Why the more Calgarian people feel, the more likely they are to vote

“It may seem a bit of a no-brainer – if you identify more strongly with Calgary, you’ll be more interested in its politics – but it also has consequences for voting.” Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas on the upcoming election.

Calgary identity is strongly related to our interest in municipal politics

Calgarians will vote in the municipal election on Oct. 18. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the lead up to the municipal election, Jack Lucas, who teaches political science at the University of Calgary and is part of The Canadian Municipal Election Study (CMES), will be writing a series of columns to help us understand the mechanics of how a city election works. You can see previous articles here, and here.

The CMES is a multi-year series of surveys analyzing how and why we vote as we do.

Do you think of yourself as a Calgarian? If so, how Calgarian are you? How would you figure that out? And what would it mean, say, when it came to the upcoming municipal election? 

These are questions of identity — place identity — and while some of us identify more strongly with our communities than others, all of us live somewhere on the identity spectrum. 

Recently, through my political science work at the University of Calgary, I've been doing some research with a colleague, Sophie Borwein, about one source of identity: our cities. And Calgary has been a focus.

For many of us, the word "Calgarian" is a meaningful social category, one to which we feel we belong. 

We found some clear patterns in the numbers we collected. 

If you have a strong sense of being Calgarian, you're more likely to care about municipal politics, and also more likely to vote. You might even have distinctive policy preferences. 

How Calgarian are you?

Here's a little quiz.

It's the same quiz we used in our 2018 academic survey of Calgarians. Take a look at the questions in the table below. Each response is associated with an assigned points score. Choose a response for each question, and then add up your total points. 

Remember. There's no right or wrong answers here. This is just for fun.

1. How important is being a Calgarian to you? 

  • Not at all important (0) 
  • Not very important (1)
  • Very important (2) 
  • Extremely important (3) 

2. How well does the term "Calgarian" describe you? 

  • Not at all (0)
  • Not very well (1)
  • Very well (2) 
  • Extremely well (3) 

3. When talking about Calgarians, how often do you use "we" instead of "they"? 

  • Never (0) 
  • Rarely (1) 
  • Some of the time (2)
  • Most of the time (3)
  • All of the time (4)

4. To what extent do you think of yourself as being a Calgarian? 

  • Not at all (0)
  • Very little (1)
  • Somewhat (2)
  • A great deal (3) 

What was your number? 

If you are in the 11-13 range, you identify very strongly as a Calgarian. If you're down in the 0-5 range, you'd be considered a "weak identifier" in political science terms.

Again, there's no good or bad number. 

The average score among Calgarians, when we asked them this question in a survey in 2018, was 9.6 — generally strong identification

Calgarian, Albertan, Western Canadian, Canadian

Unsurprisingly, the most important predictor is the time you've spent in Calgary. It takes time to put down roots in a place, and the deeper the roots, the deeper your identification. 

Intriguingly, people who identify with any political party are also more likely to identify strongly with their city. 

This might be what I sometimes call "the groupishness thing": those of us who identify strongly with one type of social group (a political party) might tend to identify with other social groups as well. 

In our recent CBC-CMES survey, we asked a slightly different set of questions than those above about Calgarians' connection to their city. But the general themes were similar. 

We found, once again, that many Calgarians identify strongly with their city: nearly three-quarters feel "somewhat" or "extremely" close to the city of Calgary. 

When given the choice of the place they identify with most strongly — the options were community, city, province, Western Canada and Canada — some 25 per cent of Calgarians chose the city of Calgary, second only to Canada (29 per cent), and well ahead of Alberta (17 per cent) and western Canada (12 per cent).

Not only do most Calgarians identify strongly with their city, but a substantial number identify more strongly with their city than with any other geographic area.

And it turns out that this identity is strongly related to our interest in municipal politics, or propensity to vote in municipal elections, and even our attitudes on municipal policy issues. 

Identities have consequences

Based on what we found in our 2018 survey of Calgarians, people who scored high on the city identity questionnaire had a high interest in municipal politics: about 7 (out of 10) on the interest scale. People who scored low on the identity questionnaire were more likely to be down around 4 on the interest scale. 

This is a huge difference. It may seem a bit of a no-brainer — if you identify more strongly with Calgary, you'll be more interested in its politics — but it also has consequences for voting.

In the 2017 election and the 2018 Olympic bid plebiscite, we found that strong identifiers were about four percentage points more likely to report that they voted. In a big-city election, that can amount to a differential of many thousands of votes between strong and weak identifiers. 

Perhaps most important of all, comparing strong and weak identifiers who were otherwise similar in age, ideology and other characteristics, we found strong identifiers can also have distinctive policy preferences. This was especially the case on issues that engage loyalty to Calgary and rivalry with other cities.

In 2018, we found that strong identifiers were substantially more supportive of both the NHL arena and the Olympic bid proposals. 

In the 2021 CBC-CMES survey, we found that Calgarians who identify most strongly with their city are some 9 percentage points more likely to support the NHL arena proposal. 

They're also more likely to support the Green Line (8 per cent difference), speed limit reductions (6 per cent difference), and reallocating funding for mental health and addictions programs (6 per cent difference). 

Municipal candidates have a strong incentive to appeal to voters who are most likely to actually turn out to vote on election day. This includes strong local identifiers. But strong identifiers are not always representative of the community's wider policy priorities

Subset of Calgarians

We're still working to understand how and why strong and weak identifiers differ on some issues and not others. But it's clear that they can and do hold different policy views. 

This has some potentially positive consequences for our local democracy. For instance, we've found that strong identifiers might be able to reach across ordinary political divides, like ideology and partisanship, to build unusually diverse policy coalitions

But it also means our elected representatives are likely to be elected by, and hear most from, a distinctive subset of Calgarians. 

Polling details and methodology:

The poll was conducted by Forum Research on behalf of the Canadian Municipal Election Study with the results based on a telephone recruit-to-web survey of 2,209 randomly selected eligible voters in the City of Calgary. The poll was conducted between July 6 and Aug. 4, 2021.

For comparison purposes, the margin of error for a probability sample of the same size would be plus or minus 2.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Results at a ward-level and other subsamples have a larger margin. For more methodology information, see here. See here for more information on the data, methods and sources in this analysis.


Jack Lucas is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary. His research is in Canadian politics, with a particular focus on municipal democracy and municipal elections. He has been part of the CMES research team since 2017.


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