Back of the napkin: Will Alberta debate punches land? Miss? Backfire?

Rachel Notley and Danielle Smith may be inclined to go on attack. Albertans may not be in fighting mood.

Charting out whether Albertans reward negativity, or want a sunnier leader

A composite image of two politicians, both with their hands raised.
It's debate night for UCP Leader Danielle Smith and NDP Leader Rachel Notley. One hour, two lecterns, two woman, many possible outcomes. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Political scientist Lisa Young uses online flow charts to explain the ups, downs and zig-zags of Alberta politics. Throughout the election period, she is sketching out the campaign's big what-ifs in a recurring series for CBC Calgary.

Who's ready for tonight? Three weeks into one of the closest election campaigns anyone can remember, we'll finally see the two party leaders on the same stage, trying to win the support of those undecided or not-firmly decided voters. 

Smith enters the debate as the incumbent premier and — if the polls are to be believed — slight front-runner. But she also has a lot of baggage to account for, having to answer for the performance of the UCP government and for her own past policy stances and takes on the pandemic.

This baggage and her aversion to taking follow-up questions from reporters during the election campaign have lowered expectations for her performance, creating a perception that she doesn't do well when she has to depart from her script. 

This means she has a chance to generate a positive impression if she simply delivers her message well and doesn't lose her cool. 

Because she's the incumbent and has been the focus of so much debate and scrutiny, we've all thought a lot about how she might respond when — or if — Notley attacks. 

Best strategy ever?

But should Smith go negative? 

Calling Notley the "worst premier ever" will rally her base, and might win over a few undecided voters. But it could open the door to a zinger of a reply from Notley. 

Trailing in most of the recent polls, but by a small enough margin that it is still possible to imagine a turnaround, Notley has the most to gain in the debate. In 2015, her debate performance gave her the momentum that made her premier. 

But it isn't clear what strategic approach she should take this time. 

If she had asked for my advice last weekend, I would have said: "Clearly, you need to drive home the idea that Smith isn't trustworthy, that her past statements and positions are so far beyond what's acceptable that she cannot be returned to the premier's office." 

This advice would have been grounded in the perception that Smith's past comments are catching up with her and making undecided or "reluctant UCP" voters shift their vote intention. That was certainly what the Abacus survey released on the weekend was telling us, and is echoed in the Angus Reid survey released Wednesday that found 44 per cent of Calgarians' views of Smith had worsened since the election started. 

Here's the flow chart gaming out how the debate would unfold in the "grim scenario" where attacks work: negative information drives voters away from Smith. 

Flowchart: if attacks work, equal chances that Danielle Smith or Rachel Notley benefit from the debate.
(Lisa Young)

But what if the assumption that voters will be repelled by Smith's past comments isn't valid?

What if Alberta voters are looking for "sunny ways" from their potential premier, and want to be won over with a positive vision of where that premier would take the province? 

If we knew that to be true, then the advice would be entirely different: "Ignore your opponent. Speak directly to the voters, through the camera. Don't stoop to attacking Smith, no matter how tempting!" 

This sunnier, anti-negativity scenario is one that's suggested by the Janet Brown poll that leaked on Monday. It showed the UCP ahead in the polls, and Brown's comments suggested that voters were thirsty for a positive message from the two leaders. 

In this scenario, the UCP benefits unless Notley is able to connect with voters directly, ignoring Smith. 

Flowchart: if attacks don't work, more likely that debate has no impact on public opinion, or that Danielle Smith benefits
(Lisa Young)

But wait! We've had two flow charts and no plot twist. What's going on? 

Here it is, more likely than aliens or Godzilla. It's the Thursday of the May long weekend. Albertans are packing the camper, playing softball or lined up at the garden centre. And many are far from home, with friends or family or at an evacuation centre.

It could be that the debate doesn't make much of a difference at all. 

Perhaps minds are already made up, or the victory will go to whichever party has the best get-out-the-vote operation, or minds will be changed by the next plot twist.

Red text over flowchart: "Gone for weekend!" Debate has no impact.
(Lisa Young)


Lisa Young is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.