Is Alberta Becoming a Two-Party Province?

The Angus Reid Institute recently conducted a survey on Alberta voter intentions.   The result shows there is a statistical tie between the UCP (48%) and NDP (44%) of leaning and decided voters in Alberta as of early December. 

This data is still six months away from the next general election. So while it is interesting, in many ways, it is not conclusive about what might actually happen in the  May 2023 General Election.  Still, there are some interesting insights to be gleaned that are more useful than the headline- garnering horse race numbers.  

ALBERTA SEPARATISTS ARE BEHIND SMITH – BIG TIME!

Not surprising is the 10 point increase in UCP support between Kenney’s reign and Smith’s regime.  New leaders usually get a “bounce” in support, mostly because of the media attention to the campaigns.

Smith did get a 10 point bounce in support but the reasons are more than media attention. Her increased support is because the separatist Wildrose Independence Party got behind Smith.  They have given Smith the benefit of the doubt and see her as at least separatist sympathetic.  Which she is: just look at her adoption of the Free Alberta strategy that calls for separation, and is foundational to her major policy promise of the Sovereignty Act.

Ever since Smith squeezed out a UCP leadership win based on her Alberta First, anti-Trudeau attitudes and her promise that, once selected, as Premier she would pass into law her separatist-oriented and questionably constitutional Sovereignty Act.   

She has delivered for the separatists, sort of, likely enough to appease them for now. 

Many of these hard-right radicals and extremists, so-called Wexiteers, were behind the dump Kenney movement.  They viewed Kenney as too much of a federalist from his decade in the federal system, not sufficiently anti-Trudeau and nothing close to an Alberta Separatist. 

That separatist shift to Smith was enough to wipe out the Wildrose Independence Party support, falling from 11% under Kenney to 1% with Smith in control. That 10 point separatist bump of decided and leaning voters all went to Smith.  They are embedded in her base now.

BACK TO THE HORSE RACE.

Those aggregated numbers don’t really tell us much other than May 2023 looks like a two-horse race.  I expect voters, decided and leaning, will be driven by polarized choices between the two party leaders more than ballot box questions driven by issues.  

The aggregated support numbers on the legacy parties don’t tell much of a true story.  Aggregated data, like averages, often hide more than they reveal about reality and results.

I say that because the distribution of those voters around the province  makes a big difference in how many seats are won.   The NDP are assumed to dominate Edmonton with 50% vs 43% for the UCP. The UCP has only one very vulnerable seat in Edmonton.

It is not unreasonable to expect the NDP to sweep the capital city with wide margins of victory. So Edmonton voters can expect to be mostly ignored and see very few relevant policy promises in the 2023 election.

BATTLE GROUND CALGARY

The conventional political calculation, to become government in Alberta,  is you need to win in two of Edmonton, Calgary, ands the rest of the Province.  All three areas of the province very different. Based on the voter volatility, the inflation uncertainty, the economic instability, and the ambiguity in how to understand and fix heal care, it is no easy calculation to predict what will happen on election day 2023.

According to poll,ing, the NDP is perceived to be marginally more powerful  in Calgary, than Edmonton.  The decided and leaning voters in Calgary split 51% vs 40% in favor of the NDP over the UCP.  Depending on how concentrated and efficient the NDP vote is in Calgary, they stand to win many more than the 3 Calgary seats they now hold.  Could the NDP become government with a dominant Edmonton support and improved Calgary outcomes.  Could the UCP remain in government with strong rural support and a enough Calgarians who would vote against the NDP out of fear? 

THE RURAL REST OF ALBERTA

As for the “Rest of Alberta,” the UCP dominated with 59% support compared to the 30% for the NDP.  There may be a wrinkle in the Rest of Alberta analysis.  Have the mid-sized cities evolved into seeing themselves and their issues as more aligned with urban perspective than a “rural” identity.  I suggest many of Alberta’s mid-sized cities identify more as urban than rural now. Will that perception distinguish them enough from the County-based rural mindsets to vote more progressive or moderate?  Could they be the vangards of Pluralism as a better option than the binary Left or Right choices they have now?  Could that result in a rise in support of progressive or third-party candidates regardless of the partylabel?  Look to Lethbridge as an example where they have elected NDP  and even Liberal MLAs in the past. 

SO WHAT’S THE UPSHOT?

So Smith could dominate the truly rural seats with a voter support efficiency that could be two-times the NDP support.  Rural Alberta will show up because of fear, anger and anti-Trudeau sentiments fomented by Smith. But, judging by the slim margin of the Smith UCP leadership win,  there are a lot of rural UCP voters who are not all that impressed with Smith as leader.   Will they stay home or park their vote elsewhere?

 Then what if Smith loses a large number of the UCP Calgary seats to the NDP, but with small margins? The 11% margin of NDP support in Calgary needs to show up and in winnable ridings to make a difference.  The UCP has a big political machine in Calgary and that means they can  get out their vote, but will the remorseful and reluctant UCP voters show up? 

 Will there likely be fewer Edmonton voters overall too.  That is because of the perception that the NDP has a lock on the city, so why bother to vote? That is a problem for the NDP but not one that will lose them the election.  What if a significant Edmonton non-partisan progressive and moderate voters want to send a message about the broken political system?  Might they park their votes with a third-party alternative like the Alberta Party?

What if the UCP Edmonton support stays home because they presume an NDP sweep? What if prior UCP supporters, who are not very enamored with Smith, slos decide to send the system a message and park thier vote with the right-of centre Alberta Party this time?  Again that will not lose the election for the UCP but it will raise eyebrows about the future of the party. 

So here is a scenario to consider.  There are potentially big turnouts and large margin UCP rural seat wins.  There is potential for slim NDP wins in Calgary that result in significant UCP seat losses.  There is total domination by the NDP, but a tepid turnout from an indifferent Edmonton voter, because they feel their votes don’t really matter.

Could Notley get a majority government of 44 or more seats but with fewer total votes than the UCP? Yes, minority rule is a possibility because you can get a majority government with under 40% voter support in the disastrous First Past the Post electoral system. 

If it were to happen, as it usually does, we risk declining deeper into a Left versus Right two-party system that would further the erosion of good governance and representative democracy in Alberta. 

This next election is a voter choice between the NDP Left or the UCP Right, or the Progressive Notley versus the Libertarian Smith.  It is also a citizenship choice between Authoritarianism or Democracy future for Alberta and Albertans.  Vote thoughtfully, purposefully and wisely!

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