E-Day in Calgary: A Play in Two Parts

Scott H. Payne

October 19, 2010 | 1 Comment

So how could I not comment on that Calgary municipal election yesterday? I mean, wow. Just wow.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve paying attention to politics for a “long time”, I’ve got a few more decades before I’ll feel safe making comments like that. But I’ve paid attention to my fair share of elections and yesterday’s was far and away the most exciting in which I’ve ever been involved. There was literally a palpable electricity in the air as voter engagement smashed recent turnouts with 54%. In a city that has become known for its civic apathy, that is no small accomplishment.

I was late getting to my polling station, choosing to walk my dog first. And when I strolled by at about 7:10pm to see how things were shaping up, I was greeted with a line up that snaked out of the elementary school and down the road. With polling stations set to close at 8:00pm, I hastened my dog’s return to his kennel and managed to get into line by about 7:35pm.

It was a wild experience compared to my other municipal, provincial, and federal experiences in Calgary. People were excited and chattering. Scrutineers were busy trying to put together exit polls. And at 7:45pm, expectant voters started asking what would happen if we were still in line at 8:00pm.

In answer, we were all marched into the elementary school to remain in line, but also enable the election workers to close the doors to polls at the 8:00pm mark. When I started signing forms and receiving ballots and the like, election workers with whom I spoke told me that it had been like this since 10:00am when polls opened — they had never seen anything like it.

For someone who feels so strongly about civic engagement it was a breathtaking experience that lent a redoubled sense of intimacy around the act of voting. Waiting in line with all of those people brings me into a connection that is almost familial. Almost never do I feel a sense of community as strongly as I have the last few times I have voted.

At base what the turn out and excitement of yesterday proved is that even in a city as jaded as Calgary, people come alive to the political process when they believe that their vote matters. The election results rewarded that feeling.

As soon as I got home, my wife (who had voted in the advanced polling before we left for Mexico) had E-Day beers waiting as we started tuning in to see results trickle in. Coverage was a bit sparse as CTV elected to make sure we knew what was going on with Dancing with the Stars, but good old Shaw community television pulled through providing us with results as they came in and bad less than stellar commentary.

Dan Arnold of Calgary Grit has a good live blogged account of the night.

Watching the mayoral results trickle in was like being slow roasted as we contemplated the idea that for the first time in her life and for the first time in my three plus years in Calgary, someone my wife and I had voted for might actually stand a chance of winning (later we realized this was a bit hyperbolic given that we had both voted for Kent Hehr provincially). At first it seemed like Barb Higgins was going to coast to a small but comfortable victory and then as more polling stations began reporting it was clear that the race was between Ric McIver and Naheed Nenshi.

After a bit of horse trading, it became clear that Nenshi was pulling out ahead of McIver and at the almost ten thousand vote lead mark, every could see the writing on the wall. That wasn’t until almost 11:00pm.

The unofficial results show a commanding lead for Nenshi. Given that Nenshi had polled in single digit territory as recently as a month ago, I think it’s fir to say that pulling off 40% of the vote represented a landslide for Nenshi and provides him with the strong mandate he needed as a perceived new-comer.

From the perspective of someone who was definitely paying attention, but had no insider knowledge of the dynamics within the various campaigns, nor any insider connections to Calgary politics, might perspective on the election is that it was all about underestimation.

At the end of the day, Ric McIver’s, “common sense conservative leadership,” campaign seemed to rest on the idea that McIver was the presumptive nominee and that he could rely on a stable base of change averse conservative Calgary voters. It has been said over and over again that McIver had been campaigning for the mayoral seat for the past three years as a prominent member of Council. McIver substantially out-fundraised his opponents, garnering  more than $700,000 in donations (to Nenshi’s $300,000 and Higgins’ $200,000, respectively). And at one point, McIver supporters were calling his election a cinch.

But that’s a dangerous mindset to get into and what McIver and his campaign ultimately underestimated was just how much the demographics of the city have changed such that their assumptions wound up working against them.

Barb Higgins’ campaign seemed to underestimate just how much it was going to take to win this election. Higgins is an active Calgarian who has a strong base of support in the voluntary sector and has a lot of name and face recognition as a former CTV anchor. But when push came to shove, that seemed to be all her campaign really had.

On more than one occasion — and more generally speaking — I heard people complain that they didn’t really know why Barn Higgins was running other than because she’s, you know, Barb Higgins. And for all Higgins’ good intentions, there were too many voters out there for whom her name was just one of many on a very long mayoral ballot.

For the Nenshi camp’s part, I think they underestimated just how much of a chance their candidate stood. In the end, that underestimation worked in their favour. Naheed Nenshi and his volunteers worked tirelessly to get Nenshi’s name out there, fighting an uphill battle against McIver’s money/record and Higgins’ celebrity.

Of any campaign yesterday, it was Nenshi’s that I came into contact with the most, with old fashioned sidewalk chalking and pamphleting at busy locations to accompany their much touted use of social media. In the waning days of the campaign, the Nenshi campaign was just the most visible, never entirely feeling comfortable giving into the building hype around their momentum.

People everywhere — though especially Calgarians it seems — like to see candidates working hard and that is exactly what they saw out of Nenshi from start to finish. The campaign’s efforts both overcame and bolstered the underdog image that helped to garner Nenshi so much attention in the final days of the campaign.

And despite all the talk about the role that social media played in Nenshi’s campaign — a claim that is doubtlessly true — it has to be noted that social media only acts as  tool in a campaign. Just having a big social media push doesn’t mean you’re going to get elected because at base, social media is simply a way of communicating. And while it is true that how you communicate matters, the how is nothing without the what. And the what of Nenshi’s campaign was superlative.

Nenshi’s self-description as an outsider played perfectly to the undercurrent of discontent amongst many voters. There was enough of a buzz around the election that a lot of people who don’t consider themselves plugged into civic politics were taking notice. And when those people looked at McIver and Higgins, they saw insiders looking out at them. When they looked at Nenshi, they saw an outsider trying to get in with them. And it didn’t hurt that Nenshi was a smart, reputable, policy driven, and highly charismatic outside that managed to weave a thread of continuity through the intricacy of his diversities enough to convince the average outsider voter feel like he was the guy to represent them.

Despite all of the talk about how Calgary elections always go, Nenshi and his team figured out exactly what they needed to win: Nenshi.

And so they got out there and presented Nenshi as exactly what he is: someone to whom the average twenty0first century Calgary voter can relate and who has, like them, not been well represented in the city’s politics to date. No amount of Facebooking or tweeting is going to come close to creating the resonance that the sincerity of running a candidate for who he is will; especially when he is what a majority of voters want.

The Nenshi campaign deserves credit (credit I don’t really feel like they’ve gotten to date) for finding that thread and creating that narrative as well as they did.

Of course, the blush of last night will quickly come off as officials assume their offices and the work of running a city begins. For a look at how this newly constituted City Council might function, check out DJ Kelly’s analysis.

But lingering in the thick of electoral honeymoon for a few more sentences, I think it is fair to say that this in some senses historic election has thrown off an important yoke for the city. And so, in turn, it is not totally romantic nor wildly off base to suggest that the next few years promise an interesting turn in the potentials that beat in the heart of the new west.

Comments

One Response to “E-Day in Calgary: A Play in Two Parts”

  1. Tweets that mention E-Day in Calgary: A Play in Two Parts : the Commons -- Topsy.com
    October 20th, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DJ Kelly and Tayler Casey, Michael Maher. Michael Maher said: I'll cut Don Martin some slack for typos : http://thecommons-ccd.com/2010/10/e-day-in-calgary-a-play-in-two-parts/ @nenshi #nenshi #yycvote [...]

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The Commons has brought together a diverse cross-section of unique and intelligent voices to generate meaningful debate and discussion. All contributors have made the solemn commitment to cultivate respectful, honest, vigorous, and open dialogue—and to promote that very kind of dialogue within the larger Canadian political discourse.