Welcome, Premier Redford: Thoughts on Alberta’s PC Leadership Nomination Race

Early in the morning of October 2nd 2011, Alison Redford won a nail-biter of a decision which resulted in the election of the first woman as Premier (Designate) of Alberta. While the very thought of Alberta having a woman as premier may seem novel to many outsiders, there has been a dramatic shift in politics in Alberta in recent times: we have seen the City of Edmonton elect a Jewish mayor; Calgary elected a Muslim mayor (also the son of Tanzanian immigrants); Raj Sherman left the PC party and became the leader of the Liberal Party; and we saw the emergence of a new political party (The Alberta Party). Politics has become much more interesting in Alberta, evolving well beyond the homogeneity of the PC dynasty of the last 40 years.

But how did we arrive at Premier Redford?

Her campaign reflected a number of unique phenomena – some old, some new – that are worth highlighting.

1. Money Matters.

It is no surprise that the top two candidates on the final ballot were two of the best-financed candidates. Gary Mar had broad-based support from other MLAs as well as from corporations and a dedicated membership. Alison Redford had mobilized sufficient funds to run a sophisticated, integrated campaign in key areas across the province. The third place contender, Doug Horner, had a focused effort in Northern Alberta, which paid dividends in that locale, but he did not have sufficient funding to make any inroads into the urban centres. At the other end of the spectrum, Doug Griffiths ran a 100% volunteer campaign, and though he was well-received at debates and throughout the leadership race, he performed dismally on the first ballot.

2. Building a Strong Brand.

Alison’s strategist, Stephen Carter, fresh off the success of the Naheed Nenshi campaign, built on his strength of branding strategy for Redford. From the logo – featuring her red locks in the shape of a flame – to the consistent messaging (tone and target), to avatars for supporters and signage at campaign offices, there was no doubt about who had the best-conceived political brand. But it went beyond that: it was the campaign’s story – Alison’s story – and it was all carefully connected to her platform… her ideas. It was seamless. And PCAA members and “temporary members” (see below), once they got it and understood it, were inclined to feel connected to the story. Mar, for all of his resources, endorsements and the ever-present orange, was unable to inspire beyond traditional support. Of note, orange is a bold colour but his campaign felt very traditional and Mar played things safe with an early and long-lasting comfortable lead. Thus there was no real integration to connect Gary’s story with the overall campaign. No other campaign, with the exception of Griffith’s low profile campaign (which only managed to get all the elements together late in game), managed to grasp the concept and importance of brand strategy.

3. Emergence of the Engaged

This point could also be labelled a challenge to the “Old Boy Network.” What we have seen in the province over the last couple of years are people having online discussions about politics via blogs, Twitter and on Facebook. These conversations pull other people into the fold beyond the discussions themselves. While there may be some who are partisan, the emerging engaged are values-driven, socially progressive and fiscally responsible. They are also unified in their desire for good governance, transparency and open government.

Mar had the support of 48 MLAs (reinforcing the notion that he had a core of traditional support). Redford had the support of a handful. From the get-go this was a challenge, but through Redford’s strategy (as scripted by Carter) the campaign reached out astutely to these engaged persons, and they in turn became spokespersons and connectors to other, similarly inclined individuals who might likely self-identify as moderate conservatives. In the end, there were an adequate number of them to get a solid base in place, so that when key topics around education and health care arose, Redford was able to connect with a target population who were appreciative of her policy on such matters (i.e., funding back to the teachers). This amplified the level of engagement through their own social networks, which some may have labelled “temporary members.”

On a side note, this “emerging engaged” is an interesting phenomenon. They are able to layer their network among other networks quickly via online means, and they talk across party lines all the time. Connections may be loose and appear to be chaotic, but there is a belief in their authenticity and foundation of trust. Traditional old pols are challenged to grasp the nature of these networks and their ability to mobilize (when everything aligns for mass action) compared to traditional campaigning. This will be an emerging divide in forthcoming elections.

4. The Long Game.

Once campaigns started to ramp up in late January 2011, Redford was one of the earliest to announce her candidacy. With her team in place, they knew they had a steep mountain to climb, and while the desire was to win on the first vote, they were realistic in their assumption that with six candidates in the race, this would likely go to a second ballot. Thus, the positioning of being second or third after the first vote became increasingly important. With a second place finish after the first vote, Redford established an element of credibility in the minds of party members. In the intervening two weeks, it was evident that Mar’s base grew proportionally to what he had before, and Horner’s was much the same, but Redford was the candidate with momentum. In the final stages, Redford reached out to Horner’s supporters and demonstrated a willingness to engage and connect her campaign with his; this paid dividends when it counted, as Horner’s supporters were inspired to ultimately consider her as their second choice instead of Mar.

Thus, a well structured strategy focused on all contingencies, and for the length of the entire campaign, it trumped the perceived first-round winning ambitions of Mar.

5. Polling Still Matters.

An initial poll released in the summer of 2011 by Herald/Journal/Environics (a general population poll) yielded little insight beyond the obvious fact that Mar was the frontrunner. Their second poll, which was drawn from the membership list, was much more illuminating. (Note: the legality of the permission of members, its release and use for polling is still in question.) Redford benefitted from the membership poll that was undertaken by the same entities in the week before the first vote: the poll clearly indicated that Redford’s campaign had traction. This was important because it fed into a belief system within moderate party members (and those considering membership) who might be receptive to her leadership. As noted above, each leader presented a political brand, and what the poll demonstrated was that while Mar’s brand had the strength to carry a strong finish in the first vote, but also that there was momentum building with Redford’s campaign. This poll, I would venture, was the critical tipping point for her campaign.

6. Old/New School Tactics and Media Literacy.

On the first vote, old school tactics worked exceptionally well for Mar. His ability to get a host of his supporters out to the polling stations by traditional PC party means paid dividends. However, on the second vote, his committed stayed at a similar level.

What has emerged is a need to blend old school tactics with new school engagement. By way of historical example, in the movie The King’s Speech, there is a scene in which King George VI watches a film reel showing Adolf Hitler delivering a speech. In this era, radio was becoming a very powerful medium of communication, and the king realized that it was more important than ever for him to overcome his stutter and present himself effectively on the radio.  His mastering the new medium would be crucial to maintaining public support and belief in the war effort.

How does this relate to the Alberta campaign? Mar’s team had worked exceptionally well at establishing a base level to mobilize his support, but it was not enough to build momentum. Momentum comes from understanding what becomes relevant at what time. In observing Redford’s campaign with positive polling results and a second place finish after the first vote, it’s evident that the campaign shifted into a new gear, in which the emerging engaged dug in and worked every possible means to connect with their community, sell memberships, and motivate their supporters to get out and vote on October 1st. In tandem with traditional phoning around and working lists, the strategy deployed a number of online tactics using social media. Further, it is my observation that Redford’s campaign team grasped what elements of the media (traditional and online) worked to reinforce and amplify their message effectively in this critical period.

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While this leadership race was basically an exercise in selling the most memberships, mobilizing support and getting into the minds of a competitors support if the race came down to a second ballot, it did highlight a number of problems with the PC party. Much has been said about “change from within” and unifying and renewing the party. However, the party is now entering its forties. It is middle-aged and due for a mid-life crisis.

Here are some additional thoughts on the state of affairs.

1. Apathy.

While there were almost 70,000 fewer votes on the second ballot compared to the 2006 vote, what has become evident is that the apathy that has been instilled into provincial politics by the PC party has now infiltrated the ranks of members. With the turnout in the previous election at 41%, there may be elements of apathy that have seeped into the PC party from this perspective: Does it really make a difference who is heading up the party at this point? This is fairly typical of a party that has become less relevant to its followers, as their level of engagement has diminished and they feel there are few new things that the party has to offer them.

2. The Morton Factor.

In 2006, there was a substantial surge in the second vote as many moderate Albertans feared for a Morton-led ruling party. Yes, there were many new members from across all political stripes, but they were mobilized to vote against Morton. In this iteration, with Morton’s presence throughout the campaign becoming increasingly irrelevant and his failure to reach the second ballot, the remaining candidates attracted followers who were inspired to support their leaders.

3. Rural Engagement and the Rural/Urban Divide

There has been much discussion about the WildRose party making inroads into rural Alberta. While we have yet to see that in terms of a slate of strong candidates, or at the operational level within the party, this leadership race was delivered primarily on the strength of GOTV in Edmonton and Calgary. Some may use the harvest as an excuse, but as with the point about apathy, there was little that inspired rural voters to seriously consider any of the leaders and to make their way to the polling station. While in the end their votes were critical to Redford’s victory, this has been a trend in the PC party and Alberta politics, with a disconnect between what is going on within the government and the needs of rural Alberta.

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This all points to an uphill battle for the PC party. With issues including fiscal management, changing demographics, the rural-urban divide, grappling with the resource sector, and connecting with the emerging engaged, the PC party is challenged to make a dent in imagination and aspirations of a broader – and broader-minded – Alberta population. The next election will be a performance evaluation on the party’s health.

Congratulations, Alison, on a well-deserved victory.

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