THE BLOG
02/16/2012 08:27 EST | Updated 04/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta's Wildrose Party Must Embrace the "Dirty Harry Gambit"

The Conservatives played up the idea of building more prisons and enacting tougher laws. The Tories did this because they knew full well that their right-wing "law and order" supporters would love it, but so would ordinary non-ideological voters who just want criminals thrown in jail. I call this ploy, the "Dirty Harry Gambit."

A lot of people are wondering if the upstart Wildrose party can win the upcoming Alberta election.

I think it can.

But to win the Wildrosers will need to do three things.

First, they absolutely must stick to their conservative principles. It's the party's ideological orientation, after all, which distinguishes it from the Progressive Conservative party's "Big Tent" more wishy-washy approach.

And just as important, it's the party's conservatism which mobilizes and energizes its base. The equation is simple: If you can't keep your base onside, you can't win elections.

Yet, running simply as ideological conservatives isn't enough. To win, the Wildrose party must also vigorously promote as part of its platform an issue that's popular both with its base and with mainstream Alberta voters.

This is a tactic Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative party used successfully in last year's federal election.

Recall, for instance, how the Conservatives played up the idea of building more prisons and enacting tougher laws. The Tories did this because they knew full well that their right-wing "law and order" supporters would love it, but so would ordinary non-ideological voters who just want criminals thrown in jail.

I call this ploy, the "Dirty Harry Gambit."

So what should the Wildrose party play up? Hard to say. To find the proper issue will take lots of careful polling and research, but believe me it's out there waiting to be discovered.

The second thing the Wildrose party needs to do is much more obvious: They have to make the case for change. That means playing up the need for new leadership, new tactics, and new approaches.

The Tories are vulnerable to this attack, of course, because they have been running the province since before fire was invented, or so it seems.

Mind you, the challenge for the Wildrose strategists is that Premier Alison Redford can make the case that she actually represents true change, that she is the leader with new tactics and new approaches.

This leads to my third and final point. To be successful the Wildrose must launch a multimedia "air war" to degrade Premier Redford's brand.

And yes, I realize the party has put up some ads going after Redford for "flip-flopping" on issues like fixed election dates.

But those ads won't cut it. First off, accusing a politician of flip-flopping is a pretty weak attack. It means he or she was right 50 per cent of the time! Plus process issues like fixed election dates don't resonate with voters.

The Wildrose party needs to toughen up its spots. It must paint Redford as part of the same old Tory party brand or as the puppet of special interest groups. In short, the Wildrose party needs to ratchet up the emotional content of its attacks.

But what about those recent polls that show the Wildrose party badly trailing the PCs? Don't these poll numbers mean the game is already over?

No they don't.

In fact, the polls actually put the Wildrose party in a pretty good spot. And the reason I say that is I suspect PC support has peaked and is probably pretty soft. That means it can go nowhere but down.

Support for the Wildrose party, on the other hand, while lower, is likely much more solid and loyal. That means its poll numbers have a pretty good chance of going up once the election campaign begins in earnest.

Rising poll numbers, in turn, indicate a party is gaining momentum. And just the perception of momentum can be a powerful force in politics. Voters are more disposed to back a party that appears to be gaining steam.

At any rate, my point is the election in Alberta is anybody's game.

Wildrose can still come out on top, but to do so they will have to run a disciplined and smart communication campaign.

To quote the favorite cliché of political consultants everywhere, "Campaigns matter."