This byelection was expected to be uneventful, and Calgary Centre was thought to be a safe-seat. The unexpected developments can be traced to three factors.
1. The dynamics of byelections
With fewer seats in contention and more resources, energy and attention are focused on byelection campaigns. Candidates and parties spend more time and money in the ridings, including national leaders in this case, and voters are more willing to vote for or against a party or candidate knowing it won’t affect the balance of power in the House of Commons.
For example someone who has voted Conservative or NDP in the past might be willing to vote Liberal or Green, knowing they can send a message to the government or a candidate with a limited effect on party fortunes. Some moderate conservatives campaigned for Harvey Locke.
2. The candidates
In a byelection, voters can vote for the person they think is the best representative. In Calgary Centre, four of the candidates were judged on their own merits.
With strong histories in the community, and effective engagement with voters during the campaign, Harvey Locke and Chris Turner presented positive alternatives, and challenged Joan Crockatt and the Conservative party for taking the voters for granted.
3. The campaign
Joan Crockatt’s reluctance to engage the media or her opponents more directly, attending only two forums and granting limited interviews, became a campaign issue.
The race palpably shifted when Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who received strong support from this constituency in the municipal election, challenged her to respect democracy and not to take the voters of Calgary Centre for granted.
At the two forums she did attend, Crockatt made several controversial remarks.
Momentum began to shift away from Crockatt and toward particularly Locke and also Turner. Thus the race moved from a long-shot for her opponents, to an uphill battle for the putative front-runner. And the country began to turn its attention to a rarity in federal politics – a seat up for grabs in Alberta.
In polls released in the middle of last week, Crockatt had dropped from 48 percent to the mid-thirties. Harvey Locke had pulled into a statistical tie, with the Greens pulling up the rear at 17 percent.
Then Locke’s momentum stalled, partly due to “bozo eruptions” by David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau, and partly due to NDP supporters aligning behind Chris Turner. Pollsters observed last week that if Turner’s support rose to 25 percent, the vote split between him and Locke would allow Crockatt to eke out a win.
Crockatt did win, but barely.
Lee Richardson won the riding in 2011 by 40 percent, Crockatt by a mere 4 percent. About 11 percent of Calgary Centre’s eligible voters supported the Conservative candidate.
This could leave her vulnerable to a challenge for the Conservative party nomination as the next election approaches. It may also provide a foundation for building Liberal and Green support in the riding, and perhaps for a better organized coalition candidate.
The fact that Greens did so well in two federal byelections may signal the party’s ability to appeal to younger voters who don’t identify with more established, traditional parties.
All three parties have lots to think about as they look to the future in Calgary Centre, and beyond.
Lori Williams is an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University.