Monday, April 23, 2012

Final Alberta Projection: Wildrose victory

With mere hours to go before the polls open in Alberta, is unable to project with any great degree of certainty what the outcome will be. While the polls were all lining up over the final days, the Sunday poll by Forum Research has indicated that the race will go down to the wire. But though it is possible that either Danielle Smith or Alison Redford will come out on top tonight, the seat projection model suggests that Wildrose will win, but miss out on a majority of seats by a whisker.

Assuming no MLAs cross the floor and that the largest party in the legislature forms the government, the model also suggests that Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives will lead the Official Opposition and that Brian Mason's NDP will sit as the third party in the legislature with a large amount of influence.

However, there are a multitude of close races and a great deal of uncertainty in Monday night's outcome.

Wildrose is projected to take 38.4% of the votes, giving them 43 seats. That is only one short of a majority of the 87 ridings contested, a historic result for a party that won zero seats in the last election. The Progressive Conservatives are projected to take 35.8% of the vote and to win 39 seats, their worst result since 1967.

The New Democrats are projected to finish third with 11.4% support and to win five seats, their best result since 1989. The Liberals, meanwhile, are on track to win only 11.1% of ballots cast and are projected to be shut out of the legislature entirely for the first time in 30 years.

The Alberta Party is projected to win 2.2% of the vote, while the Evergreen Party (the re-incarnation of the de-registered Green Party of Alberta) is projected to win 0.6%. Neither party is running a full slate. Independents and other parties are expected to garner 0.4% support.

Closing gap in final week

Edmonton vote projections
While the election will be decided in Calgary and outside of the two main cities, where the Tories and Wildrose are fighting for every vote, recent shifts in the voting intentions of people in Edmonton could also play an enormous role in deciding the make-up of the province's next legislature.

After regaining support in the city in Week 3 of the campaign, the Tories dropped like a stone in Edmonton over the last few days before yesterday's uptick. They are  projected to win 36.3% of the vote and 19 seats. Wildrose has been relatively steady and is expected to win 27.3% of the vote and five of the seats, but the New Democrats have been making gains in the city. They are now projected to win 18.2% and five seats, putting them in play in one-quarter of Greater Edmonton's ridings. The Liberals, however, have fallen back.

Calgary vote projections
While Danielle Smith has been treading water in the capital, things are going badly in Calgary where Wildrose has been falling precipitously over the last 10 days. Though they still lead with 40.9% and 19 seats, that is a far cry from the almost majority support they enjoyed in the city for a brief period and the likelihood of a clean sweep that existed at the time. The Tories have benefited the most, closing to 36.6% and eight seats (saving Redford's skin in the process). The Liberals are just over the double-digit bar, a disaster for a party that had over 30% support in Cowtown in 2008.

Rural Alberta vote projections
In the rest of the province, the Tories have slowly increased their level of support over the last 10 days at the expense of Wildrose. Nevertheless, Wildrose leads with 44.5% and 19 seats to the PCs' 34.4% and 12 seats. Neither the New Democrats nor the Liberals are much of a factor outside the two main cities, and they have not been for the duration of the campaign.

The difference between a Wildrose minority and a majority will hinge upon whether Danielle Smith can reverse the negative momentum in Calgary and rural Alberta. For the Tories, they will need to capitalize on that negative momentum to squeak out a victory of some kind, which is still possible.

Where they stand and what is at stake

Each party has a lot riding on the results of Alberta's election. Can the Tories pull victory out of the jaws of defeat? Will Wildrose win a majority or a minority, or not at all? What influence will the NDP have in the next legislature? And what of the Liberals?

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Despite a few hiccups over the last days that may have cost the party an outright victory, Wildrose ran a strong campaign and may have simply been the right party, with the right leader, at the right time (others have highlighted Raj Sherman as the right leader for the Liberals but at the wrong time). As recently as Mar. 13 they were projected to win only 17 seats, itself a big leap for the young party.

Wildrose has the best shot at forming a majority government, with every poll giving them a lead over the PCs. They are projected to take between 36.4% and 40.4% of the vote. That range has loosened somewhat, which should come as no surprise as the penultimate polls of the campaign all had the party at the exact same level of support. Forum then mixed things up considerably.

Because of that potentially tightening race and some regional variations, Wildrose could win as few as 22 seats. This would put them in the role of the Official Opposition and would still represent a huge gain for the party, but compared to expectations it would be a disappointing result. Wildrose could also win as many as 62 seats, giving them the kind of landslide that is possible if a "kick the bums out" mentality takes over the electorate and boosts anti-PC turnout.

Wildrose will have the most success outside of Calgary and Edmonton, as they are projected to win between 40.5% and 48.5% of the vote and between 10 and 25 seats. They should also do quite well in Calgary with between 38.4% and 43.4% support and between nine and 22 seats, though the projection expects them to be at the higher end of that scale.

Edmonton should prove a more difficult nut to crack for Danielle Smith. Though she has been running neck-and-neck in a few polls, for the most part her party is trailing the Tories. They are projected to win between 22.3% and 32.3% of the vote in the provincial capital, giving them between three and 15 seats. A breakthrough of more than half-a-dozen seats would likely mean that Wildrose is going to win a landslide. They are projected, however, to end up at the lower end of the scale. Nevertheless, they should win enough seats in the provincial capital to give the city some representation in a government.

And that is what they are most likely to win. The odds favour a Wildrose government of some kind, but at such close margins it is a virtual coin flip. If the party greatly under-performs its polls, then Wildrose could end up as the Official Opposition. If they over-achieve, particularly Forum's results, they will win handily.

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In the week before the campaign was officially called, Alison Redford was in a strong position. Though she was only a few points ahead of Wildrose in the polls, it was expected that she would be able to handle the upstart party on the hustings. But on Mar. 29, she gave up the lead and since then has never regained it. Her only hope is that PC voters will turn out in great numbers and that supporters of the Liberals and NDP will opt for the devil they know.

There is less certainty about where the Tories will end up. Some polls have them in the low-30s, others in the mid-30s. This puts their likely range at between 33.3% and 38.3%. This makes it quite likely, but by no means certain, that they will finish behind Wildrose in the popular vote. But if it ends up being close, it can be expected that the PCs will have a more efficient vote.

This means that the Tories could win between 20 and 62 seats, like Wildrose a very wide range. If they win as few as 20, it would be an unmitigated disaster. If they win 62, it would be a second miracle result for the PCs. While those extremes are unlikely, the ingredients for a minority or even a majority do exist - but the Progressive Conservatives would need a lot to swing their way for that to happen.

Edmonton and Calgary will be key for the party. In Edmonton, they stand to win between 32.3% and 40.3% of the vote, giving them between nine and 23 seats. They are projected to be near the higher end of that range, though, meaning they need to win those extra swing seats to challenge Wildrose for government.

In Calgary, the Tories need to exploit the recent weakness in Wildrose's numbers. They are currently expected to suffer quite significantly, with between 31.1% and 42.1% of the vote and between five and 18 seats. Uncertainty is quite high in the city, but if the PCs can manage to have the votes swing their way in Calgary then they will have a real shot. If things go as projected, however, they have no chance as this is the only region of the province where they are at the lower end of their projected range.

In the rest of Alberta, the Tories stand at between 30.9% and 37.9% of the vote, enough to give them between six and 21 seats.

If they hold on to Edmonton and have luck in rural Alberta and especially in Calgary, then Alison Redford can remain as premier. But that is a best case scenario - the most likely result is that Redford will become the Leader of the Opposition.

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Prior to the campaign's start and the gains by Wildrose, Brian Mason did have a very good shot at taking that job. The New Democrats were looking good after Alison Redford became PC leader and the NDP moved into a three-way tie for second place. But now that the fight is between conservative blue and green, the NDP has its sights set on being the standard bearer of the non-conservative opposition.

Still, they are leaps and bounds behind even the second place Tories. With between 9.9% and 12.9% of the vote, they are almost certain to register one of their best results since 1993. They could win as many as eight seats, which would be a tremendous gain for the party, or as few as three seats, which still represents an increase.

Edmonton is their bread and butter, and they are projected to win between 13.7% and 22.7% of the vote and between three and seven seats. In all likelihood, any MLAs the NDP elects will come from this city. They have seen an increase in support of late, and whether they end up at the top or bottom of the range will depend on whether that vote turns out or not.

Elsewhere, the party is not likely to win any seats. Because of some gains in Calgary, they do have an outside shot at one seat, but it is a very outside shot. Rural Alberta is not expected to have any dots of NDP orange, though the party is doing relatively well with between 8.1% and 12.1% of the vote.

Because the Tories are too far ahead and the Liberals are falling, it is difficult to imagine the New Democrats finishing anywhere but third in the legislature. What is important for the NDP, however, is whether that legislature will be run by a minority or majority government.

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For the Liberals, meanwhile, the question will be whether the party will survive Monday night's result. The Liberals have had a rough time of it ever since the last election, but the campaign plunged their vote even further down when it became clear that the only realistic options for premier were Danielle Smith and Alison Redford. This has, according to the polls, sent a large number of Liberal voters Redford's way.

As a result, the Liberals are projected to place fourth in the vote with between 9.1% and 13.1%. They could win as many as three seats, but being shut out of the legislature is considered more likely. If any of their MLAs manage to be re-elected, it is probably going to happen in Edmonton, where the party has between 11% and 18% support.

In Calgary and rural Alberta, however, no Liberal is expected to win. Liberal support in Calgary sits at between 9.1% and 14.1% support and between 4.8% and 10.8% in the rest of Alberta. While surprises are always possible, the Liberals are not in a position to win any seats here.

And that means the Liberals are at risk of extinction, at least from the legislature. That is considered the most likely result, though sitting as the fourth party or even the third party is still possible. As Raj Sherman is likely to be one of those three potential Liberal victors, he may not exit the political scene in Alberta so quickly.

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The Alberta Party is not expected to be a major factor in tonight's vote, nor in any individual ridings. Though it is possible they could manage the unexpected, the polls do not point to any likelihood that the Alberta Party will hold any seats in the legislature. They were hamstrung by not being in the debates, and as the election has become about a choice between the PCs and Wildrose, the niche that the Alberta Party could have carved out for itself as a centrist alternative has been pinched out.

They have the highest potential in Edmonton, but the best shot for an Alberta Party victory is likely in West Yellowhead, simply because that is where their leader, Glenn Taylor, is a candidate.

An uncertain projection for an uncertain time

At this stage, it is usually possible to make a confident forecast. Until yesterday, everything pointed to a Wildrose majority government, but there were still so many intangibles that anything from a Wildrose landslide to a majority PC government was plausible. Now that a poll on the final day of the campaign showed a drastically narrowing gap, I have never felt less confident in a projection. The seat ranges, wide as they are, are a clear indication of why:
The last polls of the campaign had been relatively in agreement - certainly province-wide and to a large degree at the regional level. But the problem was that Wildrose and the Tories were running relatively close in a few areas, and with a few points swinging here or there the implications could include dozens of seats. If the gap is as narrow as two points, and was closing by a great degree in the final hours, it is very difficult to know where the parties will end up.

And this is not about hedging - there was a point in the campaign when the Wildrose and PC ranges did not overlap at all. Wildrose was poised to win a majority and only a majority, while the Tories had no hope of victory. And before Wildrose's surge, Redford was certain of winning another election for her party. The volatility and margin for error has simply increased to almost incomprehensible levels.

This is certainly not the kind of projection I want to make on Election Day. If I manage to get 86 out of 87 ridings correct, I could still potentially make the wrong call on the Wildrose minority. If I manage to get 84 out of 87 ridings correct, which would still be a stellar 97% accuracy rating, I could choose the wrong winner entirely! And I never like being in the position of saying a party will win no seats. But, I'm tied to what the model spits out.

This election campaign is also exceptional in several ways that make it very difficult to forecast. The biggest problem is posed by Wildrose, which took less than 7% in 2008 and did not run a full slate in that election. From there, they have gone to a lead in the polls. Can this sort of bandwagon be accurately projected?

The 2011 federal election in Quebec demonstrated that it can be. The seat projection model is capable of translating the NDP increase from 12.2% in 2008 to 42.9% in 2011 with a surprising degree of accuracy: it results in a total of 60 seats for the NDP (they actually won 59). But in 2008, the NDP managed to run a full slate of candidates in Quebec. Wildrose did not run a full slate last time, particularly in Edmonton. Where are their pockets of support likely to be in that city? As the capital and its surrounding region has roughly 1/3 of Alberta's seats, it is a large black hole for Wildrose.

The Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, are seeing a wholesale change in the make-up of their supporters. Their voters have flocked to Wildrose and have been, in part, replaced by Liberals. That is a big demographic shift.

Final riding projections
Then there's the problem of the Liberals themselves, who are going from the main alternative to virtual fringe party status. Will their incumbents buck the regional trends? Could someone like David Swann keep enough of his votes in his Calgary riding to survive, while other Liberal candidates in the city do very poorly? Is there enough connection to voters' Liberal MLAs to ensure their survival? And what role will the Alberta Party play?

New boundaries could also mix things up, but that does not necessarily pose a problem for the projection model. Manitoba's boundaries were changed for the 2011 election, but nevertheless the model called 56 of the province's 57 ridings correctly.

What is different this time around is that I have added an adjustment to the polls to make up for the difference in voting intentions and voting behaviour, something that has become all the more apparent in recent years. This adjustment, which is based on how polls have been off of the result in other provincial and federal elections, assumes that the first and second parties in the legislature (in this case, the Liberals and the Tories) will be under-estimated in the polls while third, fourth, and fifth parties (in this case, Wildrose, the NDP, and the Alberta Party) will be over-estimated. Parties not in the legislature (in this case, Evergreen) are assumed to be greatly over-estimated. Had this adjustment been in place in 2011, ThreeHundredEight likely would have called the Conservative majority. It needs to be pointed out, however, that the adjustment is not based solely on that election's discrepancy.

What if that adjustment was removed, and the polls were assumed to be completely on the mark for this election? The result is a greater seat haul for Wildrose, all at the expense of the Tories, while the New Democrats still pick-up five seats. This result, however, is already encompassed by the projection's seat ranges. But it does show that Wildrose is well placed to win a majority. If Forum's poll is a complete outlier, then Wildrose will absolutely win 50 seats or more. If the momentum they measured is real and continues through to today, then the Progressive Conservatives could win that many seats.

An historic election

Alberta's election was never expected to be a very interesting one. While 2011 was jam-packed, 2012 appeared to be a very thin year for elections: Quebec maybe, and Alberta (yawn). Instead, observers from outside the province were treated to a political drama, while Albertans were offered a real choice for the first time in decades. And since the election will, one way or the other, result in the first female premier elected to govern a major province, Monday night stands to be historic.

But voters will be heading to the polling booths today without any strong idea of who will end up winning. While Wildrose is the favourite, the Tories could still manage to pull it off. And if the seat result is close, there is no telling what will happen in the legislature. On the other hand, a Wildrose landslide is still very much in the cards. Anything can happen. It is fitting that this surprising election campaign's voting day will hold more than a few surprises of its own.