Tories, Wildrose lead way on record election spending spree
Political war chests are brimming with millions of dollars and Alberta parties are poised to smash campaign spending records during the 2012 election, observers say.
The incumbent Conservatives and the well-funded Wildrose challengers are in the midst of an advertising arms race, flooding provincial airwaves with political messages and filling Alberta roadsides with campaign signs.
"If parties have money, they'll spend it. The fact that the Wildrose can sort of match the Conservatives, I'm sure it will be much higher spending," University of Calgary political scientist Doreen Barrie said.
"They can sort of saturate the airwaves with messages, and billboards, and now they have all these other devices like robocalling and so on. They'll spend a lot of money, but you have to wonder how much money is wasted. I don't think they know what gives them bang for their buck."
Alberta is one of only two jurisdictions that doesn't cap election spending, and the amount of money shelled out by major parties has climbed steadily over the past three decades, from $1.3 million in 1979 to $3.9 million in 2001, Elections Alberta records show. In 2004, party spending dropped slightly to $3 million.
In 2008, the top four political parties spent a combined $4.8 million, nearly a million more than any election before.
Heading into the spring election, the Wildrose had raised more than any opposition party in Alberta history, pulling in $2.8 million in 2011 alone. The Conservative party war chest stood at $2.9 million in 2010, the last year for which figures are available.
Conservative party executive director Kelley Charlebois declined to say where the Tory war chest stood at the start of the campaign, and wouldn't say whether the governing party is prepared to match the $3 million it spent in 2008. "Asking questions around that is kind of like asking us to tip our hat around our election strategy," Charlebois said.
Wildrose strategist Vitor Marciano also refused to say how much his party had in its war chest, but he confirmed the party expected to spend "considerably more" than the $389,000 it spent in 2008.
"Wildrose will spend more than any opposition party ever has before, but I still expect that we will be massively outspent by the PCs," Marciano said. "This is going to be the most competitive election in a generation, so I expect the Tories to empty out their war chest." The most an opposition party has spent in Alberta is $1.2 million, a high reached by the Liberals in 2001 and the NDP in 1989.
Liberal party executive director Corey Hogan said his party has "a three-digit war chest" for the 2012 election and expects to spend close to the $650,000 spent in 2008.
Brian Stokes of the NDP said his party will spend more than the $816,000 it spent in the last election, and possibly as much as $1 million.
Studies show political challengers get a higher political return on election spending than do most incumbents.
In a 2007 study of Canadian federal campaign spending back to 1979, Cornell University professor Thomas Evans discovered that politicians with the majority party can spend a maximum of $1.21 per capita before the return on investment hits zero. After that, spending more money doesn't win more votes.
But political challengers can spend between as much as $1.86 per capita before the return on investment hits zero.
"At low levels, spending is more effective for incumbents, but the diminishing returns kick in extremely quickly," Evans said. "They can use their first bit of spending to tell you what they've done in the last four years - and further spending doesn't do any good."
"With the challenger, they spend their first dollars introducing themselves and who they are, and what they've done, and what they're going to do, so that the first dollar isn't as effective but the diminishing returns are much smaller.
"So they can go a lot further and be effective with their spending."
Theoretically, that means a Wildrose candidate could win more votes by outspending a Tory, but a Tory who outspends a Wildrose candidate wouldn't see the same boost at the polls.
Practically speaking, both parties can spend much more this round than in previous elections before they hit the point of zero return on investment.
In 2008, the Tories spent nearly $0.86 per capita on the election, while the Wildrose spent $0.11 per capita. The NDP and Liberals spent $0.23 and $0.19 per capita, respectively.
A separate 2007 study found incumbents spend more than challengers, and that winners spend more than losers, but that money isn't the only thing that matters.
"It does give the governing party a leg up, but there is still a race going on," said University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan, who co-authored the paper with Marie Rekkas of Simon Fraser University.
"Money is not the sole determinant. You can potentially, in the right circumstances, buy yourself a few percentage points. But turning around a whole election is not going to happen."
Milligan and Rekkas also found higher spending limits lead to fewer candidates running, lower voter turnout and races that are not as close.
"They are able to spend more, and that tends to lower the number of other candidates and lead to a bigger margin of victory for them," Milligan said.
"We didn't actually see that there was any change in their probability of winning. What happened more is that they ran up the score."
Milligan said voter turnout goes down in high-spending elections because people don't think their votes will matter.
"People tend to turn out when they think the election is going to be close," Milligan said.
"When you have the incumbent spending a whole bunch of money putting signs all over each riding, people think, well, all I see is blue signs all over the place, I'm not going to bother to vote, because it looks like blue is going to win anyway."
Alberta's 2008 election had the lowest voter turnout in the province's history, with 41 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots.
Edmonton Journal, Mon Apr 2 2012
Byline: Karen Kleiss