries sould be. Moreover, controversies like the ‘no-meet’ committee only give credence to society’s worst fear that politicians do not actually do any work.

Anger over MLA pay is about more than just money—it is about trust. While I do not think people will ever be happy about how much politicians are paid, I think most people would not care if they thought the politicians were doing a good job.

And that is why it will take much more than refusing a raise to restore public confidence in politicians. However, in the eyes of a cynical public, it is likely a welcome start.

The new Official Opposition must represent all Albertans

Today, new MLAs were in the Legislature receiving their introductory orientation. If rookie Cardston-Taber-Warner Wildrose MLA Gary Bikman’s comments are any indication, there might be some lessons that new MLAs need to learn that will not be taught at orientation.

The Wildrose Caucus’ rookies, being the new kids on the block, will face heavy scrutiny in the anticipated second spring sitting of the Legislature, and comments like Bikman’s are exactly what people will be watching for. There are only so many staffers that the Wildrose has with Legislature experience, and they are likely facing a shortage of trained handlers (or fart catchers, if you prefer that term) to assign to each MLA. This problem will be made worse for them, given the decentralized nature of the Wildrose. The populist tendencies of its members will come into conflict with the practical necessities of managing Caucus business, which favour centralized command-and-control over discussion and dialogue.

Moreover, the Wildrose is now Her Majesty’s Official Opposition and must–despite the potentially republican leanings of some of its members–uphold the Westminster tradition of standing up for all Albertans, rural and urban. Bikman’s comments are all the more distressing, given the Wildrose’s weak showing in the cities. Having only two MLAs in suburban Calgary, and none anywhere in Edmonton, Alberta’s new Official Opposition cannot afford to tolerate such open antagonism to city-dwellers, if it hopes to expand the inroads it has made in Calgary or establish a beach head in Edmonton.

This means that the issues they choose to fight need to change as well. The property rights battle may have won them south and central Alberta, but most people in the cities either do not know or do not care about the property rights debate. Transit, municipal transfers, school overcrowding, etc. are the hot-button issues in the cities, and I wonder how willing some rural-centric Wildrose MLAs will be willing to pour over alternatives to GreenTrip, when it is an issue that most affects arrogant inner city sophisticates who are probably more likely to vote NDP than Wildrose?

If the Wildrose do not learn what it means to be the Official Opposition early enough, there will be more bozo eruptions, more needless discussion of contentious social issues, and more evidence that they are not yet ready to form government.


5 points to victory; 6 points to majority


I am not a big fan of seat projections at the best of times. With the changes between 2008 and 2012, I think any attempt at a projection for the 2012 election based more on science than intuition was wishful thinking.

That said, given the eleventh hour collapse of the Wildrose vote, I wondered what the result would have been, if Wildrose support did not collapse. What if it were higher by a few points or by several points? As I already had regions separated out in my results spreadsheet, I put together a a reverse projection model based on percentage point swings. For the sake of brevity, the methodology can be found at the end of this post.

It goes without saying there are many assumptions one makes when doing projections, and there are many limitations of such an exercise. Engaging in post-hoc conjecture is purely just-for-fun, not for publication in Electoral Studies.

Five points to a Wildrose victory

Question: What magnitude of a shift would have been needed to change the outcome of the election?

Answer: A five point increase to the Wildrose’s share of the popular vote in every region at the PCs’ expense.

Table 1: Popular vote by region (+5 pts WR)

Region PC WR Lib NDP
Province 39.2% 39.6% 10.0% 9.9%
Edmonton CMA 38.7% 27.3% 13.8% 17.9%
Calgary CMA 40.4% 43.4% 10.9% 4.6%
Outside CMAs 38.5% 47.3% 5.4% 7.6%

Table 2: Seat distribution (+5 pts WR)

Region PC WR Lib NDP Total
Edmonton (inner-city) 5 0 1 5 11
Edmonton (suburbs) 7 0 1 0 8
Edmonton (metro) 6 1 (+1) 0 0 7
Calgary (inner city) 3 7 (+6) 2 0 12
Calgary (suburbs) 8 4 (+3) 1 0 13
Calgary (metro) 0 3 0 0 3
Northern AB (Fort McMurray) 0 2 (+2) 0 0 2
Northern AB (Grande Pairie) 1 1 (+1) 0 0 2
Northern AB (rural) 2 5 (+4) 0 0 7
Central AB (Red Deer) 0 2 (+2) 0 0 2
Central AB (west, excl. RD) 2 4 (+1) 0 0 6
Central AB (east) 2 3 (+1) 0 0 5
Southern AB (Lethbridge) 0 2 (+2) 0 0 2
Southern AB (Medicine Hat) 0 1 0 0 1
Southern AB (rural) 0 6 (+1) 0 0 6
Province 36 (-25) 41 (+24) 5 5 (+1) 87

Notable swing ridings:

  • Stony Plain swings from PC to NDP (only Edmonton CMA WR pickup)
  • Edmonton-Gold Bar swings from PC to NDP (only non WR pickup)

Regardless of how or why the Wildrose’s numbers imploded on the eve of E-Day, this projection shows that, had they received five percentage points more of the popular vote across all regions, they would have won a minority government.

Of course, there are limits to the caveat of ‘ceteris paribus’, and the model cannot account for factors such as local GOTV effectiveness or special circumstances in individual ridings. Still, five points is not a huge gap, and the resulting popular vote numbers look very similar to numbers we were seeing during the campaign.

Six points to a Wildrose majority

Question: What magnitude of a shift would have been needed to produce a Wildrose majority?

Answer: A six point increase in the Wildrose’s share of popular vote in every region at the PCs’ expense.

Table 3: Popular vote by region (+6 pts WR)

Region PC WR Lib NDP
Province 38.2% 40.6% 10.0% 9.9%
Edmonton CMA 37.7% 28.3% 13.8% 17.9%
Calgary CMA 39.4% 44.4% 10.9% 4.6%
Outside CMAs 37.5% 48.4% 5.4% 7.6%

Table 4: Seat distribution (+6 pts WR)

Region PC WR Lib NDP Total
Edmonton (inner-city) 4 (-2) 1 (+1) 1 5 (+1) 11
Edmonton (suburbs) 7 0 1 0 8
Edmonton (metro) 6 (-1) 1 (+1) 0 0 7
Calgary (inner city) 3 (-6) 7 (+6) 2 0 12
Calgary (suburbs) 5 (-6) 7 (+6) 1 0 13
Calgary (metro) 0 3 0 0 3
Northern AB (Fort McMurray) 0 (-2) 2 (+2) 0 0 2
Northern AB (Grande Pairie) 1 (-1) 1 (+1) 0 0 2
Northern AB (rural) 2 (-4) 5 (+4) 0 0 7
Central AB (Red Deer) 0 (-2) 2 (+2) 0 0 2
Central AB (west, excl. RD) 2 (-1) 4 (+1) 0 0 6
Central AB (east) 2 (-1) 3 (+1) 0 0 5
Southern AB (Lethbridge) 0 (-1) 2 (+2) 0 0 2
Southern AB (Medicine Hat) 0 1 0 0 1
Southern AB (rural) 0 (-1) 6 (+1) 0 0 6
Province 32 (-29) 45 (+28) 5 5 (+1) 87

Notable swing ridings:

  • Edmonton-Mill Woods swings from PC to WR (only City of Edmonton WR pickup)

Pickups that push WR from minority to majority:

  • 3 seats in suburban Calgary (Hawkwood, Lougheed, Northern Hills)
  • 1 seat in inner-city Edmonton (Mill Woods)

One of the most notable things about the distribution of the popular vote is that small shifts can create big changes. It is not reported here, but a four point increase in Wildrose support across the province would still return a PC majority, albeit a significantly reduced one (45 PC, 33 WR, others unchanged). Because of regional variances, drastically different results can occur, in terms of seats won and lost, even though changes in the overall province-wide popular vote are comparatively small.

Another thing I noticed, but is unreported here, is that the current distribution of the popular vote across regions predisposes Alberta to majority governments. Alberta has a history of electing majority governments, and as the model shows, it does not take a lot to shift the outcome from a PC majority to a Wildrose one. I tried a few more scenarios in the model, and the likelihood of a minority government seems to increase alongside increased regional divisions in partisan support. This is a casual observation; not the result of systematically testing different scenarios, so I could be wrong.

My use of the four- and five-point swings is illustrative and meant to show how relatively small shifts can produce relatively large changes. Time permitting, I may run and write up the results of a few other different scenarios.


  • Regional divisions are defined as in previous posts (separate divisions for inner-city, suburban, and metro Calgary/Edmonton; separate divisions for urban and rural areas outside of the two CMAs)
  • Changes in the popular vote are calculated using percentage points, with region-wide swings being applied uniformly to each riding. (i.e. If the Wildrose is up by five points in inner-city Edmonton, five points are added to their percentage of the popular vote in each inner-city Edmonton riding.)
  • All changes are zero-sum (i.e. if a party gains five points, there must be a total of exactly five points lost by one or more parties).
  • This is a closed system and only ‘reallocates’ the choices of existing voters; it cannot account for an increase or decrease of turnout. It also assumes that all other variables remain constant (e.g. star candidates, strength of local campaigns, strength of central campaign, existence of third-party campaigns, etc.)

2012 regional popular vote averages

The regionalization of parties’ support in the 2012 Alberta election both matches and defies the predictions of many commentators, myself included. What has come true is the north-south split between the PCs and Wildrose in rural Alberta. What has not materialized is the Edmonton-Calgary split, with both cities going overwhelmingly to the PCs.

Figure 1: Regional popular vote averages

Daveberta beat me to posting regional numbers, and this table gets at the same idea, but his compiles the aggregate vote totals in a region, whereas I compare popular vote averages across regions. I compiled similar tables for the 2008 election, which can be seen here. (See the bottom of this post for some notes on methodology.)

The second table reports the party’s percentage of the popular vote in each region relative to the provincial average. This table shows the areas of relative strength and weakness of each party, which gives a different perspective than just looking at their regional percentage of the popular vote without additional context.

Figure 2: Regional popular vote averages, relative to provincial average

The PCs, though having regional variations in their support, did well across the province. Their weakest areas were inner-city Edmonton and the Greater Calgary Region—areas that went NDP/Liberal and Wildrose, respectively. In southern Alberta, where the vast majority of the seats went Wildrose, the PCs were still competitive, and their loss is due to the Wildrose’s strength moreso than their own weaknesses. However, the most interesting feature (at least to me) is that, in both Calgary and Edmonton, there are significant variations in support between the sub-regions of the inner-city, the suburbs, and the surrounding metropolitan areas that are not technically part of the cities’ corporate boundaries. The PCs are stronger in metro Edmonton and weaker in metro Calgary by about the same magnitude.

The bedrock of the Wildrose’s support is in metro Calgary and rural southern Alberta. They also did better than their provincial average in both rural central and rural northern Alberta. The difference in between two regions is that the PCs were weaker in central Alberta than in northern Alberta, which resulted in the Wildrose sweeping central Alberta. The Wildrose’s weakest area, by far, is within the City of Edmonton. However, they were only a few points under their average in metro Edmonton, which is likely as a result of their alliance with local lobby groups, such as RETA, on property rights and power line issues. I believe the over-estimation of Wildrose support in both CMAs is at least partially attributable to polling firms using CMAs as their sampling area, as opposed to just the technical city boundaries. Such errors could lead one (myself included) to believe that the Wildrose could pick up seats in Edmonton (which they did not) and that they would sweep Calgary (which they also did not). Even in Calgary, where they won two seats and have several strong second-place finishes, the Wildrose were still only a few points above their province-wide average, and finished 10 points behind the PCs in both the inner-city and suburbs. The reasons for such are being debated, but Deborah Yedlin’s endorsement of the PCs suggests that, while Calgary has a stereotypically conservative and corporate outlook, Danielle Smith and the Wildrose could be seen as potentially bad for business, given their views and the degree of change that they plan to implement.

The Liberals’ strongest areas are the city of Edmonton and inner-city Calgary. Unsurprisingly, given the strength of the NDP in Edmonton, the Liberals picked up more seats in Calgary because they faced less competition from the NDP. That the Liberals were able to hang on to five seats demonstrates the importance of incumbency and local star candidates, and their three seats in Calgary are arguably held more on a personal rather than party basis.

Similarly, the NDP is strongest in inner-city Edmonton, and Brian Mason and Rachel Notley’s seats are two of the safest seats in the entire province. The NDP also did very well in Lethbridge, where their showing was likely bolstered by local star candidate Shannon Phillips. However, the NDP has a lot of work to do in even inner-city Calgary, where prominent centre-left Liberals David Swann and Kent Hehr likely attract many traditionally-NDP voters.

The Alberta Party’s strongest showing was in West Yellowhead, where leader Glenn Taylor ran. They ran credible local campaigns in Edmonton-Rutherford and Glenora, where they were able to come close to tying with the Liberals. Their eventual goal should be to displace the Liberals, though their showing in this election shows they still have much work to do before the next election.

The non-conservative parties have some soul-searching to do. While ChangeAlberta tried to coordinate the voters on the centre and the left, the tribal loyalties that bind partisans to their party are too strong. Moreover, the centre is getting a lot more crowded with the entrance of the Alberta Party, Brian Mason’s efforts to moderate the NDP, and, most importantly, Redford shifting the centre of gravity of the PCs to the centre. Both the NDP and the Liberals have been wiped off the electoral map before, and, if 1993 is an indicator, the only way for a non-conservative party to have a credible shot at forming government is if it obliterates its rivals on the centre and left.

The Wildrose also has some figuring out to do. For whatever reason, there was a seismic overnight shift the night before the election. (That would make a great poem, if someone wants to write it: “Twas the night before E-Day…”) It is likely that the pressures of being Official Opposition will lead to a moderation of their stances on the contentious social issues that contributed to the implosion of their momentum. It is ironic that the Wildrose themselves did a far better job of proving the PCs’ ‘not-worth-the-risk’ messaging than the PCs themselves ever did. Even if they were able to sweep suburban Calgary, the Wildrose will still need to win a few seats in Edmonton and a handful of seats in rural northern Alberta if they want to form government, which means reigning in some of the more polarizing opinions of the social conservative element in their base. The other irony is that the Wildrose did not learn from Decore that contentious social issues tend to destroy campaigns They would do well to learn another lesson from the Liberals: pushing the leader out because she came up short is not a good idea. If the internal tensions between the libertarians and social conservatives explode to a full-scale civil war in the Wildrose, they will suffer the same fate as the Alberta Liberals after 1993 and walk the road to self-decimation.

The PCs were weakened, but reports of their impending demise were greatly exaggerated. Redford has lost many of Ralph Klein’s loyalists and has brought in many of her own people. If anything, she probably could have lived with losing a few more seats, but the PCs have still managed to reinvent themselves. Moreover, they are in a strong strategic position of dominating the centre of the spectrum. While Alison Redford and Stephen Carter dismiss the importance of left and right, they do so because they are simultaneously both and neither. Given that the NDP will always say spending is too low, and the Wildrose will always say that spending is too high, the PCs can point to the dissatisfaction of both sides and say that a proper compromise was reached. This presents a dilemma for the Liberals, who are being crowded out by the PCs. The Liberals either have to move left and take out the NDP, or dig in on the centre and find a way to cauterize the bleeding to the PCs. Moreover, the fledgling Alberta Party, which hopes to become the new centrist option, faces an even greater challenge in a reinvented and firmly centrist PCs party than they ever did in their original opponent of the Liberals.

Canada has tended to violate Duverger’s Law, which states that single-member-plurality (a.k.a. first past the post) electoral systems tend to be characterized by two-party competition. We have four years to figure out if this four-party configuration will hold, but the academic literature is onside with Alberta’s history in that a multiparty configuration is exceptional rather than the norm. Fortunately, there is much interest in the outcome of this election, so political scientists, pollsters, and pundits have four years to figure out what happened to make sure their 2016 predictions are a little bit closer.

A quick note on methodology:

Elections Alberta has no official definition of which ridings make up each region in Alberta. Lacking access to academic journals, I have not seen a current academic treatment of the political regions of Alberta. In an effort to follow some precedent, I follow the Wikipedia article’s classification with some exceptions:

  • Each city is comprised of three sub-regions: inner-city, suburbs, and the ridings of the surrounding municipalities that comprise each major city’s census metropolitan area. This includes Airdrie, Chestermere-Rocky View, and Highwood in Calgary. ‘Metro Edmonton’ includes Sherwood Park, Strathcona-Sherwood Park, St. Albert, Spruce Grove-St. Albert, Stony Plain, Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, and Leduc-Beaumont.
  • I find the sub-regional classifications within the two Census Metropolitan Areas to be questionable, but I stick with them, given the lack of established alternative classifications.
  • Banff-Cochrane was previously classified as ‘Western and Central AB’, and I classified it as such in my previous post. It has since been moved to ‘Southern AB’, which makes much more sense.
  • Each region outside of the two CMAs has been subdivided into ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ categories. In these cases, the ‘urban’ section refers to the principal regional centres, i.e. Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat.

The reported percentages are the mean of the percentage of the popular vote each party receives across all ridings in a region. This is calculated by adding the party’s percentage of the popular vote in each riding and dividing by the number of ridings. (This is slightly different from using the raw vote totals to calculate a regional average, but the two methods produce similar enough results, and my method is a lot quicker to execute.)


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