United Conservative Party on track to win big in Alberta, says poll

One and done. With many voters still pessimistic about the economy, Albertans look set to kick out NDP and return to conservative rule.

One and done. With many voters still pessimistic about the economy, Albertans look set to kick out NDP

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley trails UCP Leader Jason Kenney in new CBC News poll. (The Canadian Press/CBC)

A year away from Alberta's next provincial election, voters seem intent on reverting to their long history of electing conservative governments.

Fifty-three per cent of decided voters, according to the survey of 1,200 Albertans, would vote for the United Conservative Party (UCP) led by former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney. And this puts the party on course to a substantial victory.

"This kind of lead for the UCP would translate into an overwhelming majority of seats," said Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the poll for CBC News.

Decided voters in the poll are most likely to support the United Conservative Party. (Trend Research/Janet Brown Opinion Research )

The governing New Democrats, who ended more than 40 years of Progressive Conservative (PC) rule with a surprising victory in 2015, trail with just 29 per cent of support.

The centrist Alberta Party, with new leader Stephen Mandel, is in third place with 11 per cent of decided voters. Six per cent of Alberta voters support the Alberta Liberal Party.

United Right

The Wildrose Party and Progressive Conservatives united last year. As a result, the NDP faces a united right, and can't count on the same vote splitting that occurred among conservative voters in 2015.

Brown's analysis of the survey data suggests the UCP, under Kenney's leadership, is attracting most of the voters who would have voted for the PCs and Wildrose Parties over the past decade.

"People thought he was going to lose the Red Tories, or lose the extremists from the Wildrose. But it seems like he has sort of put those two parties together in one bucket and very little has splashed out of that bucket," said Brown.

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)

Historically, capturing more than half the vote in Alberta translates into massive governing majorities in a province with a long history of re-electing conservative governments. In 2008, the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Ed Stelmach won 72 of the Legislative Assembly's 83 seats with 53 per cent of the vote. The NDP captured 53 of the legislature's 85 seats three years ago with 40.5 per cent of the vote.

A note on method

The response rate to CBC's poll was a whopping 20.8 per cent. In this age of cellphones — and people who don't answer calls from unknown numbers — most live-operator telephone surveys average a response rate of 10 per cent.

The 1,200 people who responded to the poll were randomly contacted by an interviewer working for Edmonton-based Trend Research. People were not contacted using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) computer technology, commonly known as robocalls. People who participated in the poll spoke to a real human. They were given the option of answering the survey over telephone at that time, answering over the telephone at a more convenient time, or receiving a link and answering the survey online.

And people really took their time thoughtfully answering our questions — on average 16 minutes!

Melanee Thomas, who teaches political science research methods at the University of Calgary, acted as an advisor for this study.

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor in political science at the University of Calgary. (CBC)

"Deeply skeptical" of many polls in the news media, Thomas called CBC's mixed-method political study rigorous.

"Because I think most of the polls that people get access to are crap," said Thomas, "I wanted to be a part of something where we actually did it right so that we could actually show how it's suppose to be done properly — but also give people real, reliable information that they can use to interpret politics right now."

It depends where you live

The UCP's support is most concentrated in rural Alberta, a part of the province where most of the party's MLAs come from.

Sixty-three per cent of voters outside of Alberta's two major cities say they intend to vote for the UCP.

(Source: Trend Research / Janet Brown Opinion Research )

In Calgary, headquarters of much of the country's energy sector, the UCP is polling at 58 per cent.

In the provincial capital, the UCP trails the governing NDP with 38 per cent support. Support for the governing New Democrats is highest in Edmonton with 39 per cent of voters.

The government is less popular in Calgary with just 27 per cent of support among decided voters. Outside of the province's two big cities, only two in 10 people (20 per cent) plan to vote NDP.

While the recession officially ended in 2016, its lingering effects continue to permeate the province's political consciousness.

It's the economy

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of Albertans who think the economy is getting worse say they intend to vote for the UCP.

Fifty-three per cent of Albertans, according to the poll, believe the UCP is best able to defend the province's economic interests. Only 23 per cent think the governing NDP would do a better job.

"The NDP is fighting an uphill battle," said data scientist John Santos, who works with Brown. "They could do everything right, they could have a miracle, have the economy recover, and people still wouldn't attribute it to them because they don't own the issue."

Data scientist John Santos says the NDP is fighting an "uphill battle" on the economy because they don't own the issue. (John Santos )

In focus groups CBC conducted after the survey found that most people — from all political stripes — said the NDP wasn't to blame for Alberta's tough economic times, but that the party wasn't doing enough to dig the province out.

Yet, there was praise for Premier Rachel Notley.

"There's not too many politicians that could have navigated what she's had to," said 44-year-old Kelly Kernick, who participated in CBC News's focus group of middle-of-the-road voters.

Right-leaning Tristan Arsenault, 22, echoed others in the focus groups, saying the recent recession hit people hard and many still aren't feeling the recovery.

"Nothing has really transpired to help with the pipelines, to help to help Alberta's economy," said Arsenault.

CBC News focus group participant Tristan Arsenault, 22, explains why the economy is motivating so many Alberta voters. (Bryan Labby / CBC)

"Even though most of the structural issues in Alberta politics are long-standing and not of the NDP's creation, it doesn't matter," said Thomas.

"The people who are dissatisfied with … the economy in general are just voting against the incumbent," she added.

But the governing NDP does have areas of support.

Areas of NDP Support

The party is most popular among public sector and unionized workers.

And 54 per cent of people with a post-graduate education support the NDP.

As well, people who feel the economy is recovering are also more likely to vote NDP.

And New Democrats are likely to attract some Albertans who vote based on social issues.

The NDP often criticizes the UCP — and Kenney, in particular — about health care and education issues, as well as abortion and Gay Straight Alliances in schools.

Calling social issues a "deal breaker," 43-year-old Tamra Keller, who participated in the focus group of left-leaning voters, said "social issues are what's going to decide" her vote in the coming election.

CBC News focus group participant Tamara Keller, 43, supports spending on social programs such as health and education. (Brooks DeCillia/CBC)

Keller says she's open to hearing how every party plans to handle thorny social issues.

"I do think that the measure of society is how we treat our most vulnerable."

While some remain open, the CBC poll suggests many Albertans have already made up their mind about how they'll vote.

More bad news for the NDP

The CBC News poll is, of course, just a snapshot in time.

The election is a year away. A lot can happen in that time.

The Progressive Conservatives under Jim Prentice led in the polls months before the NDP ended Alberta's 44-year-old Tory dynasty in 2015.

But 51 per cent of Alberta voters say their vote is firm — and 30 per cent said they are somewhat firm.

In addition, the polls suggests people who voted NDP in 2015 may be parking their vote with other parties.

"The Alberta Party and the Liberals are splitting the centrist vote," said Thomas.

That, too, could hurt the NDP in the next election.

CBC News' random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 13 to April 5, 2018 by Edmonton-based 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.

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Brooks De Cillia

CBC journalist

Brooks DeCillia is a longtime journalist. He was a national reporter with CBC News for a decade. He can be reached at: