Legislators in Alberta will be getting back to work next week as Premier Alison Redford presents the provincial budget that her party will campaign on in the upcoming election. But after a precarious few years that put the survival of the country's longest-running government in question, the Progressive Conservatives will enter the campaign with a comfortable lead over their rivals.
After the Tories captured 53 per cent of the vote in 2008's provincial election, the idea that the PCs would still be in a strong position going into the 2012 campaign would probably come as no surprise to most Albertans. And for the first 18 months after that election the PCs dominated public opinion polls. In December 2008, the Tories had a 46-point lead over the provincial Liberals.
That changed over the summer of 2009 when the Wildrose Party, then known as the Wildrose Alliance, chose Danielle Smith as their new leader. Before she took over the right-wing party, it was lagging in the polls behind both the Liberals and the New Democrats. But when she was named the party's leader in October, a month after a by-election win in Calgary, Wildrose increased their support to 25 per cent, surpassing the Liberals and coming to within 11 points of the governing Tories.
Ms. Smith's honeymoon with Albertan voters lasted six months. In Edmonton, the party soared ahead of the Tories and the Liberals to the mid-30s, while in Calgary support for Wildrose hit 48 per cent in February 2010.
Thanks to these strong performances in Alberta's two largest cities, Wildrose led the opinion polls with between 39 and 42 per cent following Danielle Smith's leadership win. In January 2010, two PC MLAs crossed the floor to Wildrose, giving them three seats in total and placing them as the third party in the legislature ahead of Brian Mason's New Democrats.
Support for Wildrose slipped after April 2010, due in large part to a drop in support in the provincial capital. In May, Wildrose was down to 16 per cent in Edmonton, tying them with the NDP and putting them well behind the Tories and the Liberals. Their lead in Calgary evaporated but Wildrose was nevertheless still running neck-and-neck with Mr. Stelmach's Progressive Conservatives.
For the remainder of 2010, the Tories re-took the lead provincewide, holding between 34 and 36 per cent of the vote. Wildrose was stalled in the mid-20s while the Liberals were nipping at their heels. But at the end of the year, amid infighting between the premier and Ted Morton, the finance minister, Progressive Conservative support dipped and Wildrose hit 32 per cent, two points behind the Tories.
The face-off between Mr. Stelmach, by now one of the most unpopular premiers in the country, and Mr. Morton led to the announcement at the end of January that the premier would step down as party leader later that year. The Tories had widened their lead over Wildrose to nine points that month, but were still only leading Ms. Smith's party by a mere three points in Calgary.
The news of Mr. Stelmach's impending departure was followed shortly by a similar announcement by David Swann, leader of the provincial Liberals. The party had captured 26 per cent of the vote in the 2008 election but was on a downward trajectory, never managing to poll better than its election result and dropping to 21 per cent by January 2011.
In Edmonton, where they had elected three MLAs in 2008, the party had still managed to hold on to 27 per cent support. But in Calgary, where five Liberals, including Dr. Swann, had been elected, the party's support was falling like a stone. After taking 34 per cent of the vote in the previous election, the Liberals had fallen to third in the city behind Wildrose, averaging only 19 per cent in the last three months of 2010. David Swann's resignation, however, did not right the Liberal ship.
With Tories and Liberals looking forward to the upcoming leadership races, Albertans joined other Canadians in casting their ballots in the May 2011 federal election. The breakthrough of the New Democrats was echoed in Alberta, as the provincial NDP hit 15 per cent support in May 2011, their highest level of support since before the 2008 Alberta election.
With Ed Stelmach on his way out and a group of interesting candidates, including Mr. Morton, running to replace him, enthusiasm for the Tories spiked once again. The Progressive Conservatives hit 47 per cent in June and stood at 46 per cent in October, when Alison Redford was chosen as the new leader of the party.
That same kind of enthusiasm did not take hold among Alberta Liberals, and when Raj Sherman was named leader in September 2011 the party stood at only 14 per cent support. Their support in Calgary has dropped by two-thirds, sitting at only 11 per cent in the latest surveys to come out of the province.
And with the attention of Alberta's conservatives turned towards the leadership race, Wildrose stagnated. The party has polled between 19 and 23 per cent since June 2011, but it looks to be in a good position to form the Official Opposition after this year's vote.
For a province that has been reliably Tory since 1971, the past four years in Alberta have been remarkably volatile. For all that, the Progressive Conservatives appear to be back to square one, with one recent poll putting them back at 53 per cent support. But with two opposition parties changing their leaders since the last vote and a new premier governing the province, the odds are good that there could be a surprise when Albertans head to the ballot boxes this spring.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com