Most Albertans approve of government responses to COVID-19, but 'political lens' skews our views

Albertans are pretty happy with how their governments have handled the COVID-19 pandemic so far, with some notable differences in attitudes, particularly along party lines.

UCP voters tend to favour provincial response, NDP voters more likely to approve of federal response

A majority of Albertans say they approve of the way their federal, provincial and municipal governments have handled the COVID-19 pandemic in a new poll conducted for CBC News, with the province getting the highest approval rating. (Jason Franson, Adrian Wyld, Christopher Katsarov / Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in May as the lockdown in Alberta was eased. It follows similar research conducted in March, just as the social and economic shock of COVID-19 was becoming apparent. As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. 

This is the fourth in a series of articles to come out of this research. You can find links to the previous stories at the bottom of this one. More stories are to follow.

Albertans are pretty happy with how their governments have handled the COVID-19 pandemic so far, with some notable differences in attitudes, particularly along party lines.

That's the finding in the CBC News Road Ahead 2020 poll, conducted in May through Janet Brown Opinion Research.

It shows people who support the UCP tend to be more satisfied with the provincial government's response, while those who support the provincial NDP or Liberals tend to be happier with the federal government's response.

But overall, a majority of Albertans approve of how all levels of government have handled the pandemic, according to the poll.

Pollster Janet Brown says the results show Albertans are generally feeling "magnanimous" toward the leaders steering them through this crisis, at a time when public-health officials, in particular, have been front-and-centre. She noted the poll specifically asked Albertans to rate the responses of "governments" to the pandemic, not specific governing parties or political leaders. 

In response, Albertans offered higher approval ratings for the federal, provincial and municipal governments than have been offered of individuals — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Jason Kenney and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi — in other, recent polling.

"What this says to me is people have confidence in those three levels of government," Brown says.

Still, there were some exceptions to the general satisfaction, which tended to fall primarily along party lines, but not always. 

One group, in particular, was an outlier: people who say they are "not at all stressed" by the pandemic. These folks were much more likely to disapprove of governments at every level.

But let's look at the breakdown of the numbers for the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

Federal government

Overall, 62 per cent of Albertans approve of the way the federal government has managed the pandemic, with 39 per cent saying they "somewhat" approve and 23 per cent "strongly."

That compares to 36 per cent who disapprove, 16 per cent "somewhat" and 20 per cent "strongly."

Approval was highest among people who say they would vote for the provincial NDP or Liberals, those with a post-graduate degree, women, and Edmonton residents.

But there is a lot of nuance here, in the breakdown of the numbers.

When broken down by age, gender, education level, region of the province, political support and self-reported stress level during the pandemic, most of these sub-groups offered majority support for the federal response to COVID-19. 

The exceptions were people who support the Alberta Party (53 per cent disapproval vs. 43 per cent approval), those who support the UCP (60 per cent disapproval vs. 39 per cent approval) and those who say they were "not at all" stressed by the pandemic (68 per cent disapproval vs. 25 per cent approval).

It's important to note that the margin of error in the results for these subgroups is larger than for the sample of Albertans as a whole. Brown says she didn't see too many statistically significant differences in terms of age or gender, but there were often significant differences when it comes to political support.

"This isn't surprising," she says. "We see this throughout the survey. It just seems to be this trend that we're experiencing — political polarization. Views are interpreted more and more through a political lens."

In spite of the polarization, Brown says it was remarkable to see a majority, overall, approve of the federal Liberal government's response, in a province where less than 14 per cent of voters cast their ballot for a Liberal in the last election.

The Alberta government scores even better.

Provincial government

The provincial government saw the highest level of support in the survey, with 70 per cent of Albertans approving of its pandemic response, 48 per cent "somewhat" and 22 per cent "strongly."

Approval tended to be higher among people who support the UCP, people over the age of 65, and those who live outside of Calgary and Edmonton.

Support tended to be lower among Liberal and NDP supporters.  And among people at the opposite ends of the stress spectrum: those who say they have been "very" stressed or "not at all stressed" by the pandemic.

But even then, a majority of people in all these subgroups said they approved of the provincial response.

"Obviously, UCP supporters are more supportive of the government than NDP voters," Brown said. "But even a majority of NDP voters can kind of give it over and say the government is doing a good job."

She says the political polarization may have been blunted, to a degree, by the fact that non-partisan public officials have been in the spotlight during the pandemic.

"If Deena Hinshaw is chief medical officer of health, is the response any different with [Rachel] Notley as premier?" Brown asks.

"Probably the answer to that is no."

Municipal governments

Municipal leaders are sometimes overshadowed by the higher levels of government, but overall Albertans have been impressed, too, by the people running their cities, towns and counties.

Overall, 67 per cent approved of the way their local, municipal government has managed the pandemic, 44 per cent "somewhat" and 23 per cent "strongly."

Again, even here, provincial political support tended to be the biggest driver of people's perspectives, with those who would vote Liberal or NDP among the most likely to approve of their municipal responses.

Alberta Party and UCP supporters tended to be less impressed by their municipal governments, but even then a majority of both those subgroups said they either somewhat or strongly approved.

There was also a higher level of "don't know" responses, across all groups, when asked what they thought of the municipal response to COVID-19.

None of the subgroups we've been looking at expressed a majority disapproval for the municipal response, and only one subgroup — people who were "not at all" stressed by the pandemic — expressed more disapproval (44 per cent) than approval (42 per cent).

About those unstressed people...

Beyond the political divides, you've likely noticed the other thing that tends to separate responses in all this data: stress levels.

Why would people who say they're "not at all" stressed by COVID-19 be so unhappy with the government response — at all levels — to the pandemic?

Brown has a theory.

A woman with blonde hair and glasses is smiling in front of a TV set, which shows a map of Calgary.
Janet Brown is a pollster based in Calgary. (CBC)

"Perhaps those people didn't really think the pandemic was that big of a deal," she says.

"When you tease out the data, you get the sense that maybe disapproval is being driven more by a belief that government overreacted, rather than underreacted."

That group appears clearly in the minority, though.

Brown says another takeaway from the poll, for her, was how satisfied Albertans were with the federal government's pandemic response, which centred heavily around daily televised addresses from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is not exactly a popular figure in the province.

"And again, despite that, and how nerve-wracking certain Albertans would find that … Albertans were still able to say, overall, they were happy with the way that government responded," she says.

"And that may tie back to the fact that 30 per cent of households are now collecting some sort of aid from the federal government."

The latest CBC News Road Ahead survey was conducted between May 25 and June 1, 2020, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The survey sampled 900 respondents, randomly selected from Trend Research's online panel of more than 30,000 Albertans. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender proportions in Alberta. A comparable margin of error for a study with a probabilistic sample of this size would be plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.