Alberta has sometimes been stereotyped as the Texas of Canada: a land of oil, ranchers and a deeply conservative political culture. The province's electoral outcomes over the past few decades have done little to change that image. The same right-of-centre government has been in office since Elvis was alive, and the province has been the birthplace of more than one political movement (recent notables are Reform and Wildrose) devoted to attacking the right flank of mainstream conservative parties.
It is not surprising, therefore, that pundits tend to focus so tightly on the jockeying and jostling on Alberta's right wing. At the moment, commentators devote much of their ink and air time to the threat posed by the Official Opposition Wildrose Party to the governing Progressive Conservatives.
Recent party support numbers, however, suggest that it's worth pulling back the lens a bit, to see what's happening across Alberta's political spectrum – not just on the right. There is more action left of centre than some might suppose.
Although the province is not swinging wildly to the left, PC strategists charged with peeling votes away from other parties would be limiting themselves unduly if they focused only on wooing Wildrose supporters. Over the past year and a half, Environics numbers show relatively little change on the right, but a fair amount of movement on the left.
Currently, among Albertans who express a voting preference, approximately one-third support the PCs, three in 10 the Wildrose, and another third support either the Liberals or New Democrats.
While the Wildrose enjoys stronger support than either the Liberals or NDP, its gains and losses take place in a narrower band: Since the 2012 election, Wildrose support has hovered mostly in the 29 to 35 per cent range (with one dip down to 26 per cent in August, 2012). Its peak support (35 per cent) exceeded its 2012 election result (34 per cent) by just one point.
Support for the PCs has ebbed and flowed since the election, dropping to a low of about 30 per cent in May and June this year and rebounding to 38 per cent this month. It's noteworthy that when the PC vote share declined, parties on the left benefited, most notably the Liberal Party. In June, when the PC result bottomed out, the Liberals climbed to 21 per cent, double what they got on election night.
The New Democrats have also consistently rated at least a couple of points higher (12 to 16 per cent) than their results from the last election. Combined Liberal-NDP support has ranged from 20 per cent in the 2012 election up to the mid-30s over the past few months. In short, there is considerably more fluidity on Alberta's left than on its right.
These numbers suggest that it may not be the case that the PCs and Wildrose are battling for Alberta's conservative soul while the NDP and Liberals wander in the wilderness. Instead, they indicate that the PCs have choices. Rather than trying to attract support from small-government types on the right, the PCs might gain as much or more traction from bolstering social services or making other investments to gain favour with voters on the left.
Has Alberta broken away from its conservative moorings? Not exactly. These changes are incremental, not radical. If these shifts are surprising to Canadians, it's not because Albertans are making a huge change overnight, but because many Canadians' image of Alberta conservatism is outdated and overblown. Surveys find that Albertans' views on a range of questions, from taxes to social issues, differ little from those of other Canadians.
Nevertheless, it is true that Alberta has been evolving. The province has urbanized heavily and its thriving economy has attracted diversity from across Canada and around the world. Like Ontario and British Columbia, Alberta is home to diverse, cosmopolitan cities and its share of the people and attitudes that tend to thrive in such cities.
Tony Coulson is group VP for corporate and public affairs at Environics Research Group.