Another day on the Alberta election trail, another poll suggesting the province's natural governing party is in big trouble.
This may go down as one of the strangest elections in the province's history. After being ruled by the Progressive Conservatives for more than 43 years, we are now seeing polls that put the New Democrats in a statistical tie with the province's right-wing option, Wildrose. The same Wildrose many had given up for dead last fall when its leader and 10 others defected to the Tories.
Most who follow politics have become rightly suspicious of mid-campaign polls, so spectacularly wrong have they been in recent years. One of the most egregious flameouts by these polling firms was in the last Alberta election, when virtually every opinion survey from the opening of the campaign showed the Wildrose on the road to victory. And then the PCs were returned with an even bigger majority.
What the recent polls here don't tell you is who they're reaching. Will the people these firms are talking to actually vote on election day? In the last B.C. election, polls from the beginning to the end of the campaign had the New Democrats cruising to an easy victory. What the polling companies didn't appear to factor in was that most of the 18-25 year olds who said they were going to vote NDP didn't end up casting a ballot. Sadly, it's just not something 20-somethings are inclined to do in this country.
Back in Alberta, the polls have consistently shown a high undecided number. It's not uncommon for a vast swath of the electorate to make up their mind in the last 24 to 48 hours of the campaign. Some people don't decide until they step behind the ballot box. Voter turnout in this election is expected to be exceedingly low. Who does that favour? No one knows for sure.
All that said, there is little question something is going on here that has Jim Prentice and his Progressive Conservatives rattled and concerned. Don't let them try and tell you anything differently.
The NDP ascendancy is real. The latest poll shows them with 51 per cent support among committed voters in Edmonton, which is the historical heartland of the party in Alberta. Rejuvenated under the charismatic leadership of Rachel Notley, the Dippers have a real shot at winning a majority of the 19 seats up for grabs in the capital.
Edmonton is a town of civil servants, the same ones Mr. Prentice says have been living too high off the hog and need to have their pay grades brought down a few notches. This is also the same political constituency, interestingly enough, that helped the PCs defeat Wildrose in 2012 – now the Tories seem to have alienated them completely.
Meantime, small 'c' conservatives in the province weren't impressed with the provincial budget, which increased taxes, increased debt, and backed off the deep program cuts the government had been foreshadowing. Nor were they impressed with the Tories' involvement in the mass defection of Wildrosers. One senses that many people believe it's time the province's long-standing government is taught a lesson, both for its unbridled arrogance and years of fiscal mismanagement.
Through his actions, Mr. Prentice has created huge problems for himself on both ends of the political spectrum. "He's boxed himself in," observes Mount Royal University's David Taras.
Consequently, Mr. Prentice has spent virtually every day on the campaign trail fending off attacks from his two main rivals. If it's not the NDP railing on about unacceptable hospital wait times and the decision to raise taxes for everyone but corporations, it's Wildrose criticizing the Tories for continuing to allow debt to balloon while not shrinking the size of government enough.
The opposition has done a good job of keeping Mr. Prentice on the defensive, at the same time ensuring the Premier doesn't establish any momentum of his own. Instead, he has been forced to make new promises – no raises for public servants until the budget is balanced – that appear to be a direct response to Wildrose encroachments into their conservative voter base.
No one knows where this will all finally end up. But Mr. Taras, a political scientist who has observed elections here since 1986 believes something is afoot. "There's anger searching for a place to go. Right now Jim Prentice is not looking like a symbol of change."