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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith holds her first press conference in Edmonton on Oct. 11.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

It should be a celebratory week for the United Conservative Party. MLAs are gathering in Sylvan Lake for a caucus retreat, and Premier Danielle Smith will soon reveal her cabinet and give a keynote speech at her party’s annual general meeting. But a surprising new poll shows negative first impressions of Ms. Smith, days into the job, and much higher support for the NDP’s Rachel Notley.

The silver lining for Ms. Smith is an Alberta election is still seven months away.

Communications firm Navigator Ltd. surveyed Albertans in the days after Ms. Smith’s Oct. 6 leadership victory, and the poll is filled with grim data points for the UCP. There’s been no bump in support for the party based on Jason Kenney’s departure. There’s no honeymoon after the win – the provincial election campaign was basically on the moment Ms. Smith gave her victory speech. According to the poll, the UCP stands at 38-per-cent support provincewide for current vote intention, while the NDP stands at 53 per cent.

(And the Navigator numbers contrast with a Leger Marketing poll, also done just after Ms. Smith’s leadership win – but released last week – which put the proportion of decided voters at 44 per cent for the NDP, and 42 per cent for the UCP. But which also found 36 per cent of Albertans believe Ms. Notley would be the best premier, followed by 22 per cent for Ms. Smith)

The Navigator poll finds that Albertans have more trust for Ms. Notley (47 per cent said they have “a lot,” or “some” trust in her compared with a total of 26 per cent for Ms. Smith). There’s broad awareness of and opposition to the proposed sovereignty act. And even as Ms. Smith defines herself as a rural conservative, the poll finds that everywhere outside the province’s two major cities, Ms. Notley still has a higher favourability rating.

The poll also zeroes in on “defectors” – about 14 per cent of Albertans who voted for the UCP in the 2019 election but say they won’t now. Some will go to the NDP, some are undecided and some won’t vote. But they are mainly baby boomers – those age 55-74 – and Calgarians. This group says they view Ms. Smith negatively either because of her proposed sovereignty act, or her floor-crossing from the Wildrose to the Progressive Conservative party eight years ago. To me, it’s unclear whether voters actually remember that Ms. Smith switched to Jim Prentice’s PC party in December, 2014 – which she has many times acknowledged was a mistake and apologized for – or the poll question prompted them on this piece of history.

The poll also concludes “Rachel Notley was the key beneficiary of the of the UCP race.” That’s a damning problem for the UCP, as the party thought Mr. Kenney’s resignation would be a positive reset – both on the inside and amongst voters.

The online poll was conducted by Navigator’s in-house research team, Oct. 7 (the last day of polling being the day Ms. Smith was sworn-in), and directed by Carleton University quantitative analysis professor and Navigator principal André Turcotte. The survey of 1,002 Albertans aged 18 and older had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 per cent, 19 times of 20.

This was also before the Premier made a statement clarifying her comments on the most discriminated group in her lifetime being the unvaccinated, and apologizing late Tuesday for “some ill-informed comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. My knowledge and opinion of this matter have drastically evolved since that time, and I apologize for those previous comments.”

The Premier’s team isn’t convinced the Navigator poll is reflective of sentiment on the ground. And hope is certainly not lost for the UCP.

First off, the election isn’t scheduled until May and factors we can’t even imagine could shift.

Two, if expectations for Ms. Smith are low at this point, she has nowhere to go but up. That’s not said with snark – part of the problem for Mr. Kenney is expectations for him were so high, amongst conservatives and some voters, there was nowhere to go but down. In a number of the polling answers, on overall impression or trust of Ms. Smith, at least 10 per cent of respondents indicated they don’t know Ms. Smith well enough to say one way or the other. She has the potential to be surprising, and to exceed these expectations, especially as people are paying attention closer to voting day.

Ms. Smith is also building bridges where there were none. She made a point of meeting with every single UCP MLA last week. Unlike Mr. Kenney, who was viewed as aloof, Ms. Smith is creating cohesion in caucus. That hasn’t been lost on UCP MLAs who also anxiously wait to see whether they will have a spot in cabinet.

Venerable Alberta political campaigner Randy Dawson, managing principal at Navigator, released his poll to a small group at the Petroleum Club on Tuesday. Later, he said: “We quickly ascertained that this is a two-horse race and that both leaders have a path to win the next election.”

This is the electoral math, by his read. In Alberta, you need 45 of the province’s 87 seats for a majority, as you need to appoint a speaker. Mr. Dawson believes the NDP has at least 20 ridings sewn up – in “fortress Edmonton” – and the UCP has 29 in the bank. (Less than Ms. Smith said herself when she was talking to Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell, and spoke of the UCP’s “39-seat base outside Calgary and Edmonton.”)

Mr. Dawson believes there are about 38 seats up for grabs by the two political parties in the next election. Both parties have a path to victory, the poll and Mr. Dawson conclude. Right now, the road appears far more rocky for Ms. Smith and her UCP.

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