Pollsters were wildly off the mark in Alberta’s election

Voters decided they needed a salesperson to pitch Alberta, and its oil. Wildrose didn’t fit the bill
Wildly off the mark
Todd Korol/Reuters

One point three. Twelve. Fourteen. Seventeen. Eight, seven, seven, six, eight, seven, ten, nine, nine . . . two.

That’s a word picture of the polls taken in the run-up to April 23’s Alberta election, starting with a Leger survey for which interviews took place April 5-8. The numbers represent the Wildrose party’s estimated province-wide lead over the incumbent Progressive Conservatives. No public poll taken by a respectable firm during the campaign had the Wildrose behind the PCs. All pollsters agreed that at least a narrow Wildrose majority government was likely. Reporters in Eastern Canada dutifully filed “Wildrose wins” copy for the April 24 morning papers, believing that the outcome was certain.

And then came the shocking result of the election itself, arriving at the end of the mathematical sequence like some indecipherable symbol from a lost language:

Minus nine point six.

In the privacy of the voting booth, Albertans as a group reverted to their traditional allegiance—but most of them, as individuals, weren’t voting for the same party they had supported last time. The PCs captured 44 per cent of the vote and swept to 61 seats in the new, larger Alberta legislature of 87 members. The Wildrose heirs apparent captured 34 per cent, but turned that into a miserable 17 seats; all but one of those is more than 100 km south of Edmonton, where the new party was shut out, and only two are in Calgary, where the disaffection that propelled the Wildrose had begun. The Liberals, rarely in contention in Alberta over the past 100 years, were flattened, going from a 29 per cent vote share in 2008 to just under 10 per cent. By virtue of right-wing vote splitting, they held five seats; scarcely more than 1,000 votes behind, the New Democrats claimed four, all in Edmonton.

The stunning result presented a crisis of epidemic proportions for the polling business. “I’m shocked, as a lot of my colleagues in the industry likely are,” said Abacus Data’s David Coletto on Twitter. “Need thought into what went wrong. All methodologies were wrong this time.” In fact, there were hints that Albertans would surprise the pundits; the “two” at the end of the sequence beginning this article arrived the day before the election, when Forum Research, working on a weekend, found that the Wildrose lead had all but vanished. At just that moment, the Conservatives’ internal polling actually showed them ahead—but just barely.

Nobody imagined that the PC’s Alison Redford would recoup a majority that resembled the heyday of her party. Indeed, the talk before the election was that Redford was toast even if she won narrowly. Underestimated in much the same way during last year’s leadership campaign, Alberta’s premier pulled off an amazing strategic-voting coup, giving up on something like two-thirds of her party’s 2008 support and replacing it with Liberals and new voters. (Turnout was estimated at around 57 per cent, a marked increase from 2008’s figure of 41 per cent.)

There is no disguising the cynicism of the campaign Redford ran; she feasted greedily on politically incorrect statements by a couple of old-fashioned Wildrose candidates, secured the loyalty of doctors and teachers with big pre-writ payouts in a time of austerity, and benefited in the last days of the campaign from third-party electioneering of dubious legality or provenance. It was a stampede of fear and near-overt bribery.

But a negative campaign cannot work without finding at least some tenuous purchase in truth and existing public sentiment. The Wildrose party began the election period as a blank slate, having just one member elected under the party’s banner at the dissolution of the assembly. In the first half of the campaign, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith made that work spectacularly in her favour, running circles around Redford in the image war with mesmerizing photo ops. But the PCs turned the Wildrose party’s novelty against Smith by making a couple of old Wildrose weirdos the focus of late campaigning.

Ron Leech, who said in a radio interview that being “Caucasian” was an electoral advantage, and Allan Hunsperger, who had blogged (in a tirade against Lady Gaga) that gays would spend eternity in a “lake of fire,” were only two of 87 Wildrose candidates. But virtually all of the Wildrose candidates were public unknowns, farmers and small businessmen who were fed up with an insufficiently conservative Conservative party. Were the duo really outliers, voters wondered, or were they perhaps disturbingly representative? On election night, Smith herself acknowledged, “We had a few self-inflicted wounds in the last week of the campaign,” after making a buoyant concession speech in High River. “It was enough to make voters pause and say, ‘Hmm, maybe this group needs a little more seasoning.’ ”

Redford met reporters the day after the election with a business-as-usual attitude, taking about her overnight discussion with the Prime Minister and looking forward to June’s Rio+20 UN summit on sustainable development, which she will attend with an Alberta delegation. It was yet another sign of her obsession with Alberta’s reputation elsewhere in Canada and abroad. Since she announced her candidacy for the PC leadership, hardly a day has gone by without Redford mentioning the need to co-operate with other provinces on energy extraction and communicate to the world that Alberta is a responsible oil and gas producer, not a real-life Mordor.

Her unrelenting emphasis on this theme, given the election result, looks like a matter of inspired, prescient personal discipline. With the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t game that Washington has played with the Keystone XL pipeline, and the looming problems with the Northern Gateway oil outlet to Redford’s native Kitimat, B.C., Albertans are feeling hemmed in; the word “landlocked” has surely been on their lips more in the last 24 months than in all of Alberta history.

This may help account for the success of the PCs’ negative campaign, which drew thousands of voters to a party they had loathed—in some cases, loathed and fought, and for a generation or more. Smith compounded her defence of the “free speech” rights of her un-mainstream candidates with other utterances that proved problematic: she had once proposed legislation to protect the “conscience rights” of health professionals and marriage commissioners, for example, and she expressed a personal opinion that the magnitude of humanity’s contribution to climate change has not been settled by science.

It proved hard for journalists to find any human to whom the “conscience rights” issue could conceivably apply, and as for her opinion about climate change, it is hardly a fringe view in Alberta. But the truth or defensibility of Smith’s statements, whether in defence of Bible literalists or of climate skepticism, were probably beside the point. Albertans are uncomfortably aware that hard, quantifiable dollar figures are at stake when it comes to selling its boutique synthetic oil in foreign markets. Maybe Danielle Smith is a statesman; what the province perceives itself to need, at the moment, is a salesman. Voters seem to have concluded that too much is at stake for progressives to horse around with old-line party identities, or for conservatives to indulge in fantasies of a libertarian cowboy utopia.

Redford’s victory will literally change Alberta’s landscape. Her support is, to a degree unknown for any Alberta government since the 1970s, urban-based. Edmonton can be confident that its promised new downtown building for the Royal Alberta Museum will be built and that its closure of the old municipal airport will go through; Smith had threatened both these PC projects, the first in the name of austerity and the second in the interests of northern Alberta medical aviation. Redford’s plan for 140 “family care clinics,” stand-alone centres intended to offer continuing care to the chronically ill and take round-the-clock walk-in traffic away from emergency rooms, is daring and ambitious. So is her $3-billion revival of the Lougheed-era Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority.

But the immediate future of the PC party is in no doubt; it will go on governing (and it will, on Aug. 24, 2014, turn 15,688 days old and officially become the longest-serving government in the annals of Confederation). The Wildrose will sit in opposition and gain “seasoning.” The big question is what will happen to the progressive brand names.

The Alberta NDP has stagnated and appears to like it that way, judging from Leader Brian Mason’s worn-out jokes about a caucus one can fit in a phone booth. The Liberals are being crushed to the density of a black hole. Even the Alberta Party, an empty vessel seen by hipsters as the future of the Alberta left-wing vote, missed its humiliatingly modest expectations by light years. The PCs have succeeded in convincing these Alberta voters, who represented two-fifths of the voting populace in 2008, to hold their noses once. Is it their sad destiny to just keep holding them and voting for the less evil “conservatives” in a two-party system?