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The Alberta wave that NDP Leader Rachel Notley led to power this week borrowed a chunk of brain power from outside the province, including some of the people who built Jack Layton's Orange Crush in 2011.

In both cases, it seemed like it was public frustration with their opponents that propelled the New Democrats forward. But maybe the NDP has developed some expertise at turning that into an improbable wave.

Mr. Layton told Canadians he was running to be prime minister, a claim that sounded implausible until it suddenly wasn't. Ms. Notley launched her campaign saying, "I'm running to be premier." The similarity wasn't an accident.

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One key player in the Alberta campaign was Brian Topp, the veteran strategist and former federal NDP leadership candidate who ran the Notley campaign's war room, drafting speeches, writing "reality checks" to capitalize on Tory missteps, and approving campaign events. Mr. Topp was also an adviser on Mr. Layton's 2011 campaign, and a big part of his kitchen cabinet of confidants and strategists.

There were others in Alberta from the band of Layton warriors. Anne McGrath, who was Mr. Layton's chief of staff and is now the federal NDP's executive director, worked on the Alberta campaign, as did Kathleen Monk, communications director on Mr. Layton's 2011 campaign.

But it's obviously not a case of the NDP bottling an invincible formula. Mr. Topp also ran B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix's failed election campaign in 2013, which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

In Alberta, it was Gerry Scott, a veteran B.C. NDP strategist who also worked on Mr. Dix's campaign, who was campaign manager, with Mr. Topp working under him as a strategist. Alberta New Democrats were also at the core, like the provincial NDP's executive director, Brian Stokes, as deputy campaign manager, and Ms. Notley's principal secretary, Adrienne King. But New Democrats poured in from Ottawa, from Queen's Park, and from Manitoba.

There was clearly some transfer in the technique of making a wave.

Ms. Notley's line about running to be premier, like Mr. Layton's about seeking the prime ministership, had a purpose.

In both campaigns, the NDP started as also-rans, but the leaders insisted they were seeking to be a vehicle for change, not just trying to win a few more seats. By contrast, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean started the Alberta campaign suggesting he was aiming to be opposition leader.

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And instead of concentrating on just a few "winnable" ridings, a tried and true strategy for smaller parties, the NDP planned to fight for a much bigger number and take some relatively long-shot races seriously.

That doesn't always work. The NDP tried something like it in New Brunswick and failed. But under the right conditions, it took off.

Frustration with the government was evident in Alberta. In the 2011 federal election, Quebeckers turned from the Bloc Québécois, and didn't care for most of the other options. In both cases, there was an upbeat, confident NDP leader who appeared to be a fresh choice.

Both sets of New Democrats worked to frame themselves as a safe alternative. They used simple, clear messages, in Ms. Notley's case about jobs, health care and education.

Clear messages are something Mr. Topp took to heart after the 2013 B.C. campaign. He wrote a long post-campaign memo detailing tactical lessons in which he noted focus groups understood Liberal Premier Christy Clark's jobs message, but couldn't remember Mr. Dix's.

Then, of course, there's capitalizing on opponents' mistakes. Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives warned the NDP would raise taxes on corporations, but the NDP thought those ads actually helped them – many Albertans thought corporations ought to pay a little more. When the PCs trotted out five CEOs to warn against the tax-raising NDP, the gleeful NDP war room quickly highlighted the CEO's donations to the PCs. Ms. Notley, separately, stuck to a positive message.

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Of course, every party tries make hay with the other guy's stumbles. But the Alberta NDP, with out-of-province reinforcements, gained from experience in turning it into a wave.

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