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?


Pollsters were wildly off the mark in Alberta’s election

  1. I didn’t follow this election as closely as others, but it seemed to me that there was more cheerleading going on with the daily polls by those pundits that had a pro-right leaning conservative bias (Wildrose supporters). I may be mistaken, but wasn’t the alleged surge in Wildrose support first reported by Abacus? And is not the principal of Abacus a former Tom Flanagan student?

    A form of push-polling? – ie does it affect others’ reporting and poll responses, especially those not in Alberta or those not fully engaged in Alberta politics?

    I had a discussion with Frank Graves on daily polling a few months back, here. I remain sceptical.


  2. The polls were obviously leading the voters rather than advising them. I think the polls wistful thinking got mixed up in their numbers.

  3. The simple truth is that the eastern media attempted to MAKE THE NEWS rather than report the news. CBC Power and Politics comedy team salivated just like Andrew Coyne about this mythical wipe out of the PCs in Alberta. Real Albertans chuckled at this. Some media wondered why oilsands did not become an issue? Why would it? Its a stable industry with 355,000 direct and indirect jobs and todays economic picture puts Sask and Alberta at the top in GDP for Canada. We Albertans are used to eastern distortions of our politics and resource picture…eastern pundits have increasingly distorted Alberta and stereotyped all Western residents as spurs jingling=stetson wearing-straw chewing cowboys. But ten minutes in Calgary does not educate any writer. Its the Tronna Air that is the problem, 11 times worse than Fort McMurray home of the OILSANDS

  4. Article narrowly states, ‘Voters decided they needed a salesperson to pitch Alberta, and its oil. Wildrose didn’t fit the bill.’ Allrighty, then, MacLeans. Alberta’s oil sands industry employed just over 20,000 workers in Fort McMurray in 2011 according to a new report released Friday by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada (Petroleum HR Council). Then there are a few hundred thousand spinoff workers elsewhere.
    So, why do you think the REST of the 3,758,200 million people voted PC?
    Alberta is not all about the oil industry, but media seems to think so.
    3,738,200 million Albertans DON’T work up in the McMurray oilsands.

    • Alberta said: “Voters decided they needed a salesperson to pitch Alberta, and its oil”
      U said: “Alberta is not all about the oil industry”
      Well, that’s albertans fer’ ‘ya.
      Without your precious “oil” buddy, you’d all be just another Sask, or Manitoba -just like us, and you darn well know it.

      • Just wow at your comment. Albertans are mostly comprised of
        Canadians from everywhere else. In 1971 total population was 1.6 million; and
        now it’s 3.6 million, so THAT’S Albertans for you…other Canadians, and
        immigrants, who came to try to build a life for themselves, all accepted with
        open arms while straining existing infrastructures like schools, hospitals and
        the like. The huge oil revenues help to enable the social safety net programs
        enjoyed by all Canadians from coast to coast, and that includes you. If you
        asked most Albertans if they’ve gotten rich from the industry, 95% would say
        no, but there are economic trickle down benefits.

        There’s nothing wrong with Saskatchewan or Manitoba. Why not just
        throw in B.C.

        and insult all of Western Canada? That’s like
        saying if it weren’t for Hydro in Quebec or
        manufacturing in Ontario, they’d just be
        another PEI or New Brunswick, which insults all three. All
        of the provinces and territories are unique and distinctive in their instrinsic

        You also seem dismally unaware of the huge oil reserves in Saskatchewan that
        are online and producing, helped by advanced Alberta technical know how. Alberta helped Newfoundland
        with technical knowledge in establishing their booming offshore as well.
        Thousands of Russians schooled at Alberta
        technical schools have helped enable that country’s energy independence; which
        lends to regional peace. Last but not least, if it weren’t for the Americans
        who helped Alberta pioneer the industry, and towards whom we owe a great debt,
        there would be little oil development OR economic spinoffs enjoyed by all

  5. Distorted? Excuse me, but your Wild Rose is waaaayyyy beyond any stereotype and the ROC is breathing a sigh of relief. So, stop electing Conservatives and we might start believing that you’re one of us.

    • Not voting for a right of center government would ruin our economy. Look at every province with a left leaning leadership and look at their economies. All train wrecks and it is not a coincidence. Look at former left leaners like Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and look at them since they voted in big “C” conservative governments. I have no problem helping out the little guy but with socialism too many little guys come from everywhere.

      • The difference is not left or right wing, it’s oil.

        • …or a positive, democratic fiscal environment…

          • We’ve never had a govt that wanted a negative and undemocratic fiscal environment…whatever partisans claim.

          • Who’s partisan? Personally, I vote for the most fiscally together representive, always.
            Just for the record.

  6. Reminds me of the overused expression “POLLS ARE FOR DOGS”
    Never has this been more true. This is my 7th election working with the PC party and never has the result been sweeter. The pollsters who were LEADING the disussion were making a mockery of providing information in favor of trying to drive the increasingly ideological parade led by our PM. I DID support him at one time but have to have second thoughts now as there was clear backroom influence and intervention from the far right. This party and government are EXACTLY what Alberta and CANADA needs now – moderate and right leaning will have my vote for years to come.

  7. Who’s to say that the polls were ever wildly wrong? They were probably a reasonably accurate representation of voter intentions at the time they were taken. However, the only poll that really counts is the actual vote on election day. No polling company can hope to match that sample size, especially not concentrated over such a short span of time!

  8. Wow, interesting interpretation of Albertans deciding a coalition of libertarians, social conservatives, and extreme fiscal conservative might not form the best government.

  9. Too bad the rest of Canada will interpret Cosh’s article as “on the ground” reporting and therefore ascribe it more accuracy than it deserves. The conscience rights issue had the potential for broad applicability — I didn’t read any journalists arguing that it was a non-issue being propped up by the PC machine. And climate change deniers aren’t exactly thick on the street in Edmonton, and I suspect they’re not in Calgary, either. A fringe position I expect it is, even in Alberta.
    While I acknowledge the Liberals are floundering (and how could they not, having just elected a one-issue leader), the Alberta Party is new and can’t be expected to sweep the ridings. Its leader wasn’t included in the leaders’ debate, and it had only one fewer MLAs than the NDP, whose leader was included. And as for the NDP, they doubled their seat count, and nearly won a couple more. How is “stagnated” a descriptor for that performance? The question for the progressive parties to ponder over the next four years is how to keep their voters from playing the strategic voting game. Mergers may be something they need to consider (I’m looking at you, Alberta Liberals!).

  10. Wow,
    Your headline is embarrasing and your article is completely off the mark.
    The writer of this article is completely off the mark on the most basic issues of the election.
    The PC Party and the Wildrose Party are the old PC party. Danielle Smith was and is supported by disaffected conservatives and represents a significant portion of the 40 plus year ruling regime.
    Albertans didn’t vote for a salesperson for oil.
    Albertans voted because they were afraid of a party that would condemn homosexuals to eternal hellfire and had a leader that didn’t accept climate change.
    The pollsters got it wrong and so does your simplistic and ignorant article.

  11. One of our political pundits blithely stated on the night of the election “there is no such thing as strategic voting.” Oh no? Many acquaintances voted PC for the first time in their lives. Why? Simply because the more centerist Redford provided a much rosier, and more realistic picture for education and health care for those who care about the greater good.

    Many Liberal or NDP supporters know that their vote in Alberta is essentially a throw away vote in the majority of ridings, and most of us knowingly throw out our votes every four years in the earnest hope that our parties will know supporters do exist.

    This year, fear of an even more right wing party encouraged many of us to vote strategically… and it worked.

  12. Love livin’ subsidized in Quebec! Keep up with your ruthless capitalism! Our students need your transfer payments ; )

  13. Nothing was wrong with “the metrics” of the polling system. They were as intentionally flawed as always. “Poll” results are used by the Media to sway voters (mind control). It’s too bad that the mind control is in full swing, as it turns out that Danielle Smith is just a character played by Katie Holmes… check it out at the link below: