Alberta Politics Explodes

Welcome to Wildrose country
Welcome to Wildrose country

A month ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek Alberta political primer about Jim Prentice’s inevitable march to a landslide election victory.

So how’s that working out for him?

The Mainstreet Technologies automated phone survey of 3,121 Alberta voters conducted on April 13 shows the Wildrose and NDP in a statistical tie for first place at 31 per cent and 30 per cent support among decided voters, respectively.

The Tories are in third place with 24 per cent, while the Liberals come in at 10 per cent, and the Alberta Party at five per cent in the survey.

I guess that shows why you should never listen to the musings of someone living in Ontario about Alberta politics.

In my defense, when Brian Jean launched his Wildrose leadership bid on February 25th, he didn’t even pretend he had a chance:

“Bluntly, I don’t think it’s one we can win at this stage. It is a rebuilding one but we need in Alberta a strong, solid opposition that can keep the government to account,” Jean, a 52-year-old lawyer and businessman, said with a number of Wildrose candidates standing behind him.

One assumes Jim Prentice felt the same way, or he wouldn’t have broken Alberta’s fixed election date law in his eagerness to go to the polls.

So what on earth happened? How is it that the PCs are now bleeding on both sides?

The orange wave is easier to explain. Here’s the combined Liberal/NDP vote share for the last 6 elections:

2012: 20%
2008: 35%
2004: 40%
2001: 35%
1997: 42%
1993: 51%

Despite the caricature of Alberta as a conservative hegemony, the left regularly collects over a third of the vote. Liberal and NDP voters rallied to Alison Redford to stop the Wildrose last election, but there’s likely a lot of buyers remorse on that front. Prentice has done little for progressive Albertans since taking power, and by showing a deaf ear on the issue of Gay-Straight alliances, he essentially ripped up the “Wildrose are scary bigots” card that Redford played to perfection three years ago. With progressives abandoning the PCs, it’s understandable they would gravitate to the NDP – they have a strong leader in Rachel Notley, while the provincial Liberals are in complete disarray.

The dynamics on the right are more difficult to understand.

The Wildrose looked like a smoldering ruin after Danielle Smith’s defection this fall. They’ve still got money in the bank, and a new leader – but Brian Jean was an unimpressive backbencher, and he’s had little time to introduce himself to voters. With all due respect to Jean, it’s safe to say he’s not responsible for the Wildrose resurgence. Rather, this appears to be driven by anger over a bad news budget that pleased no one.

Given many pollsters wrote PC obituaries three years ago, I haven’t talked to a single person who believes Prentice will lose. The common wisdom is that once Albertans blow off steam over the budget, they’re going to realize they’re electing a government, and neither the Wildrose nor the NDP were even pretending to be ready for government a few weeks ago.

Danielle Smith was someone who sounded like she could run the province. Brian Jean? Not so much. Smith must sob every time a new poll comes out.

But Prentice is now fighting a war on two fronts, with 44 years of baggage on his shoulders and the low price of oil pulling him down. If the last month has taught us anything, it’s that we’d be foolish to make any predictions about how this one will turn out.

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10 responses to “Alberta Politics Explodes”

  1. I am also skeptical that either the WRP or NDP can win although there seems to be a lot of anger and accidents can happen. The NDP won in Ontario in 1990 largely due to a protest vote against an early election call, so surprises do happen, but we shall see. The main thing the PC’s have going for them is their vote is not heavily concentrated in one areas (WRP Rural Alberta, NDP in Edmonton) as well as sitting in between the two parties if one pulls ahead they can scare the other side to vote strategically. Still unlike most Alberta elections, the result is not a sure thing. Also if Jim Prentice doesn’t win a majority, he can pretty much kiss goodbye ever being Canadian PM. By contrast if he wins and turns things around that might work in his favour of someday being Conservative leader federally.

    • In this case, I’m not sure their vote not being heavily concentrated is actually a big help, what with the NDP being concentrated in urban areas and Wildrose in rural areas. That means the PCs’ vote share is stretched throughout the province, while its rivals are both crowding their vote in smaller areas. You can end up with a situation like when the BQ vote was all concentrated in Quebec and won huge numbers of seats, while the NDP/Greens achieved far worse results with similar percentages of the national vote.

  2. “Liberal and NDP voters rallied to Alison Redford to stop the Wildrose last election, but there’s likely a lot of buyers remorse on that front.”

    As one of those I can attest to the buyers remorse… I vote Tory once in my life and it turns out to be the only time I’ve ever regretted my vote. So yeah, I’m not doing that again. Frankly, I think we might be seeing the end of the Alberta Liberal Party.

    • Wouldn’t it be delicious if we’re entering a period of unified centre-left government (under the NDP banner) in Alberta, with a fractured opposition on the right? Oh how suddenly things can reverse themselves.

  3. @Monkey

    The Wild Rose vote is far more concentrated than that actually. It not just rural. The Wild Rose is far stronger in Southern Alberta but their support in Central and Northern Alberta is much weaker. The support in Southern Alberta is some what skewing the overall numbers in Rural Alberta making it seem like they have an overwhelming lead.

    Outside of Edmonton and the Southern Alberta, the race looks more like the race in Calgary. A three way race between the PCs, NDP and Wild Rose.

  4. I wonder to what extent there is a general federal-provincial whack-a-mole problem for parties in Canadian politics.

    When a party does well federally, its provincial counterparts can lose their ability to blame Ottawa (obviously that varies – the Quebec/BC Liberals and Newfoundland PC’s are pretty separate from their federal equivalent).

    But more importantly, a successful federal party is kinda like a vacuum for talent and vitality. If you’re a smart young conservative (or even just a careerist), the federal conservatives don’t seem to be such a bad bet.

    When you look at Alberta elections, the PC’s have tended to have the most trouble when the Conservatives are in power. Don Getty’s Tories consistently lost seats every election and while Ralph Klein reinvented the Alberta PC’s and ultimately won, he had trailed Decor. And of course the PC’s had a rough patch more recently – defying death in 2012 and possibly losing power this time.

    You’ve got evidence of a similar trend in Ontario, at least since WWII. The tendency is to talk about the incompetence of the pre-Mulroney Federal PC’s and the efficiency of the Ontario “big blue machine” as if the two were independent of one another, but I think that’s a mistake.

    • That’s been talked about a lot in the context of Ontario, but I’ve never heard it mused about in Alberta before. It’s an interesting theory. Mind you, the Alberta PCs aren’t exactly starved for money or strong candidates – Prentice has still managed to recruit the former Edmonton Mayor, former Calgary police chief, etc.

      It’s certainly true that Prentice can’t very well blame Ottawa given his background. Hard to say if that’s a route another Premier or an NDP gov would have gone.

  5. What about the prospect of a minority government? The punditocracy has been tossing that notion about for the past few days — do you not think it could happen?

    Personally, I would not put a lot of stock in the idea that Albertans will calm down, and once again hold their noses and vote PC. Those who did last time have already been burned once…

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