Alberta’s “Orange Crush” and the Increasing Volatility of Elections

The Story

On May 5, the New Democratic Party (NDP) swept to power in the Canadian province of Alberta by winning 53 of the province’s 77 seats. The stunning election night results overturned a remarkable 44 consecutive years of Progressive Conservative (PC) rule in this typically right-of-centre province. Though public opinion polls leading up to the election suggested that the NDP, along with the far-right Wildrose Party, would pose a significant challenge to the PC’s continued reign, few expected the NDP to deliver such a complete victory. Indeed, the party not only swept its typical stronghold of Edmonton (Alberta’s capital city), but also edged out the other parties in Calgary (the headquarters of Alberta’s oil and gas industry) and even won several seats in the more socially conservative rural Alberta ridings. Meanwhile, the Wildrose Party became Alberta’s Official Opposition after winning 21 seats, while the PCs plummeted to third place with 10 seats, leading to the immediate resignation of outgoing Premier Jim Prentice.

 

The NDP’s victory promises to overturn several long-held assumptions about Alberta, both in terms of perception and substance. Election observers tended to credit the province’s changing demographics, especially in the rapidly-growing and diverse cities of Edmonton and Calgary, for breaking historical patterns and enabling a left-of-centre party to rise to power in the province. Indeed, the incoming NDP caucus will be far more representative of Alberta’s broader demographics, bringing with it an influx of gender, economic, and age diversity that was lacking in previous provincial governments. Other observers credit the charisma and effective debate performance of NDP leader Rachel Notley for turning the tide in the campaign, especially as the Wildrose Party had led in the polls only a few weeks ago.

 

Regardless of the path to victory, the NDP win is likely to impact several of the province’s political, economic, and social systems. The energy industry in particular has already expressed concerns with the party’s commitments to conduct a review of the royalties and taxes paid to the province, as well as more stringent environmental regulation. This latter point may also significantly alter Canada’s positions at the upcoming international climate change negotiations at the end of the year in Paris. At the same time, political parties are parsing out the election results to determine any clues that might impact the province’s traditional support of the Conservative Party for the upcoming round of federal elections in October.

Background Articles

Key Quote

 Voters are fickle nowadays. Parties can no longer count on ancient tribal loyalties. And if they offer nothing in their place, if it all just comes down to whose leader has the brightest eyes, who knows? On any given Tuesday, who knows?” – Andrew Coyne

Context

The narrative of an increasingly diverse and urbanized province driving the NDP’s election victory is a tidy story, but does not fully explain the trends behind this week’s election results. One need only look at the public opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the election to see a more complicated picture (the Election Almanac database provides a handy reference). Three months before the election, around the time when then-Premier Prentice hinted at a Spring election, the PCs appeared to be in firm control of public opinion, with 46% support compared to the NDP’s 17%. One month prior to the election, the Wildrose Party appeared to be taking control, with 31% support to the NDP’s 26% and the PC’s 25%. In the end, the NDP received 41% of the popular vote, the PCs 28%, and the Wildrose 24% (much of which came from Alberta’s rural ridings, allowing it to maximize its seat total).

 

That kind of volatility in the span of just a few months – when support shifted from a centre-right party to a far-right party to a far-left party – does not necessarily indicate a long-term trend towards progressive politics. In fact, it mirrors the volatility that Canada’s three other largest provinces – Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia – have seen in their respective provincial elections over the last two years. In British Columbia, for instance, the NDP looked like a lock to take power in the 2013, out-polling their Liberal rivals by a 2-1 margin just weeks before the election, only to see the Liberals storm back to retain power on election night. In the 2014 Quebec election, the incumbent Parti Quebecois had a narrow lead in the polls just one month prior to the election (37% to 35% for the Liberals), only to be decimated on election day (the Liberals received 42% of the vote, the Parti Quebecois 25%). In Ontario, the PCs and Liberals were polling neck-and-neck just days before the 2014 provincial election, but the Liberals ultimately won a decisive election victory (39% to 31%).

 

These election night surprises appear to increasingly be the norm in Canada, and even internationally (witness the Conservative Party’s surprisingly comfortable margin of victory in this week’s British elections). In addition to changing demographics, two other trends may be driving this volatility. Firstly, voters are experiencing greater instability, both on a personal level and in their broader provinces/countries. In Canada, for example, households have become increasingly indebted at an alarmingly fast rate as housing prices have ballooned over the past 15 years. Meanwhile, governments have struggled to find a sound financial footing ever since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and subsequent sovereign debt crisis in Europe (Alberta in particular has the added instability of riding the commodity boom-bust cycle for much of its government revenue). Increasing insecurity is likely prompting more citizens to vote based on whom they most trust, versus any one particular policy.

 

Secondly, the rise of social media as the main source of news for many voters, especially younger age groups, likely amplifies election volatility. Social media is a fundamentally different platform in which users act not so much as “consumers” of news (as in traditional media e.g. a newspaper, TV, or radio), but rather are active members of networks and movements. As a result, it is faster for social media users to discern a shift in the tide of a campaign (e.g. after a key campaign debate or gaffe) and to jump on the growing movement.

 

It remains to be seen whether this volatility will scale up to the Canadian federal elections in October, but parties would be wise to assess the roles that trust and social media-enabled movements played in delivering an NDP tidal wave in the foothills of Alberta.

Discussion Questions

  • What is contributing to the recent volatility of Canadian provincial elections? Is this likely to scale up to federal elections?

  • How does rising personal and societal insecurity affect citizens’  voting patterns?

  • If voter volatility continues to play an important role in elections, what are the implications for political parties at the provincial and federal levels?

4 thoughts on “Alberta’s “Orange Crush” and the Increasing Volatility of Elections

  1. I’ll take the second question, because I believe politics has been all about voters’ feelings of insecurity since 2000.
    My general theory is that we have been in a depression or depression-like condition since that time, which is to say a collapse of demand for goods, services, and cash. Attempts to bolster the situation with cheap money only produced a bubble in finance that resonated through the economy rather than good paying jobs which people need to pay their bills. Hence, there has been a lot of anxiety since about 2000 – which was only heightened in the US by 9/11 in 2001.
    I think that voting patterns since that time are worth analyzing. They seem to have gone from anger to a kind of resignation, with brief flurries of hope for a better tomorrow. Hyper partisanship came as a result of hardening of these positions.
    But the partisanship did not produce any real change – and it has become increasingly obvious that it is counter-productive. I think we are entering a new phase of the politics of this “Managed Depression”, as I call it, where voters are increasingly practical (pragmatic, even?) and more interested in politicians that seem to understand their personal plight. Voters may also be interested in a solid bias towards action over ideology, although that is less clear at this time.
    In short, there is a sense that the leadership vacuum that is common throughout the developed world is being resolved democratically. A bias towards a very non-partisan “good government” approach with a strong personal connection seems to in vogue everywhere – which frankly would have been far more productive than what we have been doing for the last 15 years, IMHO.

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  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Erik. Interesting to think that this pattern of voting from insecurity goes back to 2000, even prior to the financial crisis, and even 9/11. It’s been multiple decades since the traditional manufacturing-based economy that supported a stable middle class has dwindled, but perhaps we’re still witnessing the aftershocks of this slow but massive transformation?

    As far as hyper-partisanship, though it exists everywhere, I wonder to what extent the U.S. case has been fuelled by a massive influx of special interest money going into campaigns since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling a few years ago. To be sure, voters are ultimately accountable for voting in candidates who contribute to partisanship, but when the political structure is fuelled by powerful special interests that benefit from that partisanship, it’s hard to break out of that cycle.

    It will be interesting to see if there are any substantial changes towards the non-partisan “good government” style you mention in the 2016 elections. Even in Canada, I’m not sure to what extent this will apply at a federal level – again, because the interests and money involved rises exponentially with the level of government, it may take longer for this volatility/pragmatism to “trickle up”.

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