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Experts say forget the polls, your vote counts this Calgary municipal election

This civic election campaign was anything but typical say local political scientists

Calgary mayoral candidate Bill Smith speaks at a town hall-style forum on Aug. 28.

ELIZABETH CAMERON / for Metro

Calgary mayoral candidate Bill Smith speaks at a town hall-style forum on Aug. 28.

With this election's cast of candidates ballot-ing it out for votes, Metro turned to experts ahead of Monday's municipal election to help you make sense of the past month.

It's been a blur.

While a Calgary Flames arena or scintillating scandals about candidates' pasts and current transgressions may seem a distraction from the task ahead: Electing 15 faces around one council chamber table to run Cowtown through this tough economic time.

But in reality, what readers have seen over the past four weeks (or more), is just a reflection of a high stakes, tight race – or so the experts tell us.

"Come Monday you're going to see a very different looking city council," said Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt.

"At the mayoral level you don't normally see a major battle against an incumbent mayor."

And a battle it is.

As Jack Lucas, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Calgary, puts it, this election has followed an overwhelming turn of events. At the beginning, he and others thought it was going to be a typical civic election.

As the weeks progressed, suddenly the race had morphed into anything but.

"You would have one or two serious challengers to Naheed Nenshi, but probably not a particularly competitive mayoral race. You had a number of open ward races that would be interesting," said Lucas. "I think that was the general idea, and that wasn't that long ago. And so between that first debate and the last one ... it really sort of felt like the stakes were high."

It's a competitive mayoral race and Lucas said every day it seems like new wards are becoming the ones to watch – which can have a profound effect on council's overall policy-making, depending on which candidates, with which ideas, are elected.

Bratt said this is just a taste of things to come in the provincial election.

"All you have to do is look at Brian Mason's intervention on the LRT and the full support of conservatives," said Bratt.

"Volunteers, activists, donors even some old candidates, in not just the Smith campaign, but many of the ward campaigns as well ... they're not in power in Ottawa or Edmonton with time on their hands."

As for issues and policy, Lori Williams, Lori Williams, Associate Professor of Policy Studies at MRU, said this election's candidates are coming up thin, especially when looking at Smith's campaign.

"We've seen a similar campaign conducted by Jason Kenney where he's saying he's going to listen to the grassroots," said Williams.

"Calgarians should look at as much information as they can for themselves on each of the candidates."

But Bratt said that's the design of Bill Smith's campaign. He said where Nenshi is bound to succeed is in a head-to-head policy discussion. He's a self-proclaimed policy wonk, Andre Chabot as well, and from where Smith stood his strongest attack was on character.

"It was a carefully crafted strategy to get under Naheed's skin," said Bratt. "The Nenshi team, I think were caught off guard by this."

And voters don't often vote strictly on policy, Bratt said.

But he pointed out the Nenshi team's response to being caught off guard are all the stories surfacing about Smith's character and his past, which he expects to see more of in the weekend prior to the Oct. 16 vote.

As the days have progressed, voters are getting a hint of policy talks about the Green Line, the SW BRT, fighting taxes, weathering the economic storm and selling Calgary, and as Lucas pointed out a time-hogging arena debate that may have taken attention away from other issues like the Olympics.

"This was not an election where there were no issues to talk about," Lucas said. "Most issues have come up a bit in the end, some of them more than others."

Williams pointed out that in these final days that approach could bite Smith, who's now facing stories about his own past transgressions and character.

"Bill Smith has not provided much information in terms of experience, his expertise, his character and indeed even his policies," said Williams. "There's nothing to offset the latest ... questions on his professionalism. He took a gamble."

One thing our experts agree on is that in this race, especially, every vote counts on Oct. 16.

"I really do think that this is a competitive mayoral race and that these blowout polls on either side are probably overstating the lead," Lucas said. "Every vote is going to count in this thing."

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