Third party advertisers could make or break Calgary election campaigns, poll suggests
As Calgary is gearing up for October's election, a polling agency says while voters are aware of issues with election finance rules, many more are unaware of the existence of one company, which uses millions in union money to fund candidates.
ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., a Calgary-based government and public relations firm, released details of the third party advertiser (TPA) in an online poll on Thursday.
The organization, called Calgary's Future, is funded mainly through unions and has a "war chest" of more than $1.7 million, the pollster says.
According to the latest rules on financing election campaigns, corporations and unions can no longer donate money directly to candidates and individual donations are capped at $5,000 per candidate.
As a result, TPAs were formed to accept those contributions. While no limits were initially set, the rules changed again to limit donations to a maximum of $30,000.
"These new rules are not especially well-known to voters," ThinkHQ wrote in a release.
"Only 16 per cent of those interviewed say they are 'definitely aware' of the changes, while another 40 per cent have 'heard something about it', and 45 per cent are unaware."
The agency says, by looking at financial disclosures, that the best-funded TPA is Calgary's Future, an advertiser that is almost primarily funded by unions and has already began running ads in support of some candidates seeking election to Calgary city council.
A majority of respondents (71 per cent) in ThinkHQ's survey said they were "completely unaware" of Calgary's Future while 19 per cent said they'd heard something about the firm.
Only 10 per cent of respondents said they knew about it and its role in the Calgary municipal election.
"In terms of influencing voters, there is significant potential for backlash on candidates endorsed by Calgary’s Future. For most voters, this sort of endorsement doesn't seem to have much influence: One-quarter (27 per cent) say a Calgary’s Future endorsement won’t make a difference to their vote, and nearly as many (24 per cent) are 'unsure'," ThinkHQ said.
FIRST TIME THIRD PARTY ADVERTISERS INVOLVED
It's a confusing time for Calgary voters, says ThinkHQ president Marc Henry, because it's the first time that third party advertisers will be participating in campaigns.
"This will also be the first time that we get to see voters' reaction to this sort of 'independent' campaigning, and in some respects, it may depend on who’s behind the TPA and how much they are spending," he said.
Henry calls Calgary's Future "a goliath".
"They have over $1.7 million in the bank. That's more money than all the other registered TPAs put together, and likely a bigger war chest than the top three mayoral campaigns. One would think that capturing an endorsement (and the paid advertising that comes with it) would be of great benefit to council candidates."
However, the involvement of a TPA with such strong ties to city unions could influence the choices some voters make.
"There's a risk of backlash for candidates receiving these endorsements and support. If they are branded by voters as 'the union candidate' this TPA support may do them more harm than good on election day, particularly in many of these open ward races where the margins will be quite thin."
Calgary Municipal Building (file)
CALGARY'S FUTURE NOT HIDING ANYTHING
Calgary's Future lead Alex Shevalier says the goal of its organization is to elect the candidates it believes are the right ones to join city council.
"Through advertising and promoting the people we think are the best choices," he said in an interview with CTV News.
When it comes to the ThinkHQ poll, which very specifically targets his organization, Shevalier is curious to know who is bankrolling the survey.
"Having worked with pollsters in the past, they don't do things for free. Since the beginning of this process, we've been very transparent – in fact we're still the only third party candidate that's been transparent about the amount of money that we have and who's given us the money."
Shevalier says other TPAs, as well as organizations like ThinkHQ, are not being transparent about their dealings.
"We're the only third party that they targeted. There are a number of other groups in Calgary but we're the only one that they polled on."
The involvement of TPAs in Calgary's election isn't a bad thing, Shevalier says, because they work to provide more information about candidates that regular Calgarians might not think about.
"We talk to the candidates, just to interview them and sort of vet them to see whether or not we wanted to and that's where the relationship ended because we cannot coordinate with them in any way."
He also says that Calgary's Future plays no role in the outcome of the election. It's up to candidates to convince voters to choose them.
"I don't think that whether or not we support a candidate is going to hurt that candidate. I think candidates rise and fall on their merits."
'MONEY AND INFLUENCE TRAVEL TOGETHER'
While the existence of such powerful TPAs may be startling to many Calgarians, Henry notes that Calgary's Future is not breaking any rules.
"They seem to be following the rules to the letter," he said. "But in elections, voters tend to believe that money and influence travel together.
"$1.7 million is an awful lot of money, leaving many voters to suspect its being spent to procure a city council where city unions have an awful lot of influence."
Shevalier says he has a problem with that way of framing his organization.
"I have no idea how much money Fluoride Yes is spending, I have no idea how much the other groups are spending because they haven't disclosed how much influence they have. We'll know after the election."
He emphasizes the fact that Calgary's Future is being open with Calgarians and sees ThinkHQ as critical of them for that.
"The question should be, 'Why aren't the other groups transparent?" he said. "We are trying to communicate as transparently as we can with Calgarians and I think, fundamentally, that's what we can do."
Further information about Calgary's Future can be found online.
ThinkHQ's survey was conducted on a sample size of 1,109 Calgarians through an online format between Sept. 13 and 16, 2021.
The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of this size is +/- 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.