And the winner is … no one: everybody missed Monday’s biggest story

Alberta families like this one just stayed home Monday and watched TV. Below: Pollster Janet Brown.

So who stayed home?

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,” Ms. Brown said. “Every national public affairs program … covered the Calgary Centre by-election on multiple occasions.”

Well, maybe. Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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.

Mr. Locke seems to have held the Liberal vote, and Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Crockatt’s perspective, while the split on the left meant Mr. Turner drained votes from Mr. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. 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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7 Comments on "And the winner is … no one: everybody missed Monday’s biggest story"

  1. Knit One says:

    I don’t think it’s that voters don’t care. I think it’s because the system is obviously not working. It’s clear from just a quick glance at the poll numbers that the people getting elected don’t have the support of the majority of voters. Maybe people aren’t voting because they don’t see the point of using a system that doesn’t give representation?

  2. Eduard Hiebert says:

    “everybody missed Monday’s biggest story”“?

    Not quite! For the record, if necessary, my private communication to you pointed to the fact that not only were all three turnouts very low, in Calgary over 70% stayed home and less than 11% of the voters actually went out to support the candidate “declared” elected.

    ““It’s that the vast majority don’t care who represents them in Ottawa.””? An arguable point. I would suggest a more valid interpretation is that as I forecast prior to the election that over 60% of those who voted would go home empty-handed without anything in Ottawa to show for having made the effort to go out and vote. In other words, as long as we continue to let the parties do politics for us, the majority end up with a disincentive. In Calgary Centre? Nearly a two-thirds majority who voted could have stayed home without affecting the results!

    “Oh well…, it’s the way the system is designed to work.” Agreed! And despite the rhetoric, not one of the party leaders from May, to Mulcair…, really dislike this vote-splitting system. In fact when you go behind May and Mulcair’s talk of electoral reform, hidden in the detail of their hope for PR is that 100% of the district candidates will continue to be elected by the present dysfunctional single-mark ballot system.

    “and it’s not likely to be changed any time soon“ Through a community conducted vote123 pre-election straw-vote poll this can be changed in the very next election. However “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics (with both eyes wide open) is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Plato

  3. fubar says:

    Well, unless Joan is ‘Jaffer/Guergis incompetent’ she will probably retain the seat through the next election (at least). History of the riding and demographics do not favour progressive parties. Even strategic voting would not elect a not-Tory candidate (in a general election).
    I think David may be onto something (or at least he has a good guess) and that red tories may have indeed stayed home. Don’t see it playing out this way in the next general election. That being said – if I were the Liberals/Greens I would be sitting down to maybe reach some kind of arrangement. The combination of a really poor Tory candidate, poorer CPC base turnout, and a smart high profile alternative can have positive results.

  4. ABobserver says:

    “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.”

    Trudeau is running to be PM… his comments of ONLY 2 years ago are relevant.

    McGuinty’s were really old, right? A whole day! Dave, your better than that.

    Locke was a good candidate for the Liberals, and I AM surprised at the Green strength. Crockatt was not the strongest candidate, but I suspect she will do well when the general election comes.

    But I have been wrong before.

  5. Jon Calon says:

    “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.”

    When the role of the MP becomes, in Joan Crockatt’s words ‘to support the Prime Minister in whatever way he wants’, it denigrates the meaningfulness of the role they play in representing the people of her riding. Since the MPI s now just a yes person to the PMO, does it really matter whether the candidate even has a pulse?

    With the cavalier attitude the CPC holds towards the electorate, can anyone blame the voters for not caring?

    It becomes obvious that the current election system is broken, when those who are mildly engaged feel their votes are worthless and don’t bother showing up. I would suggest anything but first past the post would help those who would skip an election feel like their votes counted and they would show up.

    I so highly doubt anyone in power is going to lessen their chances to remain in power and this notion of doing away with the wretched FPTP voting system is merely a pipe dream.


  6. David Heyman says:

    The voters were right. It doesn’t matter who represents Calgary Centre, although there would have been some symbolism attached to a non-Con Calgary MP. Harper’s majority wasn’t threatened and even if Joan Crockatt becomes finance minister, Harper would still be making every important decision, just as he is now. It’s up to us politicos to grasp the fact that most people don’t care about politics unless they see a pressing personal interest. As Karl Rove once said: “Don’t underestimate the intelligence of voters, but don’t overestimate their interest.”

  7. jerrymacgp says:

    We cannot fix the problem of poor voter turnout without data on why it happens, and that is very tough to get indeed. How do you analyze apathy, when it is the apathetic that are least likely to respond to surveys, interviews, and other research tools of social science? For example, say Elections Canada were to take the voters list, pull out all that didn’t turn out to vote, and select a random sample from among them for researchers to interview. How many would decline to participate? What about those that are so apathetic, they aren’t even on the voters list?

    I do think that the result in Calgary-Centre puts paid to the notion that voter apathy is related to non-competitive elections. This one was as competitive as it gets, yet only 29% bothered to show up to vote, a number which could easily be accounted for just by the card-carrying members and committed supporters of the three front-finishing parties.


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