But the polls have given little indication that Wildrose was on track for such a catastrophe.
Indeed, it seems the bones of contention may be more personal and related to Jim Prentice's new style, rather than any fear of crushing defeat. Based on what the polls were showing, the PCs would probably have prevailed in a snap election, but Wildrose would have remained as a strong opposition.
Let's take a look at the evolution of voting intentions in the province since the 2012 provincial election. The charts below are mash-ups of all the polls that have been publicly released since then, averaging them out when more than one appeared in a given month.
It really is a two-horse race in Alberta, as the Liberals and New Democrats have been polling some where in the teens for the last four years.
The Tories under Alison Redford had a bit of a honeymoon after the 2012 victory, leading in the polls until the end of the year, when Wildrose inched ahead. From then on until the fall of 2013, the two parties were in a close fight, swapping the lead depending on the poll. Between October 2012 and October 2013, the PCs averaged 34% against 33% for Wildrose.
But when things turned south for Redford, Wildrose stormed ahead, polling between 46% and 50% in March and April of this year. The PCs were at around 20%, and en route for disaster. Redford was out.
With Redford gone and Dave Hancock in as interim leader, the PCs slowly started to claw their way back. From 21% in April they went to 26% in June and 29% in September. They were still trailing Wildrose, but only by a handful of points.
When Prentice came in, the Tories moved ahead - narrowly so in October, and in more convincing fashion in the latest poll out of the province, that of Insights West (November 28-December 1). That survey gave the PCs 35% of the vote, against 29% for Wildrose, 16% for the NDP, and 15% for the Liberals. A series of by-election victories cemented the Tories' return to front-runner status, though also confirming that the PCs are not as strong as they were on election night in 2012.
That would, normally, be a good thing for the opposition. The PCs did hold on to their four seats, but with substantial loss of vote share. A repeat performance province wide would be a boon to the opposition parties. Instead, Wildrose took their four losses to incumbent Tories, two of which were high-profile, as a death knell. Recent events in the legislature simply further poisoned the well.
Defections are one thing. Wildrose has already lost some MLAs. But to have the leader cross the floor is something else entirely. How were the leadership numbers looking?
Smith's numbers were always enviable, and from December 2012 she consistently had better approval ratings than Redford and Hancock.
Redford's numbers were pretty good after the election, with an approval rating of between 43% and 58% throughout 2012.
But in December 2012, Smith's approval rating stood at 48%, and remained high throughout 2013. averaging 46% against 40% disapproval. By comparison, Redford's dropped to an average of just 32%, with 59% disapproving of her leadership.
Brian Mason and Raj Sherman, the NDP and Liberal leaders, roughly split the electorate three ways over this time, divided almost equally between those who approved of them, those who disapproved of them, and those who had no opinion. New NDP leader Rachel Notley still needs to be introduced to almost half of the population.
Redford's numbers fell significantly early this year, to an approval of just 20% between February and March. Her disapproval was a catastrophic 69%. Smith looked much better by comparison, and her approval rating soared to over 50% during this time.
Again, Hancock did his best to right the ship, with an approval rating of about 33% over his tenure (his disapproval rating was half of Redford's before she left).
Prentice has put up some good numbers since he took over, with an approval rating of between 45% and 50% in the three polls that have been published since he became premier. The latest, by Angus Reid Global (December 4-13), gave him an approval rating of 50%, with just 33% disapproval.
Smith's numbers have worsened of late, but they are hardly disastrous. She managed 44% in the first post-Prentice poll, with 38% disapproval. In the latest poll by Insights West, she was down to 38% approval, with 40% disapproval. While down from her Redford highs, those are still numbers she could have worked with. Her move can't be chalked up to an attempt to save her own skin.
It seems we will not know how Smith would have compared to Prentice over the long run. We will have to see what happens with the rump Wildrose caucus going forward. A merger, at this stage, seems unlikely.
With the most recent numbers from Insights West, Wildrose would have had a good chance of keeping its entire caucus in the legislature, with about 20 seats to 51 for the Tories and eight seats apiece for the Liberals and NDP.
But what if the electorate moves in the same way as the Wildrose caucus, with half going to the Tories? In that case, the Tories would win a landslide, with 76 seats to six for the NDP and five for the Liberals. Wildrose would be shut out. But those Liberals who went over to the PCs to block Wildrose in 2012 might revert back to their old party - not enough to change the government, but the Liberals would likely return to Official Opposition status in this scenario. It would likely be, though, a smaller and weaker opposition than the one Wildrose had - before today.