This column is an opinion from Leah Ward, the former director of communications for Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP caucus. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
In 2019, six short months after Edmonton voters elected an almost entirely NDP swath of provincial MLAs, we elected a troop of Conservative MPs federally. What gives?
Let’s unpack this paradox by looking at a number of factors, including voter turnout, margins of victory, and some historical patterns.
I should start by saying it’s not uncommon for Canadians to elect different political parties at the provincial and federal levels. This happens in other parts of Canada — albeit nowhere as dramatically as Edmonton in 2019 — and has often been explained as a tendency among voters to see their provincial government as providing accountability for the federal government and vice versa.
Federal elections also tend to focus less on public services and the kinds of issues that people deal with day-to-day and more on how to fund those services. The distance between issues voters are confronted with on a daily basis and the issues they are asked to vote on federally creates a different set of considerations. We count one set of voters, but have to treat them as two.
Historically more progressive
Edmonton has a history of electing more progressive representatives than any other part of Alberta. This could have something to do with an electorate made up of a large public sector, university staff and students, and working people. But historical election results suggest the city is less a progressive haven than it is a competitive battleground.
Edmonton may be a provincial sea of orange now, but until Rachel Notley’s NDP won a majority government in 2015, the Alberta NDP only had four seats in the city, the Alberta Liberals only two. The lion’s share was held by the Progressive Conservatives, who had 13 seats.
Even the federal riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, which overlaps Rachel Notley’s provincial riding and where NDP MP Heather McPherson is the incumbent, was mostly held by successive conservative representatives for decades – along with two Liberals, one Canadian Alliance, and one Reform MP – before Linda Duncan won in 2008.
Duncan’s win came after a massive volunteer effort and relentless door-knocking and outreach. So far in this fall’s federal election, Edmonton-Griesbach NDP candidate Blake Desjarlais appears to be replicating this kind of drive and is primed to repeat Duncan’s success.
But it’s going to be tight. Elections in Edmonton are often characterized by slim margins.
In the 2019 provincial election, while Rachel Notley’s NDP won all but one seat in Edmonton, seven of those seats were won with a plurality – in other words, they won the most votes, but less than 50 per cent. Five seats were won with narrow majorities between 50 and 51 per cent, and only seven were won comfortably with well over 50 per cent of the vote.
Federally, the Conservatives won with similarly tight margins. Unlike the rest of Alberta, where Conservatives were elected with 60, 70, and in some cases 80 per cent of the vote, Edmonton elected Conservative MPs in 2019 with majorities between 50 and 55 per cent. The exception was Edmonton-Centre, where Conservative incumbent MP James Cumming won with a plurality of 41.45 per cent.
The 2019 elections perfectly demonstrate an electorate very much in the middle. This creates some ripe opportunities for both conservative and progressive parties to break through and puts greater emphasis on more localized factors, like the popularity of the candidate, ground-level organizing, and in some cases, party policy.
The ground game always matters, but in a tight race, it’s all about lighting a fire under voters to get them to the polls.
Low turnout in 2019
In the 2019 federal election, progressive voters in Edmonton weren’t exactly rushing to the ballot box. Voter turnout in key Edmonton ridings was between five and 10 points below the national average of 67 per cent. Frustrations with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and a lack of familiarity with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, which allowed tensions over his opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project to overshadow much of his message to voters, likely discouraged progressives from showing up and could partly explain why Conservatives won nearly every seat.
That low turnout could repeat itself on Sept. 20.
When Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced the election, he gave no specific or compelling reason to call it. If the Liberals continue to fail to give progressive voters a reason to show up this time around, will they opt for Jagmeet Singh’s ground-gaining NDP, or will they stay home and hand Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives the Alberta seats they think they’ve already won?
Prairie ridings are often considered flyovers for federal parties, but with all signs pointing to a very close result, swing seats in Edmonton will matter more than ever.
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