Alberta election: an appeal to the hold-your-nose vote

The message of a third-party video making the rounds is 'Vote PC, even if you don't want to'

Leave aside for a moment the Baptist Church Teen Talk quality of this viral third-party plea for strategic voting that is circulating around Alberta today in advance of the Apr. 23 vote. (Have you ever seen a mass-market political ad that wasn’t fundamentally cheesy and unintelligent?) Let’s ask a more interesting question: what does it tell us about the state of the campaign? It doesn’t seem to have been bought and paid for by the Progressive Conservatives; it may, for example, have merely been made and shot pro bono, in their interest and with their blessing. But it is hard to believe they didn’t have some hand in it. I am hearing a lot of conspiracy theories about “Wildrose black ops” and “rogue teenagers” and whatnot, but—hello? The message of the ad is “Vote for the PCs, even if you don’t really want to”. (Or, to take a literal direct quote: “F—k it, I’m voting PC”.)

It’s a risky move. The ad will alienate old-fashioned, loyalist blue Tories who happen to see it. It is not just old fogies in Alberta who like guns and vote for Stephen Harper. And it is not just young people who watch YouTube videos. At the same time, the sentiment that the ad is trying to appeal to is real; I have already talked to strategic voters who are going to cast their first PC ballot out of fear of the Wildrose Party. I’m actually kind of sorry to see them caricatured so brutally.

This ad—or this political tract in video form, pending its use as an ad—is both a wager and a frame-change. The wager is that an appeal to strategic-voting Liberal and NDP sympathizers will attract more marginal voting power than is given up in the form of horrified Tory loyalists, or in the form of people who aren’t especially partisan but are horrified anyway. Certainly the core idea here is strategically sound: if the Tories want to pull out some of their formerly close-run ridings in northern Alberta and even Calgary, it will help to appeal to the atavistic fears that have been raised about the Wildrose slate. This ad/tract/viral vid suggests that the PCs have given up on the hinterland and most of Calgary; the trouble is that to work even in the places where it might implicitly do some good, it must succeed in making viewers identify with the people onscreen. I have some trouble imagining a likely voter watching it and saying “Damn, the ‘I’m not like dat’ guy and the super-angry ‘Danielle Smith doesn’t believe in gravity’ chick are ME!”

The attempted frame-change is this: the 2012 election very quickly turned into a “Roust the crooks” bonfire-type occasion, with voters of all stripes sharing their disgust at the Progressive Conservative government’s bullying and corruption. Albertans will get the kind of behaviour from their next government that they choose to honour: if they reward the overwhelming sense of entitlement that the PCs have developed after 41 years in power, they will be sending a signal that anything short of murder will go unpunished. “Roust the crooks” is a recipe for electoral annihilation. The PCs need to move voters into a “Defend the status quo” mode, and that’s what this ad is about. Forget the PC kickbacks; forget decades of PC ad-hockery in healthcare; forget even that any PC caucus will probably contain dozens of people who believe that the gays are going to hell. The question—the hidden inner challenge of the ad—is: after 41 years, years which have seen plenty of liberal social progress and fairly impressive relative prosperity, do we really dare change? Things could be worse!