Alberta Premier Alison Redford speaks to the faithful after the election in Calgary, Alberta, on April 23, 2012.
Credits: MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY
In the spring of 1986, the Calgary Flames beat the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL playoffs. Alberta Liberals were elected to the provincial legislature. And some of us at the Calgary Herald started investigating the activities of the Aryan Nations.
The Aryan Nations was a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group. Its "High Aryan Warrior Priest" told me he planned to establish an Aryan training camp near a little central Alberta town named Caroline. When we published stories about his plans, not a few eastern friends told me they weren't surprised. "That's Alberta," said one. "Redneck country."
I couldn't help but think about those long-ago remarks, as the reports rolled in on Monday night's 2012 Alberta election. Not only was Alison Redford's victory truly historic - it was a massive repudiation of the pundits and the pollsters. Overwhelmingly, they had gotten it so wrong.
In a front-page column, the Toronto Star's Tim Harper wrote that Redford's PCs were in a "death rattle," and Redford was "heading to the electoral gallows." The Globe's Margaret Wente opined that Wildrose would "kick butt" and win. The National Post's Andrew Coyne said, "Wildrose will form the next government of Alberta" in a column that has now seemingly disappeared from the paper's website.
And in the Sun papers - well, don't get me started. Let's put it this way, too few of my conservative pals at Sun Media didn't recall the valuable lesson they learned when Liberal MP Justin Trudeau humiliated a big-mouthed Conservative senator. In politics, it's always dangerous to underestimate your enemy.
And that, by the way, is one of the three main reasons Danielle Smith's supposedly unbeatable Wildrose was humiliated by the supposedly death-rattling Alberta PCs: They read their own clippings. They believed the pollsters and the pundits. They got cocky.
Because, make no mistake, the pollsters were shockingly wrong. On election eve, Abacus Data declared Wildrose would win big, and Smith was a full 10 points ahead of Redford. (In fact, the exact reverse was true.) The Globe reported Wildrose was "set for a sweeping majority," based on a Forum Research poll claiming Smith was far ahead. Wildrose is "the comfortable frontrunner," declared the Angus Reid Group.
That's lesson one: Don't believe the hype. The pollsters and the pundits have egg all over their faces on this one. They, like the federal Conservatives who threw everything they had behind Wildrose, assumed too much. Big mistake.
Two: Campaigns matter. Stephen Carter, the election strategist who took Naheed Nenshi from nowhere to capture Calgary's mayoralty, is the same guy who engineered Redford's huge win on Monday night. Carter is self-effacing and brilliant - and he showed, convincingly, that a well-run campaign can make all the difference on election night.
Redford and Carter undersold and overperformed. They were disciplined. But, most of all, they understood modern Alberta better than their main opponent. While Smith had candidates saying gays would burn in hellfire, and white candidates were better than non-white ones, the Alberta PCs stuck to the middle of the road - which is where all the votes are. They showed everyone that centrist, progressive politics ain't dead. Not in Alberta, and not in Canada.
Oh, and that little Alberta town of Caroline, population of just a few hundred? When they heard about the Aryan Nations' plans for their community?
In August 1986, they held a meeting to rally against the extremists in their midst.
The entire town showed up.