Ground game on: Campaigns focus on getting out the vote

By Catherine Griwkowsky May 26, 2023

As the election campaign enters the homestretch in the tightest race in Alberta’s history, parties have their eyes set on battleground ridings.

UCP Leader Danielle Smith and NDP Leader Rachel Notley have focused their efforts on the closest ridings, spending much of their time in the past week in Calgary and communities outside the capital region.

NDP Leader Rachely Notely (left) and UCP Leader Danielle Smith (right) on the campaign trail in Calgary during the final week of the Alberta election campaign.

Battleground ridings and paths to victory

The NDP has a much narrower path to victory than the UCP. It needs to pick up seats not only in Calgary, but also in the Edmonton “doughnut” or “horseshoe” outside the city limits, while flipping a few ridings in smaller cities.

There are 87 ridings up for grabs on Monday evening. Decide Campaigns strategist Stephen Carter expects the battle will be fought over 10 key ridings outside the 39 safe UCP seats safe and the 38 seats locked up for the NDP.

A handful are leaning NDP, Carter said, including:

  • Calgary—Cross;
  • Calgary—Acadia;
  • Calgary—Bow;
  • Calgary—Glenmore;
  • Calgary—North;
  • Calgary—Foothills;
  • Calgary—North West; and
  • Strathcona—Sherwood Park.

The UCP appears to be leading in others:

  • Leduc—Beaumont; and
  • Fort Saskatchewan—Vegreville.

Based on the lawn signs, Carter said he can’t tell who will win Calgary—Northwest, where UCP candidate Rajan Sawhney faces the NDP’s Michael Lisboa–Smith.

Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political science professor, said much of what’s motivating voters in this election is a desire to prevent the other party from taking power.

“I think there’s a lot of highly motivated NDP supporters, who very much are voting for change,” she said. “But I think that there’s a peculiar dynamic in this campaign where the UCP has managed to motivate some of their supporters to vote out the Notley government even four years later.”

Calgary—Northwest would normally be a solidly blue riding, but Young wonders what the effect of a “parachute candidate” will be. Sawhney, the former MLA for Calgary—North East, was appointed the riding’s candidate after former minister Sonya Savage announced she would not run again.

The riding’s result will be crucial for the NDP, Young believes.

“If the NDP can’t flip Calgary–Northwest, then there’s no way they have a path to victory,” she said.

Calgary—Bow is another riding to watch, according to Young, with Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides up against long-time and controversial former Calgary councillor Druh Farrell for the NDP.

Convincing voters

Young said much of what moves suburban Calgary will also resonate with Albertans in small- and mid-sized cities that contain other ridings the NDP needs to flip if it wants to retake government.

Normally, a tight race would favour the conservative side, but Carter — who is also a panelist on The Strategists podcast — said even staunch conservatives are reconsidering their support.

“Ground game is about enthusiasm and I’m not seeing any ground enthusiasm in Calgary [for the UCP],” he said.

Carter said the NDP’s ground game has been “spectacular.”

“They’ve done more door-knocking than they’ve ever done before,” Carter said. “They have crushed it.”

By contrast, the UCP’s ground game is “overrated,” according to Carter, because people who vote conservative often do so as a matter of identity, not because of who knocked on their door.

NDP candidate Sarah Elmeligi has put in the work to flip Banff—Kananaskis, Carter said, a riding currently held by UCP candidate Miranda Rosin.

Carter also believes Shannon Phillips will hold Lethbridge—West and the NDP candidate Rob Miyashiro will pick up Lethbridge—East, flipping the seat from deputy premier Nathan Neudorf.

In the event of an NDP win, Young will be watching Calgary—Fish Creek, normally a conservative stronghold where incumbent Richard Gotfried stepped aside. Take Back Alberta-backed Myles McDougall is the UCP candidate running against the NDP’s Rebecca Bounsall.

“I’m interested in Calgary—Fish Creek — which sounds crazy,” Young said. “But if there’s a swing and if there’s a reaction against the Take Back Alberta endorsed candidates, you’re going to see it in Fish Creek in particular,” she said.

Earlier this month, conservative strategist Kory Teneycke, who led Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s last two election campaigns, suggested the NDP could have the PCs beat when it comes to the ground war in Calgary.

“There’s probably an edge towards Notley,” Teneycke said on a recent episode of the Curse of Politics podcast. That’s because the party is “leaning more on unions,” as well as other left-leaning organizations that are outside the New Democrats’ party apparatus while the UCP has less of that type of support and less practice scrapping for votes.

“Plus, I think the UCP has been very distracted in knifing leaders and the upheaval we’ve seen around that,” he added, referencing Jason Kenney’s exit following a contentious leadership review.

“There’s organizing going on but it seems to be more organizing circular firing squads than it has been organizing riding associations.”

Advance voting push

In a recent edition of the nightly broadcast from the UCP war room, campaign manager Steve Outhouse urged voters to take advantage of advance polls.

“It means less volunteer time spent calling you, less needing to come and knock on your door,” Outhouse said.

Wellington Advocacy vice-president Leah Ward, former director of communications for Rachel Notley and the NDP caucus, said leaders make closing arguments in the final week of the campaign and the central campaign team shifts its focus to get-out-the-vote efforts.

“I think there’s probably a lot of UCP campaigns that are fighting for their political survival, so I expect they’re working quite hard,” Ward said. “But what I have noticed is just the sheer volume of volunteer turnout. The NDP were counting 8,000 active volunteers at the midpoint of the campaign.”

‘Shy conservatives’

Crestview Strategy senior campaign strategist Evan Menzies is volunteering for the UCP and told Alberta Today there have been “shy” conservatives at the doors.

Menzies said the party’s strongest message comes from contrasting the UCP’s record vis-à-vis the NDP’s.

Meanwhile, the NDP has pitched itself as the “safe, comfort blanket of conservatism that you’re used to” while downplaying its labour roots.

“At the end of the day, they need their vote to show up,” Menzies said. “And if their vote shows up, I think they’ll have a good election night.”

On The Strategists podcast, Carter has battled with his colleague, Corey Hogan, about what voter turnouts mean in terms of party performance.

Traditionally, change elections come with a high voter turnout but Carter argues that if conservatives who are dissatisfied with Smith stay home, a low voter turnout could mean an NDP government.

Following the snake

338Canada founder Phillipe Fournier has been tracking elections since 2018 by aggregating polls, mapping riding histories and scrutinizing star candidates to create a model for seat projections — like the famous “snake” chart.

As of Thursday, Fournier has a popular vote projection of 51 per cent for the UCP and 45 per cent for the NDP (+/- six per cent) — with one per cent for the Alberta Party — and a range of 39 to 60 seats for the UCP with 28 to 47 seats projected for the NDP. The UCP has a 73 per cent chance of winning the most seats, according to Fournier, who estimates a 27 per cent chance of an NDP victory and a one per cent chance of a tie.

As election day draws near, Fournier said his work gets positively nerve-wracking.

“Let’s say on Sunday, when I published my final projection, I say it’s 45 for UCP and 42 for the NDP and it ends up being 45-42 for the NDP — my model would have done great,” Fournier said. “The model was really close, but you know, all people will remember that I had the wrong winner.”