There’s big news out of Calgary today. It seems that the media narrative of a relatively smooth by-election victory for Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt has come face-to-face with the reality of an electorate out looking for change. Since Crockatt’s selection by the Conservative Party to carry the banner in Calgary Centre, the media has opined that, although a polarizing figure (“more Wildrose than PC”), Crockatt should nevertheless have a fairly easy ride to become Calgary’s newest-and-bluest MP.
Enter Chris Turner and the Green Party.
Turner is representative of the young, hip, professional, urban (and urbane) Calgary Centre. Author of the Governor-General literary award-nominated The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, Turner embodies what Calgary Centre has become, and where it is going. Turner offers a compelling vision for Calgary voters, and promises to be a welcome voice for change. Reportedly, Turner has garnered the support of many of those involved in Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s successful campaign, which saw Nenshi build momentum during the municipal election campaign in 2010, coming out of virtually nowhere to capture the imagination (and votes) of Calgarians.
Chris Turner seems to be on the same track, if the latest results of a Forum Research poll are to be believed. Certainly, Calgary’s local media (and the national media) have started to pay attention to the turning tide in Calgary Centre over the past week or so. The Forum poll, however, leaves little doubt: Crockatt’s support is tumbling, Liberal Harvey Locke’s campaigned has stalled, and Turner has all of the momentum. With only two weeks to go in the campaign, momentum means everything.
Turning the Tide
Let’s look at those Forum Research numbers, and compare them to a poll taken by Forum at the outset of the by-election campaign. Forum is reporting Conservative Crockatt at 32%, down significantly from her high of 48% at the start of the campaign. In second place is Liberal Locke, with 30%, which is barely an improvement over the 28% assigned to him by the earlier poll. Green Chris Turner, meanwhile, has shot up to 23%, from a starting level of just 11%. Since the beginning of the campaign, Turner’s support has more than doubled, while his main competitors have tumbled and stalled.
The NDP’s Dan Meades is now polling at 12%, up from 8% in October. While it’s fair to say that some have turned to the NDP as their progressive choice for Calgary Centre, clearly Meades is going to be an “also-ran” in this campaign. That being said, his rise in support is important, because it likely means that a good fraction of that 4%, if not most of the 12%, is in play for the Greens and Liberals. Voters, recognizing that their preferred candidate just doesn’t have a prayer at winning, often turn to their second choice when it comes to casting ballots. As a Green Party supporter, I know a thing or two about this! We can expect to see Meades’ support begin to collapse, to the benefit of both Turner and Locke. The question is, who will benefit more?
There are other forces at play in the Calgary Centre by-election which might have some influence on the eventual outcome. A crowdsourcing group known as 1CalgaryCentre has been advocating strategic voting in the riding, and has offered to throw its support behind a “progressive” candidate of its member’s choosing. Right now, that means either Turner, Locke, or Meades. Given that Locke earlier dissed a 1CalgaryCentre event in favour of campaigning with Marc Garneau (as reported here in Pundits Guide), there’s a good chance that 1CalgaryCentre may end up endorsing the candidate who has demonstrated commitment to his community, and who has all of the momentum. And that is Chris Turner of the Green Party.
It’s now known whether 1CalgaryCentre will ultimately have a significant influence on the by-election outcome or not, however, there are a few things to consider which suggests that it may actually play a role in deciding. First, by-election voter turn-out is historically lower than during general elections. This means that a higher proportion of voters tend to be more motivated, and are often affiliated with (or tend to historically support) one Party or candidate. This would seem to play into Crockatt’s hands, as Calgary Centre has long been a bastion of conservative parties.
But it’s that very issue which is driving voters like those behind 1CalgaryCentre: for too long the riding has been held by a conservative (it was previously held by Conservative MP Lee Richardson, who stepped down to take a job with Alberta Premier Alison Redford, which led to this by-election). While there is likely a degree of opposition-party affiliated on the ground which the Liberals and the NDP can count on (their “base” ), clearly there is a heightened degree of voter mobility in Calgary Centre – those voters dissatisfied with the historic conservative outcomes, who are looking for a progressive alternative.
That becomes clear when you look at just how well Chris Turner’s campaign has been performing, based on the recent Forum Research poll. In the 2011 general election, the Green candidate polled less than 10%, finishing third with about half of the votes of the Liberal. Well, that’s not likely to be the outcome of this by-election, not if the trend holds up for Turner.
So, with an expected smaller number of voters, and a higher percentage of motivated and mobile voters, an endorsement from 1CalgaryCentre might actually have an impact in the by-election. Even without 1CalgaryCentre’s participation, however, clearly voters who are looking to stop Crockatt can be expected to turn to the candidate with the greatest expectation of winning. Right now, that appears to be Chris Turner, who has all of the momentum heading into the final two weeks of the campaign.
Voters might also be thinking that they can have a greater impact on the national political scene than simply returning another Liberal to Ottawa. Indeed, sending a Green to Parliament Hill will effectively double the Green Party’s caucus, and give Green Party Leader Elizabeth May a welcome partner in the House of Commons. By doing this, the message Calgary Centre would send the rest of Canada would not be ignored by pundits. In short, voters in Calgary Centre can cast ballots which have a real impact on our national political scene. Those opportunities don’t come around very often.
NDP Supporters Going Green
What comes next for the Green and Liberal campaigns will be to figure out a way to reach out to mobile NDP voters. Campaigns with good organizations on the ground can really have an impact in this area, and by all accounts, both the Greens and the Liberals have well-run teams in place. At this point in the campaign, phone and foot canvassing will have identified supporters. Canvassing should also have identified known or suspected supporters of other parties. Now, it’ll be incumbent on Green and Liberal campaigns to contact NDP supporters and make the case that since the NDP doesn’t have a hope of winning, it’s time to turn to one of the two other parties.
Here again, the Green case is more persuasive, for several reasons.
First, the Liberals are a known quantity, and a real competitor for the NDP at the national level. Indeed, since the 2011 federal election, the Liberals have actually picked up a seat from the NDP (Quebec MP Lise St-Denis defected to the Liberals shortly after Jack Layton’s death, saying that Quebeckers voted for Layton, not the NDP). With heir-apparent Justin Trudeau ready to be anointed by the Liberals, Tom Mulcair and the NDP are going to face some significant competition for media oxygen (and at the ballot box) from the Liberal Party. And this is especially true in Quebec, where the Liberals have continued to poll well and, together with a re-emergent Bloc, have begun to eat into NDP gains in that province.
Clearly, a revitalized and media-friend Liberal Party poses significantly more threat to the NDP than does a Green Party with a caucus of two. No matter how much the NDP wants to guard its environmental flank, the fact is that the Liberals will continue to be the more dangerous Party for the NDP. Which is why an upset Liberal victory in the Conservative stronghold of Calgary Centre, even before Trudeau is appointed Leader, will prove to be a much more difficult narrative for the NDP to counter. With a Green victory, the NDP can chalk it up to voter dissatisfaction as expressed through the safety valve of a by-election, and nothing more.
Second, Liberal candidate Harvey Locke is doing himself and his Party no favours in Calgary Centre. Locke has taken to condemning Chris Turner and the Green Party for engaging in “American, Republican-style attack ads” against him. Seriously (see: “Barbs fly as federal leaders pitch in for Calgary Centre byelection battle”, the Calgary Herald, November 14 2012). Rhetoric like that is, frankly, unbelievable, and shows a pretty significant disconnect with reality. Given that Liberals know a heck of a lot about financing vote-suppressing negative attack ads, Locke has gone completely over the top with his moronic observation. Locke isn’t winning any points with Calgarians who can see through this sort of intelligence-insulting nonsense.
By all accounts, Turner is running a vigorous and inspired campaign, where he is actually engaging Calgarians through non-traditional means. And I’m not just talking about his significant use of social media here. Turner has been described as using “guerrilla” campaign tactics, including jumping on public transit to shake hands and give impromptu speeches. Turner has even found time to contribute to Atlantic Cities with today’s publication of “For pedestrians, cities have become the wilderness”.
Locke and his Liberals continue to engage in much more traditional campaigning (some would say “old school”), including slinking around the provincial Progressive Conservative’s general meeting, and hanging out at hospitality suites in an attempt to lure “red tory” voters. And while it’s true that many red tories are jumping ship to distance themselves from the ultra-right-wing Conservative Joan Crockatt, it’s also likely that those red tories are finding that Turner is a good place to park their vote in the by-election.
Principles, Policy and Values: Know What You’re Voting For
After all, the Green Party actually has a very well-developed policy document which easily doubles as a campaign platform in-between general elections. It’s called Vision Green, and, updated periodically, it’s been available to the public at the Green Party’s website for years.
In contrast, the chameleon-like Liberal Party, although well-branded, really doesn’t stand for much of anything other than a vague set of “liberal” values. Until the next Leader is elected, it’s not at all clear what the Liberals, exactly, stand for. They’re asking voters in Calgary Centre to vote for a largely unknown quantity, with the hopes of having things sorted out sometime after a Leader is elected, and hopefully before the next general election.
Case in point. If you’re a voter in Calgary Centre concerned about ending marijuana prohibition, are you going to take Justin Trudeau’s recent musings about decriminalization, maybe legalization, as a guide for your vote, even though the Liberals have historically done nothing to end prohibition? Or are you going to turn to Page 83 of Vision Green, “Ending the War on Drugs”, and see that Green Party MP’s will vote to end prohibition and legalize marijuana?
Spinning the Polls
It’s true that the Forum Research poll is just one poll, and is really just a snapshot in time of those polled, and polls have been wrong before. We can’t trust polls, right? We’re hearing a lot of that today, not surprisingly, from pundits from all three old-line parties. The Conservatives, clearly, don’t like the poll because it shows significant slippage for their candidate. The NDP don’t like the poll because they’ve been trying to make the case that they’re the true opposition to the Conservatives, when clearly the poll shows they’ll end up being also-rans. And the Liberals, which the poll shows in second place, don’t like the poll because it also shows that they’ve done little at improving their support in the first half of the campaign. So it’s in the interests of those three parties to downplay and discredit this poll. And that’s exactly what they’ve all been doing.
Of course, they’re trying to spin the poll to their advantage (or, more precisely, spin the poll so that it has the least amount of negative impact on their respective campaigns). The numbers, though, tell the real story, spin-free.
Of course, I’m a Green partisan, and this poll clearly is positive for the Greens, so I know there’s going to be a certain amount of spin and bias coming from my Party as well. This is the kind of poll which fires up the base (hey, I’ve already been hit up for money today, and invited to Calgary to attend "Turning Point", with Elizabeth May, David Suzuki, and Jay Ingram & the Scrutineers). But stand back and look at the numbers, and contrast them to October’s numbers at the start of the by-election.
Spin or no spin, it’s very clear that the momentum in Calgary Centre is with Chris Turner and the Green Party. Progressive Calgarians who really want to make a difference at the national level, rather than electing yet another Alberta backbencher, would do well to cast their ballots for Turner on November 26th.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)