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Alberta The Election Index: Alberta NDP polling at historic highs in Edmonton

NDP leader Rachel Notley speaks to media after the leaders debate in Edmonton on Thursday April 23, 2015. Ms. Notley’s performance in the debate was almost universally well-received. Pundits – even former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith – declared that Ms. Notley had “won,” and polling data support that idea as well.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

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

Two points

NDP Leader Rachel Notley's performance in the debate was almost universally well-received. Pundits – even former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith – declared that Ms. Notley had "won," and polling data support that idea as well. One question from a survey released by Mainstreet Technologies after the debate asked who Albertans thought had performed best overall. While Edmontonians, who are historically more supportive of the NDP, unsurprisingly thought Ms. Notley did best by a wide margin, the most interesting part of the survey was that the gap between Progressive Conservative Leader Jim Prentice and the NDP leader in Calgary was just two percentage points. Unlike its northern neighbour, Calgary is a city less historically attached to the New Democrats. Since this value is within the survey's margin of error, we might even say that the leaders tied in Alberta's biggest city.

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Why is this important? In some ways, as Calgary goes, so goes Alberta. You have to rewind all the way to 1948 before you can find an election in which the party that formed the government didn't win a majority of Calgary seats. In that vote, Calgary's five ridings returned two government Social Credit members alongside three opposition members, one of whom, perhaps in keeping with provincial tradition, later crossed the floor to the government. Since then, the vast majority of MLAs from Calgary sat on the government side of the legislature.

11/17

The NDP is polling at historic highs in Edmonton. In a recent survey of voters released by Mainstreet Technologies, 51 per cent of Edmontonians indicated they were supporting the NDP. This number is even more amazing when you consider that this is of all possible voters, 20 per cent of whom are undecided.

While such a result would be a huge departure from recent votes, this surge in NDP support in Edmonton is not without precedent. In both 1986 and 1989, the party won 11 of the 17 seats in Edmonton proper at the time. If the polls are correct (often a difficult sell in Alberta) and the party is polling higher than the 43 per cent of the popular vote it won here in 1986, the NDP could win most of the capital's 19 seats.

If a potential sweep of the city seems unlikely, remember 1993. This was the provincial election fought between a former mayor of Calgary (Ralph Klein, the Progressive Conservative leader) and a former mayor of Edmonton (Laurence Decore of the Liberals). In that vote, the Liberals won all 18 of Edmonton's seats. If the polls can be believed, we could very well see something similar to this performance.

49 per cent

The third region of Alberta politics, the poorly named "rest of Alberta," has just one fewer seat than Calgary and Edmonton combined, or almost half the legislature. Unless you can sweep both of the big cities, performing well here is essential for victory. However, when political analysts discuss this area, remember this: It is more like a group of different regions.

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For instance, Southern Alberta has been traditionally more right-wing than Northern Alberta. Of the 11 seats we call Southern Alberta, eight elected (at least temporarily) a Wildrose MLA. In 1971, when the province swung hugely in favour of the Progressive Conservatives, a large proportion of southern Albertans stuck with the more right-wing Social Credit. Even then, including Lethbridge in this region can be unhelpful, because its voting patterns are often very separate.

In some ways, the poorly defined "rest of Alberta" might be the real mystery box of this election, because polls with small sample sizes from here tell us little about how riding results might unfold, and some of the ridings are so large it is even difficult to get an intuitive feel for how each race is going.

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

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