Kenney's UCP bleeding support to Notley's NDP as Opposition support nears 40%, poll suggests

Jason Kenney’s governing United Conservative Party has lost support to the Opposition NDP for the first time in its brief history, a poll released Thursday suggests.

2023 provincial election could look more like 2015 than 2019, researchers say

Then premier-designate Jason Kenney and NDP Leader Premier Rachel Notley pose for media outside of Government House in April 2019, before meeting to discuss the transition of power. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

Jason Kenney's governing United Conservative Party has lost support to the opposition NDP for the first time in its brief history, a poll released Thursday suggests. 

In its latest Viewpoint Alberta survey, researchers with the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan's Common Ground project found that for the first time since the party's founding three years ago, UCP support has swung significantly and directly to the NDP.

The poll pegs the NDP at 39.1 per cent support — a level of popularity not seen since the 2015 provincial election — compared with 29.8 per cent for the UCP.

The Liberals are at six per cent, the Alberta Party at five per cent and the Wildrose Independence Party at four per cent.

"Given the polarized nature of Alberta politics and the historic gulf between the two parties, this UCP-to-NDP shift is both noteworthy and deserving of explanation," Common Ground said in its report.

Jared Wesley, with the Common Ground project, says the shift could be a response to the province's pandemic response.

"For the first time since we've been polling, we've seen UCP supporters shifting over to vote New Democrat which is akin to crossing the rubicon for those of us that have followed Alberta politics for a while," Wesley said. "We haven't seen this kind of fluidity really since 2015 which is what make this latest set of surveys so interesting."

The UCP's decline and the NDP's upswing seem to have occurred in stages, the researchers say.

The figures correspond to respondents’ answers to the question: “If an Alberta provincial election was held today, which party would you vote for?” (Common Ground)

UCP support fell sharply in the first year of its government, and slowed during the first wave of the pandemic. Those losses tended to correspond with gains by smaller parties, particularly the Wildrose Independence Party (WIP).

But during the second wave of the pandemic, support for the NDP rose dramatically from 26.6 per cent in August 2020 to 39.1 in March 2021.

And since last summer, support for the WIP has stayed flat, while the Liberals lost four points and the Alberta Party lost one point. 

"This sudden shift suggests that the changes in public health restrictions and #AlohaGate scandal may have had a significant and lasting impact on support levels in the province," the report said. 

The researchers believe that Kenney's handling of the controversy over his colleagues' Christmas travel "were a focusing event, if not turning point, in terms of the party's fortunes."

A hefty 72 per cent of NDP voters and 55 per cent of Wildrose voters said it made them "less confident," compared with 47 per cent of respondents who had intentions to vote UCP.

The poll's examination of voter retention suggests that, while the New Democrats would retain 92 percent of their 2019 voters if an election were held today, more than a third of UCP voters would choose another party in 2021.

The poll found that most of these defections — eight per cent — would benefit the NDP, while the Wildrose Independence Party would get seven per cent and the Alberta Party six per cent. 

The Liberal Party and Alberta Party would each lose up to 40 per cent of their 2019 voting base, with most fleeing to the NDP, the survey found.

Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams says even though it's not an election year, winning back voters will be an uphill battle, as well as convincing Albertans the government can act on jobs and the economy.

"It's a very tall order to win that trust back," Williams said. "It's going to come down to in the next election which party people think has the best chance of contending or responding to the challenges we face as Albertans." 

UCP losing women voters

Looking at the demographics of the shifts in voter intention, the researchers say women were the first to abandon the UCP in large numbers.

The party went from enjoying 42 per cent of women's vote intentions in November 2019 to 30 per cent in August 2020.

Support among men for the UCP also dropped during the first wave of the pandemic, but only about half as much as among women, the pollsters found.

The UCP lost another five percentage points among men between August 2020 and March 2021, landing at 30 per cent. 

But it wasn't until the second wave of the pandemic that the NDP benefited from these gender shifts, when its levels of support among women rose 15 points and 10 points among men.

Key issues

Survey participants were also asked what they considered the most important issue for the province.

The UCP is the preferred party of more people who cited the economy as their top priority, however the party's dominance on that front shows signs of weakening.

Among Albertans who prioritize the economy, the poll found that 26 per cent now say the NDP best suits them on that issue. That's up nine points since August 2020, but remains 12 points behind the UCP.

Among people who cite the environment as their top issue, more than 78 per cent say the NDP is their preferred party.

On that issue, the UCP failed to even register.

"Of people who prioritize healthcare, civil rights, and education, the NDP remains the party of choice," the report said.

The figures in the graph correspond to respondents’ answers to the questions: “If an Alberta provincial election was held today, which party would you vote for?” and “What is the SINGLE most important issue to you personally in Alberta PROVINCIAL politics?” (Common Ground)

Voter intention by location

The poll also examined voter intention by geographic region.

It found that the UCP has lost support in all regions except the south where it grew by six points. In that part of the province the conservative vote seems to be moving back to Kenney's party, away from the Wildrose Independence Party (WIP). 

The UCP's biggest losses appear to be in the north, where the poll suggests support is down 23 points. 

Suburban support for the UCP dropped from 46 to 36 per cent between November 2019 and August 2020, then to 32 per cent in March 2021.

By contrast, vote intentions for the NDP have grown in Calgary by 11 percentage points, the north by 31 points and the south by 17 points.

After losing some rural and urban support during the first wave of the pandemic, the NDP picked up 17 points among both rural and urban voters by March 2021.

The NDP's popularity among suburban voters increased more steadily over time, reaching 36 per cent by this month.

"Our findings suggest the NDP is consolidating the progressive vote throughout most of the province," said the report. 

The researchers say with an election still a few years away, findings are far from a definitive prediction of who will form the next provincial government.

"If the NDP is able to maintain this momentum, and the UCP is unable to reverse its decline, the 2023 provincial election campaign could look more like 2015 than 2019," the report said. 

The Viewpoint Alberta Survey was conducted between March 1 to 8, 2021. Leger co-ordinated the survey with an online panel system that targets registered panelists that meet demographic criteria for the survey. Survey data is based on 802 responses with a 17-minute average completion time.

For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

with files from Helen Pike