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Alberta The Election Index: 58 per cent of Alberta voters may change their minds

Sarah Paper staff with the Wildrose party make final preparations for the election night venue for the Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith in her ridding of High River April 23, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Every week during the campaign, The Election Index highlights important numbers to help you understand the shape of the race.

31%

Polls by Mainstreet Technologies and ThinkHQ released shortly after the election was called estimated Wildrose support in Alberta at 31 per cent of decided voters, ahead of both the Progressive Conservatives (who were either at 25 or 27 per cent) and the NDP, which received 26 per cent in both surveys.

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While the support for Wildrose might be a surprise given recent internal turmoil, it is notable that 31 per cent is still three percentage points lower than the party's vote share in the 2012 election.

This suggests the change in levels of party support is not due to a Wildrose polling surge, but a PC collapse. Making matters worse for Jim Prentice's PCs, the NDP has been posting very strong polling results, especially in Edmonton.

However, while 31 per cent is below the Wildrose's 2012 vote share, it is much higher that its polling nadir of 14 per cent just after the pre-Christmas floor-crossing saga.

58%

One statistic from the ThinkHQ survey should give us caution: 58 per cent of voters indicated that they either strongly or somewhat agreed that they might change their minds about who they are going to vote for. A full 25 per cent of voters indicated that their vote choice is completely up in the air.

This does not mean the poll is methodologically unreliable as a snapshot of what is going on today (it might just be that people are unsure, and measuring that fact is valuable).

But it does send up a flare that current surveys of the Alberta electorate are not going to serve as great predictors of an election that is still weeks away.

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What it means is that, if we want to predict the outcome of this vote confidently, we will need to figure out who these undecided voters are.

If they are similar to decided voters, we can just ignore them. If they are largely disaffected Conservative supporters, then a strong campaign by either the Wildrose or PCs could win the election for one of these parties.

If they are largely disaffected progressive or simply anti-PC voters, then local campaigns could matter more than usual as voters choose among Wildrose, NDP, Liberal or Alberta Party candidates.

53%

Opinion polls in Alberta have a terrible reputation, with some good reason: The Wildrose led the PCs in all 22 of the polls publicly released during the 2012 campaign. Yet, when election day came, the PCs won their 12th straight majority.

Was something wrong with the polls?

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A study of the 2012 election by the Canadian Provincial Election Project (run by political scientists across Canada) suggests the pollsters might not have been so wrong after all.

Instead, undecided voters broke overwhelmingly for the PCs. Of voters who made up their minds on election day, 53 per cent voted PC, while just 13 per cent went to the Wildrose. That's a stark contrast with the profile of voters who made their minds up before the campaign started: they split 51-25 in favour of the Wildrose.

The fatal flaw of poll watchers in the previous election might not have been with the polls themselves, but with the assumption that undecided voters would split in the same way as decided ones.

This was a mistake because those hesitating most in 2012 ended up being mainly last-minute PC supporters.

If undecided voters in 2015 largely split in one direction again, it will seriously hamper the ability of polls to forecast the outcome.

Paul Fairie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary, where he studies voter behaviour.

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