Pollsters relieved at getting it right in Alberta's unlikely swing to the left

'The industry as a whole needs to redeem itself, and I think they did here'

Alberta premier-elect Rachel Notley waves as she speaks the media during a press conference in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 6, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Alberta premier-elect Rachel Notley waves as she speaks the media during a press conference in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 6, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

OTTAWA – Corporate Alberta may be wringing its hands, but Canada’s market research industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief following the NDP’s remarkable majority victory in Tuesday’s Alberta election.

Despite the fact a variety of polls consistently showed strong support for Rachel Notley’s New Democrats in the last weeks of the campaign, many pundits were reluctant to believe the public opinion surveys would prove out on election day.

“The industry as a whole needs to redeem itself, and I think they did here,” pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research said Wednesday.

A series of errant predictions on provincial votes over the past few years has bruised the polling profession; rock-ribbed Alberta’s counter-intuitive swing to the left was seen as a test of polling’s predictive powers.

Most pollsters misread B.C.’s election swing from the NDP to the Liberals in the final days of the 2013 provincial election. Alberta’s Tories rose from the dead to win a majority in 2012, and last year’s provincial Liberal majorities in Quebec and Ontario stunned many. Even the scale of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hefty Conservative majority in 2011 went undetected by many polling companies.

The misfires in previous elections even spawned some social media poetry Tuesday from someone using the handle @Lymericking.

“Canadian pollsters, congrats / On turning out credible stats / Which ought to dilute / The dodgy repute / You earned in preceding at-bats.”

Graves said the perception of the industry was definitely hurt by those past election misses. Considering most media polling is done for free as a research company promotion, that stings.

“If you’re going to weigh in and kind of subsidize this stuff, you want to make sure you actually get it right because you end up with egg on your face.”

Albertans themselves continued to believe there would be a Progressive Conservative victory late into the campaign, which further raised the polling stakes.

Bruce Cameron, the president of Calgary-based polling firm Return on Insight, was casting doubt on an NDP victory in a published op-ed as recently as Sunday even though he had survey results showing otherwise.

“A lot depended on the turnout rate,” Cameron said Wednesday.

The solid NDP trend line of support throughout the campaign made Tuesday night’s victory a certainty when 57 per cent of eligible voters — the highest in Alberta since 1993 — cast ballots, said Cameron.

Darrell Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, noted all the different polling methodologies appeared to work well in this Alberta election, with virtually all getting the winner right and most getting the second and third place finishes correct — and within reasonable margins of their actual vote percentages.

“The trends started early and just persisted through the campaign,” Bricker said.

“So once the NDP took off and the momentum was building and the Tories started to decline, it was really just a question of how low they would go and how high the NDP would go.”

Even at that, Cameron said it took some interesting three-way splits in rural ridings to make Wildrose party the official Opposition and drive the incumbent Conservatives to third place.

New Democrats won 53 of the legislature’s 87 seats, having never won more than 16 ridings in any previous Alberta election.

Wildrose came second with 21 seats, while the incumbent Tories — holders of 70 seats when they called the election — were reduced to a 10-seat rump.

If pollsters more or less agreed this time on the election outcome, they remain divided in the aftermath about whether Alberta has moved ideologically.

Graves and Bricker both said they believe there’s been a shift in the province.

Bricker pointed to the 2010 election of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi as a “precursor” to Notley’s NDP victory.

“The Alberta we keep talking about — which is an Alberta that’s 20 or 30 years in the rear-view mirror — isn’t Alberta anymore,” said Bricker, noting almost 40 per cent of the population was born outside Canada.

Cameron, however, isn’t so sure.

“I think it’s primarily a vote for Rachel,” he said of the new premier-in-waiting.

“It was a classic Jack-Layton-in-Quebec kind of scenario. She captivated people in a way I haven’t seen in polling in any election I can remember recently.”

Related reading: 

Colby Cosh: Why the Orange Revolution is not about Rachel Notley

Election fallout: Jim Prentice steps down as leader — and as an MLA

Andrew Leach: On the Alberta NDP and energy policy 

Meet the new premier: What you need to know about Rachel Notley

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