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Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith gives a post-election interview in Calgary on April 24, 2012. (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith gives a post-election interview in Calgary on April 24, 2012. (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

Danielle Smith, Stephen Harper and the art of closing the deal Add to ...

There have been 28 general elections in Alberta since becoming a province, and government has changed hands in just three. So only 10.7 per cent of Alberta elections saw a new party take office.

Compare that to 29 per cent federally, 23 per cent in British Columbia, 30 per cent in Saskatchewan or 27.5 per cent in Manitoba, and you begin to see how unique Alberta’s political stability truly is.

In such a climate, it’s not surprising that so many pundits were wrong in predicting a change of government. It’s been so long since anyone has seen one in Alberta people forget what to look for.

Despite Alberta’s unique electoral history, insurgent parties face exactly the same challenges there that they do around the country, and the lesson of the 2012 Alberta election can be applied to the rest of the country because the forces at play have been seen elsewhere.

Take the federal scene.

In 2004, the new Conservative Party under Stephen Harper looked set to end 11 years of Liberal dominance. That was, until a series of minor mishaps – a ham-handed release accusing Liberals of supporting child pornography and statements by Randy White attacking federal judges – raised concerns about the values of the Conservative Party. These were amplified by the Liberal campaign and the media in the heat of a closely fought campaign.

The result was a Liberal minority, defying pundits predicting a breakthrough for the Conservatives.

In the 2005-2006 writ period, the Conservatives achieved a more stable level of support ahead of the Liberals over the Christmas holiday. However, the momentum toward a majority was halted abruptly in the final week of the campaign. This excellent graph of the polling results during the election demonstrate the trend line cresting in the week of Jan. 9 before falling back into minority range for the Jan. 23rd vote.

In both cases, the Conservatives ran solid campaigns that raised the potential for a change in government, but in both cases they were unable to close the deal with the public.

So how should parties close their election campaign if they are to take power and win a majority?

1. Talk about the choice, not about yourself

In every election I have worked on, we do better when the media is talking about the other guys in the closing days.

Particularly for new parties that are trying to shed an old image, it is crucial that the ballot question not be “Can I trust that new party to form a credible government?” Frankly, the public doesn’t trust politicians generally, so you won’t pass the test. Better the ballot question be a choice like: “Change versus more of the same?”

You want attention focused on the problems of the government’s campaign, the surging third party, the Oscars – anything but you. That will make it easier to cast the election as a choice, not a referendum on you.

It’s a potent example that Stephen Harper finally got his majority just when media attention was focused firmly on the NDP.

2. Play down the polls

The conventional wisdom is that the Ontario NDP won the 1990 election because no one thought they were a credible threat to actually win, and voted to send a message to the Liberals with a minority.

This analysis always seemed a bit sneering at the intelligence of voters, and so is something I avoid, but there was a lack of polling in that election.

Certainly, the polls showing a crushing Wildrose majority – or the Harper majority projections in 2006 – were not helpful to their cause. Strong leads create media scrutiny, which brings you back to point No. 1.

It’s hard to keep the media from reporting the horse race, but playing down the horse race is crucial.

3. Discipline, discipline, discipline

Many is the slip between cup and lip, and slips of the tongue are the most damaging in politics.

The scrutiny strong polling results bring leads inevitably to the weakest candidates nominated in no-hope ridings and not particularly carefully vetted. Making sure the team is united in one message, even in the ridings that aren’t in play, can be the difference between winning and losing.

The Wildrose Party’s libertarian roots make message discipline hard to enforce – but you can bet they will find a way by the next election.

4. Have an end-game tour and message strategy

Most election campaigns diligently map out the first section of an election.

Long before the election is called they know where the leader will be, saying what message, with which alternative tour events in what battlefield ridings. Advertising is in the can. The locations are scouted. Organizers are finding crowds for the rallies.

But the last couple weeks of an election are typically an empty series of boxes on a white board until the debates. Often this is rationalized as being flexible. You don’t know how the election will go until it’s started and everything will probably have to be changed anyway. With only so much time and ability, planning events that might not happen is not optimizing your resources.

Phooey. If you want you win, you better plan to win.

That means before the writ is dropped having a detailed plan to “close the deal” ready to go, including message, tour, advertising, fundraising, and get out the vote. It can be spruced up on the way, but the heat of an election is no time to show people you are calm and prepared by making in up on the fly.

5. Be ready to govern

Voters are smart. While they spend relatively little time reading platforms, they do pick up on physical cues from leaders and candidates. They know who is ready to govern, who is scared they might actually win, and who has been there too long.

If you are an insurgent party, have a transition plan on how you will actually take power. This isn’t just the formalities of cabinet making and staffing, but the crucial issues of interaction with the civil service, how decisions will be made, and how to get the system to respond to your demands.

It will give your leader and team the comfort to know that they are ready to lead if chosen.

* * * * * * * * * *

In sum, elections are no time to prove you are ready to have a majority government.

The hard work of preparing for government has to be done before you get on the campaign bus, or it won’t be done at all. Because once the voters actually put their trust in you with a four year mandate, it will be too late to figure out what you want to do. Events will take hold, and you will be drinking from the fire hose.

So insurgent parties need to prove they are ready before they are even asked.

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