Opinion-Policy Nexus

"Springtime in Alberta" is one of my favourite Ian Tyson songs and it's proving to be somewhat prescient in light of the current election campaign.

Just like spring time in Alberta
Warm sunny days endless skies of blue
Then without a warning
Another winter storm comes raging through

Although the polls are show a remarkable lead for the Alberta NDP, something most people would have considered to be impossible just three weeks ago, many people also seem to think that another winter storm may yet blow through this campaign, just as it did in the dying days of the 2012 campaign. This time, though, it might not be the Wildrose losing its lead, but the NDP.

I won't go out on a limb to make a prediction, but I do think that the lead in the public opinion polls should be taken more seriously than most people currently are and that a change in government is possible. The graph below shows the results of each public opinion survey published in the 2012 and 2015 elections. Obviously, the NDP has a big, big lead in current public opinion surveys and it's getting bigger in the last day or two.

These results do not count for undecided voters, and that will certainly be something to watch in the next 4 days.

As people point out, the Wildrose Party had a substantial lead in 2012, and that evaporated. This is true. But it is worth pointing out that polls can differ from final vote intention for two reasons. Not to put it too bluntly, but they can get public opinion wrong or public opinion can change between the publication of poll results and the casting of ballots.

The fear with most polls these days, and particularly in this campaign, is that because they are online surveys of voluntary panel participants or automated "robo-polls," they can overestimate those who have the strongest motivation to stick around and participate. IN this case, it seems plausible to think that the polls could be overestimating opposition party support, given how long in the tooth the PC dynasty is and some of its more spectacular instances of "foot in mouth disease." Are the 2015 polls overestimating support for the NDP and underestimating support for the PCs? Maybe. But it's worth it to cast a close eye on the final data point on the 2012 graph. The field work for that poll was done the day before the election and the results were published that night. It showed more than a 10% point jump in support for the PCs and a corresponding drop for the Wildrose. And there were still another 12-24 hours until people interested in casting a ballot, did so. There are a lot of voters who tell survey researchers that they make up their mind on who to vote for the day of the election. To me it seems at least as plausible to suggest that the 2012 polls were actually accurately gauging public opinion over the course of the campaign but that many voters made a final switch at the last minute back to the PCs. Polls weren't necessarily wrong; they were just measuring decided vote intention, which, it perhaps bears emphasizing, can change once undecideds make up their mind.

The other reason that some people are hesitant to believe that the NDP could win are because it is Alberta and, in the words of Premier Prentice, "Alberta is not an NDP province". Essentially, this the belief that Albertans are fundamentally opposed to government intervention.

This argument is one of the more common ones but is it far too simple to accept and rule out an NDP victory on Tuesday. The graph below shows the difference between Alberta and Canadian public opinion on a more or less random set of questions from the Canada Election Study. For each item, I took the percentage of Canadians that selected the most liberal option and subtracted from it the percentage of Albertans that selected the same item. The y-axis shows the difference in percentage points between Canadians and Albertans selecting the most liberal option. Positive values suggest that more Albertans selected the most liberal option than Canadians; negative values suggest that more Canadians selected the most liberal option.


Two things stand out to me in this graph: First, on most of the items, the gap between Albertans and Canadians has been getting smaller. Perhaps this is a product of demographic change in Alberta, as people have flocked to the province to participate in the growing economy, perhaps not. Either way, the gaps between Albertans and Canadians don't seem to be that large. Keep in mind there is an margin of error associated with each measurement of 2-3 percentage points. There is a slight tilt toward conservatism, but it's not so dramatic that we should think an NDP win on Tuesday to be impossible. In fact, in 2008 and 2011 there were more Albertans expressing a willingness to increase personal income taxes, than in the rest of Canada. Moreover, the gap between people who strongly disagree that job creation should be solely left to the private sector has been dropping.

And if public opinion isn't convincing enough, government actions also paint a more complex picture. The PC governments that have governed Alberta have been far more flexible than their caricature suggests. In the 1970s, the Lougheed government purchased an airline and directly subsidized the nascent oil sands industry. Despite a turn to the right under Premier Klein, the government of Alberta remains the only government in Canada with a Crown corporation dedicated to retail financial operations (i.e. it owns a bank). Currently, Alberta has the highest per capita expenditures on health care , but they have the lowest taxes.

But to me, this is not the mark of an ideologically conservative population, but quite a normal one, one that wants things good things without paying for them. Up until now, the Progressive Conservatives have had the fiscal resources to provide both those for Albertans. To me, that is the bigger reason for the PCs' longevity: not any kind of deep, ideological commitment to right-wing governance in the population. And the combination of a tough recent budget that raised taxes and fees, an early election despite fixed-election legislation and frankly, a brutally, inept campaign mean that the polls should be taken seriously.

It is, in fact, springtime in Alberta.



Friday, May 1, 2015 - 11:54