Last night’s leader’s debate was the biggest opportunity for Progressive Conservative leader Jim Prentice to knock NDP leader Rachel Notley off-balance. Since the start of the campaign, the PC Party has focused most of its attacks on Wildrose leader Brian Jean, who has proven to be an easier target. But Ms. Notley has been a more difficult target for the PCs.
Expectations were high for Ms. Notley, whose party appears to be enjoying a surge in support, and she exceeded those expectations by not falling into Mr. Prentice’s traps. She was calm, concise, and set herself apart from the three other leaders.
Mr. Prentice performed as was expected, despite sounding patronizing at moments, and spent most of the debate on the offensive. His focus on Ms. Notley could signal a shift in focus by the PC campaign against the NDP in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge.
Mr. Jean started the debate slowly, but caught his stride in the second half of the event. He stuck to his notes, sometimes too closely, and overall performed well for someone who only accepted the party leadership less than one month ago. If you missed the debate, the one takeaway from Mr. Jean’s discussion points would be that the Wildrose Party will not raise your taxes. And in case you missed it a first time, he repeated that message numerous times for good measure.
Earnest Liberal leader David Swann faced low expectations and performed as well as expected. Not a natural politician, Dr. Swann managed to present his party’s platform, but struggled at times to compete with the three other leaders.
With the leader’s debate over, we have now entered the final stretch of Alberta’s 2015 provincial election campaign. With limited polling available, I refuse to jump on the “PCs are going down to defeat” bandwagon. In uncertain times like these, it is important to remember the first unwritten rule of Alberta politics: that the PCs always win, and they always win a big majority [this is me, managing my own expectations].
With the leader’s debate behind them, what do the leaders need to do to manage their own party’s expectations?
Rachel Notley is making orange waves in Alberta, but how far will they splash? At the start of the campaign, she said the NDP are aiming to form government in Alberta, but perhaps more realistically Official Opposition is within their grasp. I know many New Democrats who would love for Ms. Notley to lead the party to win at least 17 MLAs, more than the 16 seats the party won in the 1986 and 1989 elections. Any more than the four the party currently holds should be considered a win for the NDP in Alberta.
Jim Prentice must lead his party to form a majority government. If the PCs win less than 44 seats in the Assembly, Mr. Prentice will have led his party to its first major electoral humiliation in 44 years. But even within a majority government, there are thresholds for Mr. Prentice’s political survival. What happens to Mr. Prentice if, for example, the PCs elect less MLAs than Alison Redford led them to in 2012 (61)? Or less than Ralph Klein led them to win in 1993 (51)?
For new Wildrose leader Brian Jean, holding the party’s current number of constituencies – five – while personally winning election in Fort McMurray-Conklin is probably enough to secure his political leadership. Holding on to Official Opposition would be a bonus and electing more than 17 MLAs – the number the party elected under Danielle Smith in 2012 – would be golden.
Expectations are low for the Liberals. Re-electing the party’s two incumbent MLAs – David Swann in Calgary-Mountain View and Laurie Blakeman in Edmonton-Centre – would be considered a win for the Liberals in this election.
Electing leader Greg Clark in Calgary-Elbow, which is the Alberta Party’s best shot in this campaign, would be considered a big win for the party. Mr. Clark placed a strong second to PC candidate Gordon Dirks in the 2014 by-election.