Thursday, January 26, 2012

Two Alberta polls, two outcomes

With the Alberta legislature set to get back to work on February 7 and the next election campaign likely to begin at the end of March, two polls were released this week for the province. One was by Forum Research and the other was by Léger Marketing. The two were radically different from one another.
Forum indicated that Progressive Conservative support stood at 38%, unchanged from their last poll in December. The Wildrose Party had gained six points to reach 29%, while the Liberals were up two to 14% and the NDP was steady at 13%.

But Léger Marketing found that Progressive Conservative support was at 53%, with the Wildrose Party at 16%, the NDP at 13%, and the Liberals at 11%.

Let's start with where these two polls agree. Both seem to have pegged NDP and Liberal support at about the same level, and even across the regional breakdowns the polls line up quite well. So, we can say with some confidence where the Liberals and the New Democrats stand.

But this race is going to be between the Tories and Wildrose, and on this score the two polls differ greatly. Léger gives the PCs a 37-point lead, while Forum gives them a nine point lead. That is the kind of difference that the margin of error cannot explain away.

Why are these polls so different? Forum uses the IVR method to conduct its polls while Léger uses an online panel. EDIT: Léger uses an online panel for its Quebec and federal polls. In this case, Léger contacted Albertans by telephone. While that might be one reason for the difference, this kind of disparity should not happen. Both were taken at about the same time, with Léger in the field between January 13-18 and Forum in the field on January 17.

But the difference between a poll taken over six days and a poll taken over one day can be huge. A poll taken over a week will be less influenced by day-to-day events, whereas a poll taken on one day might be overly influenced by whatever was in the news that day or the day before. However, there does not appear to have been a major story that broke at around that time, so it is difficult to say what could have provoked such a backlash against the Tories to the benefit of Wildrose. There was some talk of dodgy political financing, but Léger should have captured that as well. If Léger had a day-by-day breakdown, we'd have a better idea of what happened.

There is a small difference in how Forum and Léger defines its regions, but aside from Edmonton (by my calculations, Forum's Edmonton numbers would be 38-20-17-17 if they used Léger's definition of the city) it does not change much.

Since Forum has shown little real change since their last poll from December while Léger Marketing seems to line-up with some of the other polls that were taken at the end of last year, we might have to conclude that there is a methodological reason for this difference. That does not help us determine which of these two polls is closer to the truth, unfortunately.

The polls do agree on a few things. Both Léger and Forum indicate that PC support is generally uniform across the two major cities and the rest of the province, while Wildrose is strongest in Calgary. They both indicate that the NDP is running second in Edmonton while the Liberals are also doing best in that city. Their support in Calgary, which was relatively high in the last election, appears to have bottomed out.

But, again, the problem is the margin between the Tories and Wildrose. Forum sees a very close race in Calgary and a close one as well in the rest of the province. Léger has the Progressive Conservatives romping to victory across Alberta.

This is reflected in the seat projections for these two polls. The projection model for Alberta is completed, and incorporates a few of the lessons of the 2011 provincial campaigns. The projection model is regional, breaking the province down into Edmonton, Calgary, and the rest of Alberta, and has a few other tweaks that differentiate it from the models used in past elections.  I'll go into more detail when the projection model is fully launched.

I will start making projections for the Alberta election once the legislature returns. I am still working on a vote projection model that should bridge the gap between what the polls say and what the voters do.

Plugging these two polls into the model individually gives very different results. With the Forum poll, Wildrose would make a big breakthrough and form the largest opposition since 1997. With the Léger poll, the opposition ranks are reduced and the NDP becomes the second largest party in the legislature.

More specifically, with the Forum poll the Progressive Conservatives would win 65 seats, 18 of them in Calgary, 24 in Edmonton, and 23 in the rest of the province. The Wildrose Party would win 17 seats, half of them in Calgary and half in the rest of the province. They would be shut out of Edmonton. The New Democrats win four seats, all in the provincial capital, while the Liberals win only one.

With Léger's numbers, the Progressive Conservatives win the largest majority government in the province's history, with 81 seats. The New Democrats win four seats, all in Edmonton, while Wildrose wins only two (one in Calgary, one outside the two largest cities). The Liberals don't win a single seat.

As you can see, these are two very different scenarios. In the first, Wildrose is able to put up enough of a fight to win a good chunk of the province's seats, but they are still too thin to put up a real challenge to the Tories. In the second scenario, the Tories take advantage of a very divided electorate to win a huge majority.

Reconciling these two polls may be impossible. We'll have to wait for more data from other sources before we can say with any confidence what is going on in Alberta. What we do know is that the Tories are still very well placed to win yet another election in the province.

The Forum poll had an interesting breakdown of the approval ratings of the leaders. Both Alison Redford and Danielle Smith had net positive ratings, but whereas Smith had relatively uniform approval among both men and women, Redford has terrific approval ratings among women but has a negative approval rating among men. Gender does not appear to be an issue for Smith, but it might be for Redford.

Nevertheless, according to Léger Redford is still the favourite person to be premier at 37%. Smith is at 16% while Brian Mason of the NDP comes in third at 8%.

As we approach the election, more and more attention will be turned towards Alberta. If a scenario like Forum envisages plays out, it will be an interesting contest. Redford's Tories look pretty safe, so the real question will be how Smith performs during the campaign and whether the Liberals can survive.