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Tories for Notley, stalwarts for Smith, and the questions that decide Alberta’s election

It’s an election shaping up to be historically tight, in a province that’s never really ever had a close outcome.

Not only does Alberta stand alone in Canada by never having a minority government — we only elect majorities — the second-place finisher in this province has never come within fewer than 15 seats of winning.

The UCP’s Jason Kenney won last time with a 44-seat margin, and the NDP’s Rachel Notley before that won 33 more seats than her Wildrose opposition; in 2012, Danielle Smith finished 44 seats behind then-Tory premier Alison Redford.

The 19-seat gap between Ralph Klein and his Liberal challenger in 1993 is the closest result of any election since the last World War.

“Narrow” just hasn’t been in our arsenal of adjectives, in this land of wide open political spaces.

But in 2023, so many signs point to more of a nail-biter: the polls, seat projections, and a million “shruggy” emojis in text exchanges between politicos. 

The scrap from here to election night will come down to the electoral equivalent of hand-to-hand combat. Persuasion, voter activation, motivation — and de-motivation. Luck, too.

Only when the voting’s done on May 29 will we know the answers to these critical questions: 

Progressive Conservatives are publicly shifting to NDP — but how many of them?

Rachel Notley’s party been hailing a string of old Progressive Conservatives endorsing the NDP, from some heavyweights from Peter Lougheed’s days (former attorney-general Jim Foster, aide and MP Lee Richardson, MLA-turned-Senator Ron Ghitter) to lieutenants for Alison Redford (ex-ministers Thomas Lukaszuk and Doug Griffiths).

None, with perhaps the exception of former deputy premier Lukaszuk, are household names that jolt typical voters to attention. Nor have any of them been associated with the United Conservative Party that subsumed the old PCs, having drifted away as the coalition shifted to the right.

But these former politicians represent exactly the sort of Albertans the NDP needs to stampede to its side — moderate, centrist and disillusioned with the current conservative brand on offer.

In target Calgary ridings, the NDP leaned heavily into the lend-us-your vote pitch with a letter signed by Notley: “If you’ve usually voted conservative at election time, I want to say this: This time — in this election — let’s team up.”

Are there more shy Notley supporters or shy Smith fans?

Many former Tories will likely be reluctant to publicly back Notley, for fear of ostracizing themselves from their social circle, or putting themselves out of favour with the sitting government. But in the privacy of the ballot box, they’ll choose orange.

There still may be reputational harm for openly backing the NDP if you work in oil and gas, or live in the heartland.

I drove last week through Cardiff, a tiny hamlet north of Edmonton, in the competitive Morinville-St. Albert riding. I saw seven UCP signs to four NDP signs, nearly comparable to the ratio of votes each party received in 2019 — but perhaps it’s a brave step to advertise your NDP support in that rural community, and more quietly want Smith to lose without showing it on their front yard.

A politician wearing green looks downwards as she walks away, binder in arm.
Alberta UCP Leader Danielle Smith walks away as a reporter asks her a question at a news conference during the provincial election in Calgary on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

Shyness will cut the other way in some settings.

Polls say that university degree-holders overwhelmingly support NDP, so odds are the doctors, teachers and other professionals will be more discreet if they’re conservative.

This may especially be the case given all the controversies surrounding Smith — it might be that those in polite society don’t want to be outed as Smith voters.

Which leads to…

How much of Smith’s past (and very recent past) will voters care about?

Danielle Smith has previously called being pro-vaccination a stepping stone to Nazi-like tyranny. She called paying out-of-pocket for doctor visits a noble policy goal. She also called her justice minister a few months ago, in hopes he could deal with a preacher’s criminal charges — a breach of conflict of interest law and “threat to democracy,” the ethics commissioner’s report found.

All candidates have baggage; few have the full baggage carousel that Smith does. Add to that some candidate controversies, most notably Lacombe-Ponoka newcomer Jennifer Johnson’s remarks on trans students, and it’s reasonable for Albertans to wonder: if the “Lake of Fire” controversy sank Smith and the Wildrose party in 2012, why does she seem to be surviving these issues in 2023?

As she stands at a voting station, a politician cheekily puts her finger to her chin, as though she's mulling how to vote.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley jokes with the media before voting at an advance voting station for the upcoming provincial election in Calgary on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

The difference lies not only in the fact that this time, Smith jettisoned the candidate with appalling utterances (though may let her back into caucus soon enough). Progressives will say that in a post-Trump era, people are more forgiving of a candidate’s past problems if they’re wearing the right party colour.

That might not be it, either. Consider that in 2012, voters ran from the uncertainty of Smith and returned to the familiar embrace of the PCs. This election, the NDP are trying to stand in as the safe-harbour choice, which is a lot to expect of Alberta New Democrats.

How much do Albertans blame Notley for the rough economy she oversaw as premier?

United Conservatives have endlessly depicted their competitors as job-killers and debt-mongerers. The NDP will just as endlessly rebut that global oil prices were the wreckers over the four years Notley was premier — $16.3 billion in provincial resource revenues over that stretch, compared to $45.9 billion estimated between just last fiscal year and this one, as Smith glided into the premier’s office.

However, Notley gave her detractors fresh ammunition last week, and a reminder of why she wasn’t seen as strong on the economy or business development: promising to hike corporate taxes by three percentage points. Even if it would keep Alberta at Canada’s lowest corporate rates, the UCP flogs the term “38 per cent tax hike” and they’re mathematically correct.

Smith this week promised a Bill 1 that doubles as an anti-NDP attack ad. It would prevent the NDP or any future government from hiking personal or corporate rates without a referendum, while she’d be free to cut rates through simple legislature decisions.

Notley is running on trust and leadership in Edmonton and Calgary, but in smaller communities, NDP candidates are far less likely to use her name. Memories of her premiership run bitter — even if she is remembered more fondly than Kenney — and Notley seems to have struggled to change that perception this year. 

What will turnout be, and who’s not voting?

Last election was a multi-decade high in voter engagement, when 67.5 per cent of eligible Albertans cast ballots, most of them keen to vote UCP and turn out Notley’s New Democrats. That’s 10 points higher than the NDP change election of 2015.

Then there’s the record low in 2008, when tepid enthusiasm for Premier Ed Stelmach and his longshot opponents brought turnout down to 40.5 per cent.

A young bespectacled woman with a blue "More Alberta, less Ottawa" hat.
A United Conservative Party supporter awaits Danielle Smith at an April 29 rally in Calgary. NDP is targeting Albertans who have voted conservative previously, but are now reluctant. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

While the stakes are high, and the potential differences between choices are clear, both sides get bogged down by their negative impressions. “Half the people hate Smith. The other half hate Notley,” one politico said. “The election boils down to ‘vote for me, I’m not the UCP’ versus ‘vote for me, I’m not the NDP.'” 

If the options are such turn-offs, especially for past conservative voters queasy about Smith, staying home becomes a viable option. And as much as both parties are trying to motivate people to vote, there are also “suppression” tactics to make would-be voters for the rival party so disillusioned that they don’t vote.

Traditionally, higher turnout means a change in government. This time, toss the conventional wisdom aside.

Which party has the stronger get-out-the-vote machine?

The Tories and Kenney’s UCP knew how to harvest bumper crops of votes. But very few figures from those big blue machine organizations have gotten behind Smith. The UCP’s two operational principals in 2023, campaign manager Steve Outhouse and director of election readiness Pierçon Knezic — are Ontario imports without experience leading provincial campaigns, although they’re respected within conservative circles.

NDP campaign manager Nathan Rotman also came in from Ontario, but has local and national chops his rivals lack, having led the premier’s office for Notley and as a federal NDP national director. Sandra Houston, an Alberta NDP veteran of nearly two decades, is the field director.

Beneath the top of those party org charts, the final get-out-the-vote sprint comes down to data organization, effective microtargeting, and how potent one’s volunteer army is. This might come down to a toss-up.

How many seats can the UCP afford to say goodbye to?

There’s a likely reason that Mitchel Gray, Smith’s deputy chief of staff, is managing the local campaign in Strathcona–Sherwood Park, an Edmonton-area seat the UCP won by 20 percentage points last election, rather than neighbouring Sherwood Park, won by five per cent.

The NDP can flip Sherwood Park and more than a dozen around Alberta, and still be stuck in opposition. But if UCP falls in the more rural Strathcona riding, Smith probably becomes an ex-premier.

It seems almost inevitable that the UCP drop from their current 64 seats. Senior United Conservatives are preparing to lose the seats of prominent figures like Kaycee Madu (Edmonton–South West), Jason Copping (Calgary–Varsity) and a few of Smith’s ministers in Calgary and Lethbridge.

But they’ll fight harder for some seats in what amounts to a blue firewall in the Calgary suburbs and the ring around Edmonton. To defend ministers like Demitrios Nicolaides (Calgary–Bow) and Tyler Shandro (Calgary–Acadia), the UCP have bombarded residents’ mailboxes with campaign literature playing up the local candidates and swiping the NDP, while the opposition is gunning hard to produce upsets.

Several people watch Rachel Notley speak, as several more people stand behind her on a cascade of risers.
Supporters look on as Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley launches her campaign in Calgary on May 1. Polls suggest she faces an uphill climb to return for her second four-year stint as premier. (Colette Derworiz/The Canadian Press)

For Notley to return as premier, the New Democrats need to win at least 20 seats that went UCP last time. The 20th-closest loss for the NDP in that race was by 6,186 votes or 23.6 percentage points.

It’s an uphill climb for the NDP, but almost nobody is saying it’s impossible. Only the cockiest, most overconfident players in Alberta politics will believe they have all the answers to these questions.

A likely surer bet is that this will be an election closer than any we’ve ever seen.

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