Horse-Race Polls are Horses**t:
If you believe the Alberta election polling is a reliable way of predicting anything, I am here to disabuse you. If you follow me on Twitter (@kenchapman46 for the rarely courageous) you will know that I have crusade on against the unscientific and often misleading methodology in on-line and panel-based polling. As unreliable as they are, there are somethings that can be gleaned and even learned if you can tolerate interesting speculations.
First let’s deal with the most “myth-leading’ of all the pointless questions asked in election polling, the mindless “horse-race” question. “If the election were to happen tomorrow, which party/leader would you vote for.” These click-bait, media shilling, self-promoting pollster results are meaningless because they are never asked when the election is actually tomorrow.
There is never any context around the horse-race question and there is no delving into reasons for the choices. They never disclose the number of undecided responses. They never say how many calls they had to make to get to the falsely claimed “representative sample” size they report. They often misleading report the results in statistically relevant terms, which is untrue because there is no real randomness. Pollsters use self-selecting “panels” of people who sign up and volunteer, and sometimes get paid, to answer surveys. These folks are not random, unlikely to representative, often have a predetermined mindset with a personal goal to influence (aka skew) the poll results to their preferred candidate.
Campaigns Matter…a Lot!
The other reason to read pre-election horse-race polls with healthy dose of skepticism is campaigns matter, a lot! When it comes to the final election results, they are, all too often, at serious odds with these imperfect polling methods. For an illustration of why campaigns matter, and horse-race polls are unreliable, check out this “Poll Dancing” blog post by The Enlightened Savage, aka my friend Joey Oberhoffner.
Alberta 2015 Election:
He does a quick analysis of the early campaign polling predictions compared to the final 2015 Alberta election results. He noted, about this same time in that election as now, Wildrose Brian Jean was at 31%, PC Prentice at 27% and NDP Notley at 26%. On election day, the “only poll that counts,” Notley drew 41%, yielding 54 seats, the PCs got 28% but only 10 seats and the Wildrose fell to 24% of votes cast resulting in 21 seats. Change was in the air, the right wing vote split gave the NDP a majority government and killed a PC dynasty of over 40 years but only 53% of voters turned out. Still, this shows campaigns matter.
Calgary’s 2010 Municipal Election
The Enlightened Savage’s take on the 2010 Calgary mayoralty proves even more how much campaigns matter. The long-time city councilor Ric McIver (later interim PC leader pending the formation of the UCP) was polling at 43%. A popular TV news anchor media personality, with a tonne of name recognition, Barb Higgins had 28% support. An unknown progressive centrist college professor, Naheed Nenshi, with no prior political pedigree, trailed badly at 8%. When the electorate woke up and started paying attention, it was obvious the two front-runners were seen as just not good enough in the public mind. Voters decided to go for the third option, rejecting the polling presumption of the status quo. Final results saw Nenshi score 40% on election day, McIver dropped to 32% and Higgins held her support with 26%. In 4 weeks Nenshi went from third to first, and beat the poll predictions by 32%. Campaigns matter.
Alberta Election 2019
Now we have some real polling analysis, as reported in the Globe and Mail by Environics. I say “real” because it is beyond the horse-race silliness and based on social values overlaid on partisan preferences and leanings. The provocative headline to the Tony Coulson opinion piece is “Undecided Voters Will Determine Alberta’ Future.” This is an aspect worth reflection, especially as campaigns matter.
Coulson notes his results are parallel to the other horse-race polls. There is a sizable UCP lead about 60% and about 30% NDP support, the remaining crumbs divide amongst the “minor” parties. However, he notes the “undecideds have been factored out of these calculations.” When they are factored in the results change dramatically. The UCP is down to 44%, NDP is down to 24% and the Undecideds are 25%
The UCP and NDP values held by their respective Base of supporters is as divided as the Republicans and Democrats in the States, according to Coulson. UCP is ultra-conservative, the NDP is uber-communitarian. Both parties are running propaganda campaigns geared to keep their respective bases engaged. They are actually pandering to the Bases and, in each case, pushing disparaging negative narratives about the other leader’s shortcomings.
What’s Happening With the Undecideds?
So now what about the Undecideds? What are their value drivers that will determine how they vote on election day? Environics has some interesting observations. Some Undecideds are said to be alienated from society and may not vote at all.
That said, the majority of Undecideds hold some of the values from both the UCP and NDP sides. According to Environics, they value fiscal prudence and free markets but are not all that strong on the UCP generally, especially I expect they aren’t keen on Jason Kenney.
They also have strong social leanings and aspire to personal fulfillment, somewhat aligned with moderates in the NDP and respect Premier Notley’s pragmatic move to the centre. What they don’t like, nor adhere to, is the more extremists anti-business positions found in large parts of the NDP Base.
Coulson shares some thought on now both the UCP and NDP could attract the Undecided voter to their side. That, however, still presumes a two-horse race, but, as we can see, campaigns matter. Coulson has not considered the potential attraction of the progressive centrist Alberta Party alignment with a wider spectrum of value drivers within the Undecided voters.
The emerging sentiment seems to be Alberta can’t spend or borrow its way to prosperity as the NDP seems to be doing. But Notley is tied in popularity with Kenney. Kenney is now being exposed as heading a corrupt group of political operatives, beyond inside political party tricks. There are over $35,500 in fines levied by Elections Alberta for illegal campaign contributions. The RCMP has been brought in by Elections Alberta and is apparently investigating potential criminality around the UCP leadership campaign activities.
We are well into the election campaign, and it is starting to matter to more Albertans. What if people decide that neither the UCP or the NDP is good enough for their consent to govern and to be worthy of ballot box support? What if Albertans want to send both dominant parties a message and move their vote to the Alberta Party as a means to that end? The third option has won before, including two previous PC Leadership campaigns. Albertans bought PC memberships to vote in the against the presumptive Party PC leadership front-runners. That how third placed Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford both won, and become Premier.
What if Wildrosers, who stayed home or even voted to merge into the UCP, are so disdainful of the way Brian Jean was treated by the Kenney leadership campaign that they stay home at election time? What if small business owners and their employees decide they want more influence, access and understanding than a union-based NDP has given them or seems to be inclined to address their concerns after the election?
What if the bigotry, hate, corruption and white power evident in the UCP Base turns off moderately fiscal conservative citizens concerned about debt and deficit but still abandon the socially radical and extreme vision of the UCP?
That’s a lot of “What Ifs” but they are all in play in this volatile election where campaigns matter. I have no idea what the 2019 Alberta election results will be. I am pretty sure we have not seen any clear path forward to predict the outcome at this point in time, notwithstanding what the myth-leading results the various horse-race polls are implying.
One thing for sure, we need informed, engaged progressive centrist Albertans to stand up, speak up and show up as volunteers, donors and voters if we are to avoid a government controlled by the extremes in the Bases of the Left or the Right in Alberta’s major political parties.