The politics of personality in Alberta — how Notley and Kenney help and hurt their parties

The reasons why some Albertans say they may like a politician but don't plan to vote for them. And why they might vote for someone they're not sure they like.

The party vs. the party leader

A CBC News poll found Jason Kenney to be the most popular political leader in Alberta, although his UCP is more popular. Premier Rachel Notley is more popular than her NDP. (CBC)


It's not often you hear conservative-minded voters praising the leader of an NDP government.

"Genuine," "earnest" and "hard-working." Those were some of the words they used to describe Alberta Premier Rachel Notley during a series of focus groups for CBC News.

But those same people say they won't be voting for Rachel Notley's NDP.

A CBC News poll of 1,200 people, which was followed up by focus groups, shows some voters appear set to vote for a leader they don't necessarily like in the next provincial election, which must be held on or before May 31, 2019.

There is a disparity between popularity of the party leaders — Rachel Notley of the NDP, and Jason Kenney of the United Conservative Party — and the popularity of the parties themselves.

Notley more popular than party

Notley is more popular than her party — while Kenney is not as popular as the UCP.

But the poll gives Jason Kenney an edge as the most popular party leader in Alberta.  

The poll also indicates that in Alberta now, for voters it's more about which party is best suited to get the economy fired up and pipelines built. And the UCP is on track to take over the reins of power — if an election were held today.

Four of the people who took part in a series of focus groups for CBC News. Clockwise from top left, Don Rausch, Tristan Arsenault, Stephen Carlton and Kelly Kernick. (CBC)

"He's [Kenney's] got a better chance of getting things done," said Don Rausch, a traditional conservative voter who took part in one of three focus groups for CBC News.

"We're hedging our bets," added Stephen Carlton, another conservative.  While Carlton described Notley as being likable and believable, he says there's a good chance he'll vote for Kenney, because Notley hasn't achieved enough on the economy or pipelines.

"Has Kenney done anything? No, but there's hope he can do it," he said.

Conservative-minded voters in CBC's focus group believed Kenney is more capable to get things done and has a lot of experience as a federal cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's government.

For all this to make sense, we need to look at the numbers. Check out this chart.  We asked people how impressed they were with the party leaders, including Notley and Kenney as well as the Alberta Party's Stephen Mandel and the Liberal Party's David Khan.

Thirty-six per cent of those asked said they were impressed with Kenney, making him the most popular leader. Thirty-two per cent of those said they were impressed with Notley. But look at the numbers when participants were asked, "How closely do the policies of each of the following provincial political parties match your own personal views?"

More people align with the UCP than its leader, while the opposite is true for the NDP. The poll shows 26 per cent of respondents said the NDP's policies very closely match their values, while 32 per cent said they are impressed by Notley.

"Jason Kenney is pulling down the party, whereas Rachel Notley is pulling up her party," said John Santos, who performed data analysis for the CBC News poll.

"Normally we vote based on the leader. I don't think that's necessarily the case" now, said Mount Royal University's Duane Bratt.

Maybe Alberta needs an SOB

Bratt says there are voters who may not personally like Kenney, but will still vote for him.

"It doesn't matter, because they agree with him on the economy … what they don't like is Rachel Notley on the economy and Rachel Notley on pipelines," said Bratt.​ 

"Likewise on the Jason Kenney side, maybe we don't like this guy, maybe we actually think Jason Kenney is a son of a bitch, but maybe that's exactly what we need right now," said Bratt. "To tell Ottawa what's what, and to get a pipeline through and to make the tough decisions around spending to balance the budget, maybe that's exactly what we need."

Those most likely to say they were impressed with Kenney are in Calgary (43 per cent) and rural areas (44 per cent) and those who have a high school education or less (44 per cent).

Those most likely to say they were impressed with Notley have a post-graduate education (59 per cent), live in Edmonton (41 per cent) and those who have not always or mostly lived in Alberta (37 per cent).

Tough circumstances

Kelly Kernick, who sits in the centre of the political spectrum, is somewhat sympathetic to Notley — saying she had to navigate through some very tough economic circumstances — but he's not prepared to give her a support.

"Unfortunately the economy hasn't improved," he said. "If the economy improved, I think it would be different feelings, but it hasn't. Whether it's her fault or not, I don't know, but I don't think she's done enough to change people's opinion of the NDP."

"Jason Kenney at this moment has the clearest path to winning," said Duane Bratt, who teaches politics at Mount Royal University.

"This may be one of those cases where campaigns simply don't matter," said Bratt.

"The die is cast before we go in," he said, as it appears four of five voters have already made up their minds.

Duane Bratt is a political science professor at Mount Royal University. He says the majority of Albertans appear set to elect someone who is not necessarily all that popular because the number one issue in the province is the economy. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

Jason Kenney and the UCP are currently getting 53 per cent of decided voters, and the NDP are getting 29 per cent. Then you have to factor in the firmness of vote.

Of those asked, 81 per cent said their votes were either very firm or somewhat firm; 14 per cent said their votes were not very firm or not at all firm; five per cent either didn't know, weren't sure or didn't answer.

Among UCP supporters, 92 per cent described their voting intentions as either very firm or somewhat firm.

"It's unusual to see this sort of firmness, but it also speaks to the nature of Alberta right now. Albertans have been hurting badly, and who do you blame in times of a bad economy? You blame the government," said Bratt.

"The biggest problem is that it's all been talk and there hasn't been any action," said conservative Don Rausch, who took part in one of our focus groups.

"That's the only way to get things done, get the economy back on track," said Rob Marsh, 65, a full-time electrician.

The No. 1 issue

They believe the economy has stagnated, has been too slow to recover and there's no plan to reduce our reliance on oil and gas revenues and diversify the economy.

And they blame the NDP and Rachel Notley.

The majority of those who were asked say the UCP is best able to defend Alberta's economic interests, manage the province's finances, strengthen the economy, get pipelines built and help families.

Pollster Janet Brown, who oversaw the research, said the poll identified the economy and pipelines as the top issues — and that's what votes are transfixed on — economic recovery and getting resources to market.

"The economy is the No. 1 issue. So, if you're torn between, you know one party represents my social values and one party matches my economic values, in this economy and in this environment you're going to go with your economic values," said Brown.

While most of those who were asked say the UCP is most able to handle economic issues, the survey also revealed the NDP has lost an edge on two of its key planks; health and education.

Thirty-five per cent of people who were asked said the UCP is best able to handle health care compared with 30 per cent for the NDP. On education, 34 per cent favour UCP, compared with 32 per cent for the NDP.

Bratt says it's a devastating blow for a party that is expected to own those two issues.

"The NDP don't need a lead in those areas. They need an overwhelming lead in those areas, so based on this data it would take a lot for Jason Kenney not to become the next premier of the province."

Of course the next election is still a year out — and a lot can happen between now and May 2019.


The random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 13 to April 5, 2018 by Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age, and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online.

Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, comprised of half landlines and half cell phone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialed up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e., residential and personal) was 20.8 per cent.


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About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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