5 things to watch in Calgary Centre byelection

Conservatives are a constant in Alberta. For four decades, the Progressive Conservatives have dominated politics in the province. And federally, Conservatives own it, except for one patch of NDP orange in Edmonton.
Calgary Centre voters will head to polls Monday for a byelection that a recent poll suggests could provide a surprise in what's historically been Tory heartland. (CBC)

Conservatives are a constant in Alberta.

For four decades, the Progressive Conservatives have dominated politics in the province. And federally, Conservatives own it, except for one patch of NDP orange in Edmonton.

Calgary Centre has a long history of sending Conservatives or Progressive Conservatives to Ottawa. Calgary Centre was Tory territory from 1968 to 1993 and was dominated for 21 of those years by Harvie Andre, who held a number of cabinet positions.

The Reform Party took over in 1993 and won again in 1997. In 2000, the Tories returned, with then leader Joe Clark unseating Eric Lowther by 4,304 votes.

Former Progressive Conservative member of Parliament Lee Richardson won the riding handily in 2004 to return to the Commons and defended it in 2008. And it's fair to say he crushed his competition in 2011: 

  • Lee Richardson, Conservative: 57 per cent
  • Jennifer Pollock, Liberal: 17 per cent
  • Donna Marlis Montgomery, NDP: 15 per cent
  • William Hamilton, Green Party: 11 per cent

So, with polls suggesting a tightening race in one of the safest of safe Conservative seats, the campaign to capture Calgary Centre has become a lot more interesting than was expected when Richardson stepped down to work for Alberta Premier Alison Redford.  

The accuracy of polls

Some experienced political strategists and reporters quietly scoff at Forum Research's recent Calgary Centre polls. The polling company's most recent survey suggests the Conservatives' Joan Crockatt is leading the campaign with 35 per cent support among voters. Liberal Harvey Locke trails by five points with 30 per cent support.

Of note, the Green Party’s Chris Turner is preferred by 25 per cent of Calgary Centre voters, according to Forum Research. The company's telephone survey found only eight per cent of voters in Calgary Centre plan to cast a ballot for the NDP’s Dan Meades.

The margin of error with Forum's random survey of 403 respondents is five percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

If accurate, the Conservatives, Liberals and Greens are in a statistical dead heat, meaning the Liberals and the Greens are competitive with the Conservatives. But we just don't know. And Crockatt's opponents have shrewdly seized on the poll results, hyping their legitimacy as contenders — and the buzz of "making history" as potential political giant killers.

All the while, the media, who love a good "horse race" story, echo and amplify the potential come-from-behind win narrative.

Still, Crockatt and the Conservatives stood at 48 per cent — traditional Tory support territory — in a Forum poll a few weeks ago.

Polls are, of course, snapshots in time. But it is notable that Crockatt's popularity plunged, it appears, as the campaign heated up. Forum Research's head, in fact, contends his polls point to the Conservative being "in real trouble" in the safe Tory seat.  

Some political watchers complain the random sample size of 403 is small. They also discount IVR (interactive voice response) polling.

Despite the size of the survey, polling experts insist the random sample is statistically valid. Plus, IVR has come a long way recently, producing similar results to traditional telephone polls where real people ask the questions.

The impact of 1CalgaryCentre

Conservatives may dominate Calgary politics, but Cowtown can also confound.

The prime minister calls Calgary home — but the so-called Conservative heartland also has a history of electing small-L liberal and capital-L Liberal mayors. Calgary's progressive vote solidified around Naheed Nenshi in 2010 to propel his come-from-way-behind victory.

"Nenshi's nerds" — many of them young — worked hard to elect the professor-turned-politician. They feverishly knocked on doors non-stop in the fall of 2010. It's hard to know whether these on-again, off-again young "peek-a-boo" voters will come out in big numbers in Calgary Centre. But their potential is huge. 

Another conceivably unifying force for progressive voters may come from 1CalgaryCentre. The group hopes to unify, or crowdsource, the centre-left voters around one candidate. The people behind the group — many of them self-described post-partisans — are shrewd operators. They know their way around politics and social media. Many seasoned political observers underestimated the power of the "emerging engaged" in Calgary's 2010 civic election. Their impact in Calgary Centre should not be underestimated.

What happens with the NDP vote

The NDP "Orange Crush" in 2011 did not spill over into Alberta. But the party led by the late Jack Layton did place second province-wide with 16.8 per cent of the vote, increasing its total by 4.1 per cent over the 2008 federal election.

New NDP leader Tom Mulcair parachuted into Calgary during the campaign to bolster Dan Meades. But did Calgary Centre voters notice? Will it make a difference? Will the NDP vote hold and help the Conservatives?

Conservative campaign effectiveness and get-out-the-vote efforts

In the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives ran a masterful national campaign. The party won the national air war — and as a result, captured its much coveted "strong, stable, national Conservative majority government." 

But most local candidates kept their heads down — and didn't say much, especially about controversial social issues.

Crockatt's campaign team appears to have cut and pasted their strategy from the Conservatives' 2011 play book. That is, do no harm. Their conventional wisdom: The front-runner has little to gain and everything to lose in debates. But some think that strategy may have backfired in 2012.

Nenshi, who enjoys substantial popularity, scolded Crockatt for not attending a debate about civic issues.  

Nenshi — a black belt in Twitter karate chops — heaped scorn on the former journalist, calling her absence the "elephant not in the room."

So, did Nenshi damage Crockatt?

Political blogger Joey Oberhoffner estimated Nenshi's impact this way:

"A lot of people who would be inclined to follow a call to action from Mayor Nenshi aren't necessarily the type of people who would go in and vote for a candidate that doesn't seem to be engaging with the public, the antithesis of the type of politics Mayor Nenshi practices," Oberhoffner told CBC News.

Surprisingly, Crockatt — no stranger to performing on TV — did not shine when she did show up for debates, according to many longtime political watchers. The Conservative campaign did, however, seize on Ontario Liberal MP David McGuinty's "go back to Alberta" gaffe in the final week of the campaign.

Vote splitting

The Conservatives' get-out-the-vote machine churns efficiently in every election. This byelection will be no different.

The party's sophisticated database gives Tories an edge. Plus, true blue Conservatives can be counted on to get to the polls, unlike unreliable students who have might have midterms and two jobs.

But what about the provincial Progressive Conservatives? Many see Crockatt as a Wildrose supporter.

Do the provincial PCs, who elected Redford this past spring, stay home? Or do they hold their nose and vote for Crockatt?

And — it's a big one — does the ABC (Anything But Conservative) effort coalesce around one candidate or does the vote split, allowing Crockatt to come up the middle and conform to the conventional political wisdom that federal Conservatives always win in Calgary?