Grassroots politics – does it matter?

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Looking back on the campaign that was

It is the early afternoon of election day, the ballots are being cast and 28 days of hard work is playing out. After a month of madly running in all directions there is only one thing left for the candidates to do.

PC candidate Steve Khan, Wildrose candidate James Burrows and Alberta Party candidate Tim Osborne are working on only one thing now; they are working to make sure the votes they have identified, the supporters they sought out at forums and on the doorsteps show up at the ballot box.

They are getting out the vote.

The get-out-the-vote effort is the last step of the local campaign. While leaders criss-crossed the province, making speech after speech, dropping into ridings for photo-ops, and promoting the party platform, local candidates spent their time at the doorsteps of St. Albert and putting signs up on city streets.

Khan’s headquarters was a-buzz with activity on election day with about 20 volunteers in various corners of the ramshackle office calling voters to make sure Conservatives were getting to the polls.

Khan sounded confident before the vote counting started, as eventually time would show he was right to be. He said he thought his team was doing everything that needed to be done.

“I am very proud of our team, remarkably humbled by our supporters.”

His campaign manager Darwin Martin said the get-out-the-vote effort was the last step in a long campaign.

“It is about identifying your support as far in advance as you can and getting that support to vote,” he said. “It is just that gentle reminder to your supporters.”

Burrows turned a St. Albert Inn ballroom into his war room for the day, making the same frantic calls with half a dozen volunteers trying to make sure his supporters showed up at the polls.

Burrows said all the hard work of a month ultimately comes down to election day.

“All the contacts, all the door knocking, all the phoning, all the canvassing we have done for the last month is happening today.”

Burrows, who lost his seat on St. Albert city council in 2010, coming up a handful of votes short, said he was determined not to allow that to happen again.

“You can’t take any vote for granted, to lose by 14 votes was kind of bitter.”

For the last great push, Osborne had his supporters calling from their homes to remind people to get out and vote.

“We have done the most hard work already, we called our supporters and most of them have voted.”

Still, in a statement that would seem prescient later, Osborne said elections were inherently unpredictable.

“We feel confident, but at the same time anything can happen.”

Local campaign

Anything did happen once the votes were counted. And on Tuesday morning some had to be wondering if their local campaigns really meant that much, given the results from Monday’s voting.

Despite his hard work over six months of door knocking and strong performance at local forums, Osborne was a virtual non-factor when the votes were counted, finishing in last place with 1,195 votes.

The afternoon Burrows and Khan spent trying to make sure every last supporter got to the polls seems less important the day after, given the 6,000 vote margin Khan racked up.

Liberal Kim Bugeaud, who entered the campaign relatively late, and NDP candidate Nicole Bownes, who admitted early on she didn’t expect to win, both did better than Osborne.

While on the ballot here in St. Albert, Bownes managed NDP MLA Rachel Notley’s campaign in Edmonton Strathcona. She did no door knocking and there were few if any signs for the NDP in the community. Despite her absence, 1,679 St. Albert residents voted for her.

Osborne said he was surprised on election night that the work he put in didn’t amount to a better result.

“We had hoped for and truthfully sort of expected, a better result. We received such great feedback from people during the campaign.”

Osborne said he believes some voters have a strong party affiliation; something his new party didn’t have in this campaign.

“Whereas other candidates start with a certain number of votes in the bank regardless of who they run, we had to start from zero in this campaign. I really feel that we earned every single one of those votes.”

The Alberta Party’s leader, Glenn Taylor, was left out of the provincial leaders’ debate and gained less media attention. Osborne said local people just didn’t know enough about what the party had to offer.

“We didn’t have much of a provincial profile and that as much as anything, probably hurt us in St. Albert,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t get a chance to hear our leader and find out what our party is all about.”

Khan said he thought Osborne ran a strong campaign and was also surprised with the final result on election day. He said he doesn’t think that means local campaigns don’t matter however.

“Our local campaign and being a local candidate with deep connections in the community had a lot of resonance with the voters,” he said. “I think that speaks to the local campaign and the strength and power of a local campaign.”

On the doorstep, Khan said most of the concerns people brought up were about provincial issues, not local concerns. He said if there was more time the debate may have gotten into more local issues, “but it always started with the broader issues, starting with health care and then typically went to education.”

He said his sense was that local voters know the city’s future is tied to the province’s success.

“There is a real concern provincially that things are going well. I think there is an understanding that if things are going really well in the province then things are going to go really well in St. Albert.”

Changing patterns

Duane Bratt, a professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said local campaigns are still important in provincial politics, but they don’t drive the agenda.

“Local campaigns do matter, but I would say leaders and parties matter more.”

In the case of the Alberta Party, Bratt said voters just didn’t know enough.

“They didn’t get media coverage because it was a brand new party, they didn’t run candidates in all the constituencies.”

He said certain ridings did put the local candidates and local issues front and centre. He points to Calgary ridings that elected Liberal incumbents despite a race that didn’t put too much focus on the party.

He also points to the race in Medicine Hat where the Progressive Conservative incumbent lost, likely in part because of the government’s response to flooding in that area last year.

Despite those races, Bratt said generally local races are becoming less important than the province-wide picture.

“To make the local campaign matter you either have to have a local issue that really resonates or you have to have a candidate, a local candidate, it doesn’t matter what party, that resonates.”

He said local candidates used to be much more important to provincial elections, but that is definitely changing.

“There are still moments in time when local candidates and local issues matter, but they are rarer.”

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