While poll analysts and pundits pontificated yesterday about what the somewhat-less-than-stellar victory of Conservative Joan Crockatt in the Calgary-Centre by-election might mean for the national political parties, the real story went largely unexamined -- to wit, the wretched voter turnout.
With fewer than 30 per cent of the eligible voters in the inner-city Calgary riding able to bestir themselves to wander out and cast a ballot, it's pretty obvious that a clear majority of electors truly didn’t give a hang about who governs them, or how. Indeed, given recent historical trends, the same thing can probably be said of all of Albertans.
"The big story from Monday night isn't that Calgary Centre is leaning more left or more right," observed the well-known Alberta pollster Janet Brown in a note she sent me. "It's that the vast majority don't care who represents them in Ottawa."
"Although it got far more news coverage than the other two by-elections that were held Monday, Calgary Centre had the lowest voter turnout," she observed, noting that 30 per cent isn’t all that unusual for a by-election, but it ought to be for this one.
"It was shockingly low for this particular by-election because the news coverage was so intense," Brown said. "Every national public affairs program … covered the Calgary Centre by-election on multiple occasions."
Well, maybe. Brown certainly speaks the truth about voter turnout. It was at 55 per cent in the riding in the 2011 general election, and at 29.4 per cent Monday it compared unfavourably to 35.8 per cent in Durham, Ont., and 43.9 per cent in Victoria, B.C., neither of which received quite the national publicity.
So what caused this truly pathetic turnout? We can only speculate.
It has been fair in the past to accuse the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of engaging in Republican-style voter suppression tactics, especially in the last federal general election, but it is said here this likely did not pay much of a role in Monday night's Cowtown tally.
True, the efforts by the Conservatives and the party's Sun News Network auxiliary to dredge up old comments by prominent Liberal Party figures and spin them as anti-Alberta were an effort of sorts to persuade some Liberal voters to stay at home.
If nothing else, this suggests the private polls to which the Conservatives had access made it clear Liberal candidate Harvey Locke was not losing support to Green candidate Chris Turner, and that in their estimation he still had the potential for growth.
Still, with Crockatt seemingly languishing in voter enthusiasm, the Tory effort this time focused more on a desperate drive to get out their vote than an organized effort to keep anyone else from the polling booths. Anyway, there was no way the national neoconservative party would take the chance on creating a Pierre Poutine-style scandal in a low-stakes Alberta by-election when observers and opponents were sure to be on the alert for misbehaviour of just that sort.
They'll save that for the big one in 2015 or whenever, and for more desperate circumstances than these.
So who stayed home, and why?
It's doubtful New Democrat stay-at-homes had much impact, if only because there were so few of them. More likely, the majority of the small number of committed NDPers in the riding who voted strategically against Crockatt would have switched their votes to the Greens, although it sounds as if a fairly significant number held their noses and went Liberal too.
Locke seems to have held the Liberal vote, and Crockatt also held onto her always-motivated Alberta Wildrose Party base. Moreover, fringe candidates managed to collect only a fringe vote.
So, it is said here, the largest group of stay-at-home non-voters in Calgary Centre Monday were Redford Red Tories, the kind of people who supported former MP Lee Richardson in past elections without qualms and who, in the event, just couldn’t live with themselves if they voted for a Wildroser like Crockatt and at the same time couldn’t bear to vote for anyone who wasn’t a Conservative.
If this theory is correct, the split on the right played out relatively harmlessly from Crockatt's perspective, while the split on the left meant Turner drained votes from Locke. Oh well, as said here last time, there’s no point moaning about this, it's the way the system is designed to work and it's not likely to be changed any time soon.
But Brown thinks I’m giving Alberta voters way too much credit. "I think people stayed home because they simply don't care who represents them in Ottawa," she argued "They feel so disconnected from their federal representatives on a day-to-day basis, that they don’t feel much of a stake in who wins."
She holds out hope they're likely to be more engaged in a general election, when there’s more attention on the personalities and the policies of the leaders.
Well, it’s all grist for the mill. Maybe someone will do some ex first-past-the-post facto research and find out for sure.
Regardless, if my speculation holds any water, it goes to an important point. Both New Democrats and Liberals, if they are to have any chance of success in the next federal general election, need to do more than just fight over their own split voters.
One or the other of them is going to have to find a way to persuade soft Conservative voters -- those legendary Red Tories -- to come across and vote for someone who isn’t a Conservative.
In most places, convincing them merely to stay at home won’t make the grade.
Well, Crockatt has already jetted off to Ottawa to be sworn in and this will be the last I will have to say on this topic for a little while.
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