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adam radwanski

NDP leader Tom Mulcair smiles as he speaks with reporters following party caucus on Parliament Hill Wednesday, May 6, 2015 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Nobody who works in or around politics in this country should be feeling too comfortable right now.

Because a lesson out of this week's election in Alberta, the province that was supposed to be most resistant to changing governments, is that the modern electorate is far more volatile than the political class tends to assume or likes to admit.

That message is particularly timely, coming as it does shortly before a federal election that we're already unwisely gaming-out to within an inch of its life, as though we have any idea how voters will behave once the campaign really begins.

Talk to people who will be working on the federal parties' national campaigns, or are following them closely, and the conversation often becomes an itemization of how many seats each party is capable of winning in each part of the country. The Liberals will reclaim ridings in Toronto or Montreal that are naturally theirs and only slipped away during a fluke election in 2011, but they can't expect too much outside urban centres or west of Manitoba. The Conservatives may be making headway in Quebec, but there's no way they're winning more than 10 or 15 seats there. The NDP will mostly be fighting to keep what it has, and just can't compete in suburban battlegrounds needed to win power.

Behind such prognostications are all sorts of underlying assumptions about how elections are won – that a party that hasn't traditionally been competitive in a region needs a beachhead there before making wider gains, for instance, and that each party's baggage makes it unpalatable for large swaths of the electorate.

It can be reassuring to think along these lines, particularly for those who are in power, but even to some extent for those who aren't. Increasingly sophisticated data collection is supposed to be making it easier to break the electorate down into segments of likely and unlikely supporters, well before the campaign officially starts. A not-insignificant number of people make a living off of predicting voter behaviour, or devising strategies and allocating resources based on that knowledge, or just telling political junkies what they can expect well before the campaign actually starts.

The reality, though, is that, if anything, voter behaviour seems to be getting more unpredictable. The last federal election started with the NDP an afterthought, and ended with it sweeping Quebec despite many of its candidates there barely knowing they were running. Last year's Ontario election saw the governing Liberals win back a majority government that seemed long gone, claiming ridings even they didn't think they had a chance in.

Now, we've got the wildest result of all. It's not just that Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives, who were supposed to have an insurmountable advantage in money and organization, were relegated to third place after almost 44 years in power. It's also that they lost to a party, in the New Democrats, who'd never even been seriously competitive before – and who themselves entered the campaign thinking that, at best, they might be able to make it to Official Opposition.

Even as this was unfolding, seasoned observers of Alberta politics refused to believe their eyes. Sure, the New Democrats might sweep relatively left-leaning Edmonton. But there was just no way voters in Calgary or smaller cities were ready for them.

But in Alberta, and elsewhere, it's increasingly obvious that Canadian electorates are no longer so tribal as to just keep voting the way their parents or communities always did. Nor do long-held impressions of parties seem to matter a whole lot, if we like (or dislike) their leaders. And the less engaged many voters are between elections, the more unpredictable their behaviour will be once they start to pay attention.

It's not that what happens between elections is irrelevant to their outcome; far from it. The resentment toward the Alberta Tories that bubbled over in the past month was percolating through years of scandals and perceived arrogance. Positive impressions of NDP Leader Rachel Notley had to at least be in the back of many voters' heads before they turned to her. The groundwork that parties do leading up to campaigns to build local organizations – well, it might not have mattered that much in this campaign, but even in unpredictable elections, the results are often close enough that it matters a great deal indeed.

It's just time to stop pretending that anyone knows what all the pre-election jockeying adds up to, until the race really begins.