Wildrose surge in Alberta driven by wily ground game

April 17, 2012 | By | Reply More

Death wish, or is it crazy like a fox?

Wildrose campaign run by Stephen Harper Conservative strategists steeped in Republic campaign strategy.

Troy Media – by Doug Firby     

Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger, a socially conservative minister, suggests in a blog that gay people are destined to an eternity in hell.

Wildrose candidates push to revive the “firewall” concept, insulating Alberta from federal influence by starting the province’s own pension plan and creating our own police force.

Leader Danielle Smith declares that she seriously believes the science is still out on global climate change. Earlier, she muses on giving “conscience rights” to marriage commissioners, so they can refuse, for example, to perform gay marriages.

Is this some sort of death wish, with a ragtag gang of maverick candidates pointing their long guns right at their own feet? Observers could be excused for thinking that the party that is the current odds-on favourite to win Alberta’s April 23 provincial election is making a big mistake.



But those observers would be wrong. Because these messages are not as reckless and foolhardy as they might at first appear to be.

Pollster Brian Singh, whose ZINC Research firm is sitting out this election, believes the Wildrose campaign is getting a huge boost from the same federal Conservative party machine that brought Stephen Harper to power. That team, led by Tom Flanagan, a member of the University of Calgary’s “Calgary School” of ultra-conservative thinkers, has laid out a “master strategy” for their provincial soul-mates, with every aspect of the campaign carefully mapped out.

Polls show volatility

With less than a week to go, it’s hard to predict whether the upstart Wildrose Party will indeed end the 41-year regime of the Progressive Conservatives under the luckless leadership of Alison Redford. Mercurial polls have shown the Wildrose surge and then fade in recent days, leaving even the most confident pundits hedging their bets.

What is certain, though, is that Alberta has become the latest testing ground for a conservative election campaign strategy that raises the game way beyond what any other movement, or party, is doing in this country. Inspired (and in some cases educated) by the Republicans in the U.S., these Canadians have taken the game of voter behaviour research to a new level – even besting their mentors to the south.

As the Hill Times, an Ottawa-based online publication, reports on the federal Conservatives’ election innovations in a column to be released this week: “No other party has ever done such a meticulous and exhaustive job in the history of politics in Canada.”

The conservatives have a highly sophisticated social media strategy, monitoring web blogs, using search engine optimization and engaging in massive text analytics to track what is being said on the web, and by whom. Singh says they are engaging in search encoding to determine what key words will lead them to understand the “moral code” of the conservative voter.

Singh believes the wiring of conservative thinkers is much more likely to be firmly set than it is in liberal thinkers. Thus, determining the key words that appeal to that code allows a party to speak directly to the hearts of those they are trying to win over.

Language aimed at base

“These guys have tapped into something,” says Singh. “And they’ve become very good at it.”

Thus, when candidates beak off in hostile language with provocative comments, they’re not looking to win over the undecided voters. They’re talking to their own base, firming up support. Some of what they say may drive away Redford’s moderate conservatives, but true conservatives are homogeneous and, as Singh says, “Polarization is always easier than trying to united two camps.”

Andrew Cardozo reports in the Hill Times, explains how this works.

“. . . While the other parties run national campaigns with grand national visions, the Conservative parties can run their campaigns focused on a selective number of not only ridings, but polls and particular demographic groups within those ridings. Similar to the way American presidential campaigns are now focused heavily on the swing states and swing voters, not the whole country.

“This may be sad to some,” adds Cardozo, “but it is the way things are going.”

To make the alienation complete, Redford and her supporters are demonized as “Clarkies” – Red Tories in the mould of former prime minister Joe Clark, who became the subject of ridicule in his own party.

The gamble with the Wildrose game is that there will be enough hard core conservatives on the right – combined with others who are disenchanted with the bumbling PCs – to carry the election. It’s a strategy loaded with risk.

And, to be sure, not everything has gone smoothly. As Hunsperger’s blog shows, tThe grassroots supporters of the Wildrose are as wildly unpredictable as the colourful cabal that formed the original Reform Party.

Taking the long view

The irony of all this is that even if the Wildrose were to come up short in next week’s vote, they will have won some significant victories. Like Harper, they take the long view, says Singh: “Once an idea is on the table and out there, it becomes part of the dialogue.”

Just as Harper planted the notion that the long census was an unnecessary infringement on personal right to privacy – and then waited for the idea to gain acceptance – some of the Wildrose’s loopier ideas are out there now, in the public forum, slowly gaining acceptance as notions that aren’t so outrageous after all.

So, even if the pollsters are wrong and the Wildrose falls short on April 23, they will have succeeded in planting ideas that will bear fruit in future campaigns.

Doug Firby is Troy Media’s Editor-in-Chief.


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Category: Alberta Election

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