With the Alberta New Democrats surging in the polls, the dynamics of the provincial election that culminates in a vote on May 5 are very different from those of the 2012 campaign — not to mention every election in Alberta that came before it.
When we last checked in on the polls in Alberta shortly after the campaign kicked off, the race was a real three-headed contest between Wildrose, the incumbent Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats. But with significant gains by the NDP and a stumble by the PCs, the governing Tories are no longer looking so competitive.
The NDP is now leading in ThreeHundredEight.com's vote projection with 35 per cent, a gain of nine points since April 9. Wildrose has picked up two points, but has dropped into second with 32 per cent. The PCs have fallen three points to 25 per cent, while the Liberals have plummeted eight points to just 5 per cent support.
Whereas the previous seat projection pointed to a toss-up between Wildrose and the PCs, the coin flip is now between the NDP and Wildrose. Based on current support levels, Rachel Notley's New Democrats could win between 26 and 45 seats, with Brian Jean's Wildrose taking between 25 and 42. Jim Prentice's PCs could be reduced to between five and 31 seats (as the incumbent government, the party would be much more likely to end up at the higher end of the scale). This all points to a likely minority government if these trends hold.
The PCs' regional squeeze
Wildrose has been treading water since the campaign began, taking just a small step back in the cities but widening its lead in the rest of the province. They are projected to be at 42 per cent outside of Calgary and Edmonton, up seven points. The NDP trails in second with 28 per cent (up eight points), while the PCs are in third with an estimated 26 per cent (down two points).
The New Democrats are making inroads throughout Alberta, nowhere more so than in Edmonton. The party leads there with 59 per cent of the vote, up 17 points since the projection of April 9. The Tories are down three points to 21 per cent, while Wildrose is down four points to 13 per cent.
For the Progressive Conservatives, this is a big problem. The party remains competitive in Calgary, with 30 per cent support (up one point) versus 31 per cent for Wildrose (down two points) and 28 per cent for the NDP (up nine points). But with the New Democrats dominating Edmonton and Wildrose moving forward outside the two main cities, the PCs are being squeezed out of a lot of seats. Even in Calgary, a string of riding-level polls suggest the Tories are not as strong as they could be.
This puts Prentice in a vulnerable position. If the vote splits unfavourably for the Tories in Calgary, the party could easily find itself drummed out of Edmonton and southern Alberta and losing a lot of seats in Calgary and northern Alberta by narrow margins.
We're not in 2012 anymore
Of course, this is all based on the premise that the polls are accurately gauging the state of the race in Alberta. With the 2012 debacle still in everyone's mind, that is a risky proposition. No wonder, then, that many Albertans think the PCs will still win.
While voters will have the final word on the accuracy of the polls, there is good reason to doubt that the same phenomenon that saved Alison Redford in 2012 will work in Prentice's favour in 2015.
Only two parties, Redford's PCs and Danielle Smith's Wildrose, were in the running in the last election. And with both parties being adjacent to one another on the political spectrum, a swing from Wildrose to the Tories in the final days was hardly unimaginable. The PCs may have also benefited from Liberal voters moving over to support a centrist like Redford to block a right-wing Wildrose government.
But those dynamics are no longer at play. There are now three parties in the running, and their supporters do not so easily move from one party to another. If there is a shift in the final days to block one party, it is not so clear that the move would occur all in the same direction as it did in 2012. In many parts of the province, the NDP has become a better option to block Wildrose than the PCs. Similarly, any move to block the NDP might go to Wildrose rather than the Tories.
With voters having uncoupled themselves from the parties for which they have traditionally voted, and with the number of undecided voters still high, there is a lot of potential for important shifts in voting intentions between now and May 5.
But past performance does not guarantee future results. If Jim Prentice is to ensure that the PC dynasty survives, he will have to do more than hope the polls are wrong.
ThreeHundredEight.com's vote projection model aggregates all publicly released polls, weighing them by sample size, date and the polling firm's accuracy record. The projections are subject to the margins of error of the opinion polls included in the model, as well as the unpredictable nature of politics at the riding level. The polls included in the model vary in size, date and method, and have not been individually verified by the CBC. You can read the full methodology here.