The polls predicted a much, much different story: a sweeping Wildrose majority, one that ended Alberta's supposedly crumbling Progressive Conservative dynasty.
Instead, the PCs rallied, winning 61 of the province's 87 seats – yet another sweeping majority for a dynasty dating back to 1971. Wildrose won 17. The term will carry Alison Redford's PCs into record territory, making them Canada's longest-serving provincial government.
So, what gives? What changed, denying Wildrose the majority polls showed it would get?
1. They were never that far behind
Most polls showed Wildrose in the lead – but some didn't. Polling by Leger Marketing, for instance, found a narrow contest, before showing Wildrose pulling ahead a week before the election date. Leger typically uses live interviews in its polls, as opposed to automated, robo-call polls. The PCs' internal polling always showed them in a closer race. Even Forum Research Inc., a firm that consistently showed Wildrose in the lead, found a sudden seven-point swing Sunday evening as the Wildrose lead evaporated – but, due to Alberta election laws, newspapers couldn't publish the results.
2. Abortion, gay rights, climate change and the Leech effect
The backlash against Wildrose's stance on social issues was a slow burn. First, the party's stance on conscience rights bubbled up, showing it supported the fundamental right to refuse a service – such as an abortion – based on religious objections. It piqued the interest of voters. Then came Allan Hunsperger, whose year-old blog surfaced, one that said homosexuals would spend eternity in the "lake of fire, hell." And there was Ron Leech, the Wildrose candidate who said he had an advantage over Sikh and Muslim rivals because he was white. Ms. Smith later said the "science isn't settled" on climate change. It all painted Wildrose as too extreme, too socially conservative for the fast-growing province, one that has developed a cosmopolitan streak in its cities by adding 800,000 people (or more than 25 per cent of its population) in the past decade.
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith acknowledged the impact. "There were a couple of comments from candidates that caused people to pause and worry about what our other candidates might be like," she said. Neither Mr. Leech nor Mr. Hunsperger was elected. "It would be misleading everybody to say [their comments]did not have an impact. The question is the degree," Wildrose campaign chair Cliff Fryers said as polls closed.
3. The undecideds decided
Leger also asked a question that proved essential: have you decided? It found one-fifth of voters indeed were undecided in the final week of the campaign. The PCs believe many made their decision at the last moment. "I have to wonder if they walked in the polling station and went: 'You know, my life is good, and the PCs have played a big part in that in government over the years'," PC party president Bill Smith said.
4. The cities led the way
Calgary and Edmonton are Alberta's biggest cities, and hold just over half its seats in their city limits. Wildrose won two of the 44. The big cities' mayors had fired back at the party in the final week over the comments by Mr. Hunsperger and Mr. Leech. Calgary was expected from day one to play a lead role in the race. In the end, the PCs won 33 of 44 urban seats – denying Wildrose the urban breakthrough it needed and cementing itself as a distinctly urban-centred, progressive party. The province's other smaller cities were also overwhelmingly Tory, with Lethbridge, Red Deer and Fort McMurray electing six PC MLAs and Medicine Hat electing a Wildrose candidate.
5. The Harper face-off
Wildrose's surge was due, in large part, to the support of Stephen Harper's Conservative campaign machine. It fell short, but make no mistake: Ms. Redford's team knew what it was up against. Many in her camp were eager to knock off candidates with ties to Harper politics, which they saw as ruthless but effective.
"Yeah, well it didn't work this time," one newly minted PC MLA said. "We cleaned their clock."
This race wasn't just a battle among Albertan brands of conservatism; it was a battle among Canadian conservatism. And Ms. Redford – derided by Wildrose as a "Clarkie," or Joe Clark Tory – won a commanding victory, one that threatens to open rifts among the right flank of federal politics. Ms. Redford, though, cast the victory as one for conciliatory, progressive politics. "Every Albertan knew that this election was about choice. A choice to put up walls or to build bridges. A choice about Alberta's future," she said. "Tonight, Alberta chose to build bridges."
6. The Liberal collapse
Four years ago, the Liberals had 26 per cent of the vote. On Monday, they had 10 per cent. Ms. Redford avoided explicitly appealing to centrist voters, but it's clear her party picked up support on its left flank as it faced a split on the right. Ms. Smith, the Wildrose leader, acknowledged it. "Ms. Redford won her leadership [of the party last fall]on the basis of getting Liberal and NDP supporters to vote for her at the leadership, and clearly she did the same thing tonight," Ms. Smith said.
But Ms. Redford dismissed the effect of strategic voting. "I've always said that we were never focused on that. We were focused on delivering a positive constructive plan that made sense to the people of Alberta to build our future," she said Monday night. "And that's what I think happened tonight."
Taken together, Ms. Redford won a healthy but not overwhelming share of the popular vote – 44 per cent to Wildrose's 34 per cent – but the electoral math worked in her favour and handed her a sweeping majority. She's been left with a decidedly progressive mandate to pursue her Canadian Energy Strategy, while continuing to pour cash into services and infrastructure as no other province can afford to. It's all a starkly different vision than Wildrose, and Ms. Redford said the win was a signal for Alberta.
"I think it's fairly exciting. I think it shows that Albertans are passionate about our place in Canada and our place in the world," she said. "It also shows that people were prepared to trust the political process, that they want us to set a direction – and that's what we've done."
With a report from Carrie Tait and Gary Mason