Passing the torch in Alberta

Peter Lougheed's endorsement of Alison Redford was pivotal in the swing away from Wildrose, back to the PCs

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The turning point in the Alberta election came 10 days ago, when Peter Lougheed went on television to endorse Alison Redford. Until then, Redford's campaign had been failing. After that, she began to win.

Lougheed, patriarch of the Progressive Conservative dynasty that's governed Alberta for 41 years, picked the perfect moment to endorse Redford in Monday's provincial election.

The latest in the line of his PC successors, Redford was weighed down by the baggage of her party's two generations in office, while her principal opponent, Danielle Smith of Wildrose, was a compelling messenger of change, surging to a double digit lead in the polls.

But then Lougheed gave the interview Friday in which he strongly endorsed Redford. It played on the evening news all across the province and jumped to the front pages of all the big weekend papers the next day.

More than an endorsement, it was a laying on of hands, a passing of the leadership mantle from one generation to the next. This wasn't just any former premier talking, but the man who built modern Alberta - a proud Canadian who at the same time always stood for his province's interests and resource ownership.

As for the timing, it was the day after the leaders' debate, going into the second to last weekend of the campaign, usually the most important moment of an election, a time when undecideds decide, when switchers switch, when strategic voters go strategic. Lougheed, the most revered and respected figure in Alberta, was asking Albertans to think about their vote.

Over that weekend, the Conservatives' internal polling turned positive for the first time in weeks. Lougheed's intervention stopped the Conservative slide.

Also that weekend, the Conservative war room decided they couldn't count on earned media to make them competitive again, so they made a huge television ad buy. Over a 24-hour period that weekend, they raised $600,000 and flooded the airwaves.

Then, two other things happened in the last week of the campaign. Redford showed up for the election while Smith hit a wall.

Redford's campaign became a whirlwind in which she showed how much she wanted the job. Last Saturday, she had eight events; on Sunday, nine. Even on election day, when leaders normally do a voting photo op and put their feet up, she barnstormed through Edmonton and Calgary with another half-dozen events, campaigning until polls closed.

Smith, meanwhile, was in damage-control mode. Her problem, predictably enough, was that she couldn't keep the right wing kooks locked up in the basement.

One of her candidates, a fundamentalist Christian minister named Allan Hunsperger, made homophobic comments about gays burning in hell. Then Calgary candidate Ron Leech gave a radio interview in which he said: "I think as a Caucasian I have an advantage." His comments later turned up on videotape.

Not only was Smith's campaign hobbled by negatives, she also peaked too early and in the end, had no message other than change.

The Wildrose campaign of 2012 was strikingly similar to the federal Conservative campaign of 2004. And it was run by the same people, starting with Tom Flanagan, the campaign director. Then, as now, the leader was constantly on the defensive in the final week of the campaign, bleeding from wounds inflicted by supporters. Strategic voters switched massively from third parties to the governing one, in order to stop the crazies on the right. And the leader had no message to close the deal.

All that being said, the polls and most pundits missed the swing of the last five days of the campaign. Even on election day, the Globe and Mail ran a story pointing to a Wildrose majority. In its opening projection on election night, CTV said there was only a three-per-cent chance of a Conservative majority. Garbage in, garbage out. In the end, Redford won by 10 points - 44 to 34 per cent over Smith - with a big majority of 61 seats in the 87-seat legislature.

At a minimum, the polling industry needs to have a meeting. Every one of the polls was wrong, probably because they didn't capture the huge 20-per-cent undecided vote that decided on Redford. As for the pundits, they were too busy talking to each other on Twitter all day to talk to real voters. The only pollster who got it right was Redford's, who had her winning nearly every night in the final week.

She can thank him, among many others - starting with Lougheed.

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