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Inside Alberta's winning Progressive Conservative campaign

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Alberta Premier-elect Alison Redford is greeted by her new Progressive Conservative Party caucus in Edmonton on May 2, 2012. (DAN RIEDLHUBER/Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

What happened in Alberta on April 23 is actually simple. Albertans today aren’t who we used to be. Alison Redford understood that and Danielle Smith didn’t.

The Wildrose campaign championed ideals that many Albertans walked away from years ago. Their platform included the infamous 2001 “firewall” proposals, including pledges to withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and to send the RCMP packing.

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Ms. Smith proclaimed that the science around climate change “isn’t settled.” Imagine an Alberta Premier in Washington saying that. And most meaningfully, Ms. Smith defended two candidates who expressed homophobic and racist opinions.

Meanwhile, Ms. Redford promised significant initiatives in health and education, security for vulnerable citizens, and prosperity investments in research and environment.

Ms. Smith speaks of what might have been. Ms. Redford speaks of a confident province prepared to lead.

But I’m jumping ahead. It didn’t start well for the Progressive Conservatives.

For the first two weeks, Albertans pummelled us. Several issues had them fuming: badly communicated property rights legislation; a controversial Education Act; increased penalties for drinking drivers.

But worst was a legislative committee that hadn’t met since 2008 and yet paid MLAs $1,000 a month. There was an explanation, but no one cared. The Premier had asked a judge to review MLA compensation, but that too was irrelevant. The committee was the tipping point.

Week 1 was gruesome. PCs tried to highlight Alberta’s enviable record of low taxes and quality services. Nobody was buying. The “no-meet” committee was the issue at the doors. We sunk to 13 points behind Wildrose from a commanding 22-point lead in January.

Four days in, Ms. Redford announced that PC MLAs would refund the committee money. Apologizing during a campaign is risky. We hoped Albertans would forgive a leader who admitted error.

The bleeding stopped until a staffer tweeted about Ms. Smith having no kids. The Wildrose Leader told Albertans she had unsuccessfully attempted fertility treatments. Ouch. The gap widened to 17 points.

In Week 2, we gamely marched on with planned announcements on health care and education, purposefully timed to encourage conversation among families gathering for Easter.

Meanwhile, our polling revealed that Wildrose’s “Dani-dollars” (a $300 energy dividend to every Albertan) was unpopular. Albertans knew the power of $1.2-billion would be squandered in $300 increments. Finally we could switch from defence to offence. We promised the same money to build 50 new schools instead. The comparison clearly contrasted the two parties’ visions.

On Easter Saturday, I met with constituency campaign managers. Surprisingly, they told me things were looking up. Yes, they were looking up from a very deep place. But up is up.

Yet still the polls were stalled. What candidates heard at doors didn’t match the polls. We wondered about the huge number of push-button calls. Was it mainly angry voters who would answer pollster questions?

The leaders debate late in Week 3 was a turning point for us. While Ms. Redford performed splendidly under pressure, reporters were near unanimous that Ms. Smith “won.” But half a million households watched the debate and made their own judgments. Response at the doors improved again. The polling gap narrowed to seven points.

Then Wildrose started to unravel.

Wildrose had run a commendably controlled campaign. But on Sunday night, a tweet circulated with a link to Edmonton candidate Allan Hunsperger’s blog. He rebuked the Edmonton School Board for creating a safe environment for gay students, and pronounced that gays would spend eternity in a “lake of fire”.

It was Ms. Smith’s turning point. Mr. Hunsperger was running in an unwinnable seat. Remove him, and it’s a one-day story. Wildrose could return to script.

She didn’t. She defended his right to free speech, which is undeniably important to her. But she misjudged Albertans.

Ms. Smith also defended Ron Leech who argued he could better represent constituents in his ethnic riding because he is white.

The controversies percolated all week. PCs had other issues in our back pocket, but when your opponent is shooting herself in the foot, there is no need to interfere.

Wildrose announced a “major” news conference for Friday morning before the vote. We expected Ms. Smith to fire Mr. Hunsperger but keep Mr. Leech – or fire both (in which case we would confront her with startling comments collected from several other WR candidates).

Astonishingly, she did neither. She simply said Wildrose would not tolerate discrimination. She failed to appreciate that defending powerfully discriminatory declarations is, in fact, tolerating discrimination.

It was over.

Voters started to choose. Most pollsters were no longer in the field. Our Saturday night internal polling showed us pulling ahead, 43 per cent to 36 per cent. Monday’s election night result was 44 per cent to 34 per cent.

Many voters decided in the final four days. They compared Danielle Smith’s firewall Wildrose to Alison Redford’s confident Alberta. Lots of Albertans voted PC because Wildrose simply does not embody who they are.

While Wildrose unquestionably stumbled in Week 4, the Progressive Conservatives performed admirably in adversity. In the darkest days, there were no blame games or finger pointing. Nobody was fired. No candidate spoke thoughtlessly. The Premier stayed calm and positive.

And so, this victory belongs to the teams in each constituency who kept working, ignoring the headlines and the polls. And that is a powerful lesson for all political campaigns.

Susan Elliott managed the 2012 Alberta Progressive Conservative election campaign

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