Keith Gerein: Poll results show perils of partisan endorsements in Edmonton's civic election

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“It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”

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Most of us have heard the expression at one time or another, probably at moments of career crossroads or when seeking social ascendancy.

Yet the expression also seems to have meaning in the world of elections, at least when it comes to the practice of endorsements.

For federal and provincial elections, often the only endorsement that really matters is the one that comes from a candidate’s party. Simply being a nominee for the red, blue, orange or green can be enough for voters to decide whether to support or oppose.

In municipal elections, the situation is more complicated. Without partisan teams to latch onto, voters require different kinds of information about candidates to make decisions. Endorsements can be one such vehicle for imparting some of that information.

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Personally, I’ve always wondered how much weight these name-dropping exercises really carry, yet it’s clear municipal politicians see some value since they continue to promote them.

Just last week, for example, mayoral hopeful Mike Nickel and Ward Tastawiyiniwak incumbent Jon Dziadyk held a joint campaign event to endorse each other. This week, Ward Metis candidate Ashley Salvador took to social media to share an endorsement from Ward Nakota Isga incumbent Andrew Knack.

More can be expected as we get closer to Oct. 18, and yet candidates will need to be especially careful about the kind of endorsements they consider.

Like federal and provincial elections, evidence tells us that voters do crave information about municipal candidates’ partisan connections.

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Unlike federal and provincial elections, those connections are not generally seen as attractive.

This is relevant because as Edmonton’s municipal election race proceeds alongside a federal election, Senate election and equalization referendum, there is heightened potential for civic candidates to get caught up in the partisan fervour of those other campaigns — perhaps even to the point of seeking or accepting a partisan endorsement.

Should those opportunities arise, civic politicians may want to contemplate some striking results from a recent poll commissioned by Postmedia.

Apart from looking at voting intentions in the upcoming election, the online Leger poll of 1,377 Albertans also asked how voters would react to endorsements from Justin Trudeau, Jason Kenney and Rachel Notley.

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For Trudeau, if he endorsed a local candidate, almost half of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for that candidate, while just 17 per cent would be more likely.

To be fair, prime ministers don’t typically wade into municipal elections, and Trudeau probably won’t this time either. And yet, the temptation will be more than zero given that Trudeau’s own election campaign will likely take him at some point to Edmonton, where his former cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi just happens to be a frontrunner in the mayor’s race.

Asked about the possibilities, Sohi’s campaign team says he will not be seeking an endorsement from the prime minister or any of his former Liberal colleagues. This is in keeping with campaign messaging to date, which has focused on his experience as a cabinet minister, while downplaying the party under which that occurred.

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However, “Amarjeet is open to meeting with the prime minister, just as he is open to meeting with the premier or any other stakeholders that reach out,” the campaign told me.

Though such a get-together could provide some benefit, there’s also a reasonable possibility that voters would perceive it as the equivalent of a Trudeau endorsement. In which case, Sohi might want to ruminate on those poll figures before agreeing to anything.

(Unfortunately, the poll results on this question aren’t broken down by city, so it’s possible Edmontonians would be less hostile to a Trudeau endorsement than Albertans as a whole. Still, it seems a bad idea.)

In this file photo from June 6, 2018, Mike Nickel holds a news conference to announce he will be seeking the Edmonton South nomination for the UCP for the 2019 provincial election. His bid was ultimately unsuccessful.
In this file photo from June 6, 2018, Mike Nickel holds a news conference to announce he will be seeking the Edmonton South nomination for the UCP for the 2019 provincial election. His bid was ultimately unsuccessful. Photo by Shaughn Butts /Postmedia

As for Kenney, the results are equally ominous. Fully half of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a municipal candidate supported by Kenney, while a mere 16 per cent said they would be positively influenced.

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It’s no secret the premier would love to see conservative mayors elected in Calgary and Edmonton, and he has taken a few steps to assist that outcome, most notably by tacking on a referendum and Senate election touted to bring out more conservative voters.

But similar to Trudeau, I’m skeptical that Kenney would go so far as to endorse specific municipal candidates. Any further support that comes is likely to be pretty subtle.

Still, a candidate like Nickel may want to consider the risk of backfire if such an offer was ever made.

In regards to Notley, though she fared better in the poll than the prime minister and premier, it would still be risky for her to get involved in a civic election. According to the results, an endorsement from the NDP leader would give 35 per cent of respondents more cause to vote for that candidate, but that was matched by another 35 per cent who said they would be less inclined to vote that way.

If nothing else, such findings should serve as a warning to all civic election hopefuls to be highly judicious in their choice of endorsements and affiliations.

After all, while “It’s who you know,” might be a relevant adage to electoral success, there’s another cliché that seems equally apt.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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