Though the ridings remained within the Conservative fold, the performance of the Liberals in two Alberta by-elections was the best the party had managed in these seats for decades. But the province is still a long way from being painted red.
Alberta has been a Liberal wasteland for quite some time, and with the exception of Saskatchewan, was the province where the party put up its worst result in 2011. Just 9 per cent of Albertans voted for the Liberals in that election, part of a steady decline the party has experienced in the province. In 2004, the first election against a united Conservative Party, the Liberals captured 22 per cent of the vote and won two seats in Alberta. In 2006, that dropped to 15 per cent and no seats, and again to just 11 per cent in 2008.
The Liberals have not captured more than 25 per cent of the vote in Alberta since 1968, in Pierre Trudeau's first election as party leader. Even that was a bit of anomaly, with the Liberals scoring in the 20s in the prior decade, and support for the party dropping into the 1970s and 1980s, before a small uptick under Jean Chrétien.
But the results in the two Alberta by-elections suggest that another resurgence, perhaps even greater than the rather modest one of the 1990s, may be in the works. In the riding of Macleod in southern Alberta, the Liberal vote increased by 13 points. In Fort McMurray-Athabasca in the heart of the oil industry, it was up 25 points. And this follows the 15-point gain made by the Liberals in the 2012 by-election held in Calgary Centre, before Justin Trudeau took over the party.
Those are remarkable gains by any measure, even when taking into account the low levels of turnout. If similar swings take place throughout the province in 2015, the Liberals could find themselves with between 22 and 34 per cent of the vote. That would put them either back into their range of the 1990s, or give them their best result in recent memory.
Alberta gains in a less stunning context
That would still put the Liberals in second place by a wide margin, however. Despite the lower vote captured by the Conservatives in these two by-elections, Alberta remains the safest territory for the party in the country. If the Liberals repeated the 50-point swing achieved in Fort McMurray-Athabasca throughout the province uniformly, they would still win just 10 out of 34 seats in Alberta. With the more modest 22-point swing in Macleod, not a single seat would go from the Conservatives to the Liberals.
But the polls do suggest that the Liberals have indeed made significant gains in Alberta. Since the beginning of 2014, the Liberals have averaged 24 per cent support in the province, up 15 points from their performance in 2011 and, if repeated in next year's election, good enough to rank as their best result since 1997.
It is clear that Mr. Trudeau has had an effect, as after the 2011 election the party was averaging just 13 per cent in the province in polls done before his leadership victory.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have dropped from the 67 per cent of 2011 to an average of 52 per cent so far in 2014. If repeated next year, that would rank as the worst performance of the Conservatives and their predecessor parties since 1968.
The New Democrats, who took 17 per cent of the vote in 2011 and topped out at about 21 per cent shortly after the election, have averaged 15 per cent in 2014. The party currently holds one seat in the province – Edmonton-Strathcona – and on current trends should have no issue holding it. Making new gains is not out of the question, but the party would likely need to get back to the 20 per cent mark in Alberta.
So the gains the Liberals have made, spectacular as they are, remain modest in relative terms. The surge the Liberals have experienced was from a historically low base, but it has put them back in range of the share of the vote they normally took when the party was forming government.
What kind of representation might the Liberals look forward to from Alberta if they can maintain the kind of support levels they have managed over the last few months? Anything from three to five seats is plausible, with the Conservatives winning between 28 and 30 seats, and the New Democrats retaining one.
In the end, then, even if the Liberals make big gains in Alberta in 2015 the best they can plausibly hope for is to regain some representation from the province after being shut out since 2006. The fate of the Conservative government is unlikely to hang in the balance in Alberta. But if the Liberals are making real gains in even the truest of blue Alberta, the Conservatives are unlikely to fare well in the rest of the country.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.