Thursday, April 30, 2015

Alberta NDP leads beyond a reasonable doubt

Political observers are starting to come around to the idea that the New Democrats might actually have a shot at winning, and that the 43-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty might actually come to an end. But old habits die hard and everyone has been burned before, so you won't get much more than a 'might' out of anyone.

Two new polls make it very, very hard to argue that the New Democrats have anything but a comfortable lead in the Alberta provincial election.

The projection agrees, and has now bumped the NDP up to 39% support from 35% post-debate. Their seat haul hasn't changed much (they may be running up against their ceiling), with a range of between 28 and 47. Their range was 26 to 45 seats before.

The main shift has been between the PCs and the Wildrose, who have switched positions. The Tories are up four points to 29%, and could win between 17 and 45 seats (up from five to 31). That is a dramatic shift, and does now make a PC minority victory plausible. But it would require the NDP to come down a bit to the benefit of the Tories.

Wildrose has fallen sharply, by seven points to 25%. They are now projected to win between 11 and 22 seats, down from a range of 25 to 42 seats.

The New Democrats made their biggest gain in the 'rest of Alberta', going from 28% to 32% in the projection. The Tories were also up in the region, by six points to 32%, while Wildrose plummeted 10 points to 32%. It is a very close race in the heterogeneous region outside of the two main cities.

Not so in Edmonton, where the numbers have held steady. The NDP is ahead there with 57% to 21% for the PCs and 15% for Wildrose.

In Calgary, the Tories picked up three points to move into a narrow lead with 33%, followed by the NDP at 29% (+1) and Wildrose at 27% (-4).

The two new polls out this morning are from firms that have not stepped into the campaign just yet. That makes it impossible to look at trends, but gives as some extra data points to compare to the numbers we've been from others.

The Return on Insight poll for the CBC showed the NDP leading very comfortably with 38%, followed by the Tories at 24% and Wildrose at 21%.

The Léger poll for the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal also put the NDP at 38%, with the PCs at 30% and Wildrose at 24%.

That both polls put the NDP at 38% shows that the party is indeed making some very significant inroads. Forum Research also had the NDP that high around the debate, while an EKOS poll that is forthcoming today will also show similar levels of support for the party.

The two polls also show the PCs moving into second place and Wildrose dropping into third, which is an interesting development. It certainly makes for a photo-finish. The PCs do seem to be rebounding. Whereas before Wildrose and the NDP appeared to be squeezing out the PCs, these new trends suggest that there could be a coalescing of an anti-NDP vote (in practice if not necessarily in motivation) that could boost the PCs by election day.

But it will still be a hard slog. The Léger poll found one-third of respondents choosing Rachel Notley as the best person to be premier, with Jim Prentice at only 24%. Brian Jean, at 11%, seems to be falling out of contention.

The population hasn't soured on him as much as they have on Prentice, however. Léger found that just 10% say their opinion of Prentice has improved over this campaign, compared to 51% who say it has worsened. Jean, by comparison, has a 17% to 26% split on the question. For Notley, 47% of Albertans say their opinion has improved, and just 9% say it has worsened. As long as the NDP can get their voters out, it doesn't seem like they are at considerable risk of shedding support in the final days of the campaign. It could come down to, then, what happens with the PCs and Wildrose.

The two polls also painted a broadly similar portrait of the regional breakdown, particularly in Edmonton. The NDP had 56% in the Léger poll, 57% in the RoI poll. For the Tories, that was 21% and 19%, respectively, and 16% and 11% for Wildrose.

Calgary was a close race for both pollsters, with the Tories in first (32% to 33%), the NDP in second (25% to 30%), and Wildrose in third (24% to 26%).

There was a bigger discrepancy in the rest of Alberta. RoI had the NDP at 34%, Wildrose at 28%, and the PCs at 22%. Léger, by comparison, had the PCs at 35%, the NDP at 30%, and Wildrose at 29%. The point of contention was primarily in terms of PC support - and that could mean a lot of seats.

The Return on Insight poll, for example, would result in about 44 seats for the NDP, 22 for the PCs, and 18 for Wildrose. That puts the NDP just above the majority mark, primarily due to the PCs' poor showing outside of Calgary and Edmonton.

The Léger poll, though, would give the PCs 41 seats, the NDP 35 seats, and Wildrose nine seats, pointing to a Tory minority. This is primarily due to the strong performance of the PCs outside of Edmonton and Calgary.

This demonstrates the problem the NDP might have on election night. Their vote is not nearly as well distributed as it could be, and they might fall short of winning the most seats even if they are up on the Tories by as many as eight points. The seat result on Tuesday night could be very counter-intuitive.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Liberals favoured in closer PEI race

Prince Edward Island is holding its provincial election on May 4, a day before the vote occurs in Alberta. The PEI campaign has been over-shadowed by the dramatics in the West in polling as well.

The most recent poll (and if the 2011 campaign is any indication, perhaps the last poll) was commissioned by The Guardian and published on Saturday. It comes from the Corporate Research Associates, and shows Wade MacLauchlan's Liberals in a good position to be re-elected.

But at 44%, the Liberals' margin over the Progressive Conservatives has been reduced. The party has fallen 14 points since CRA last polled between February 9-28, though that was before Rob Lantz was named the Tories' new leader.

The PCs were up nine points to 35%, followed by the New Democrats at 15% (+3) and the Greens at 6% (+2).

Of the total sample, 13% was undecided (another 6% refused to answer or said they would not vote).

That 44% is the lowest the PEI Liberals have managed since August 2013, and it is just the third poll since the 2011 election to put the party below 45%. They captured 51% of the vote in October 2011.

For the PCs, this is their best poll since that election, when they took 40%.

The New Democrats appear to have halted their decline, after dropping over six consecutive quarterly polls from 32% in August 2013.

Is MacLauchlan the problem? Probably not. With 38% saying he would make the best premier, that puts him better or equal to where Robert Ghiz stood between June 2012 and February 2014.

It is instead the performance of Lantz, who with 28% jumped 18 points over interim leader Steven Myers's numbers, and is the highest any leader of the PCs has managed since before the 2011 election.

By contrast, the 10% that Mike Redmond scored as leader of the NDP was his worst.

Another poll emerged out of Prince Edward Island recently, coming from Abingdon Research. A B.C.-based firm that works mostly with conservative parties (but says it has no clients in PEI), the poll was passed over by the media. The results are broadly similar to what CRA found.

It put the Liberals at 43%, followed by the Tories at 27%, the NDP at 18%, and the Greens at 12%. The combined score for the parties that were not represented in the legislature (30%) is extraordinarily high.

One big asterisk for this poll is that it was conducted online. PEI is a small province, and building a representative panel for it has got to be tricky.

I have not developed a complete model for the PEI election, due to the province's history of having very little polling. But a generic swing model, taking into account each of the two polls' margin of error (hypothetical, in the case of Abingdon), gives us an idea of what to expect.

It gives us a Liberal majority, though one that could potentially be won by the skin of MacLauchlan's teeth. But that is at the extreme of CRA's margin of error, which puts the two parties virtually in a tie.

With CRA's poll, the Liberals would win between 14 and 24 seats, enough to secure another majority government. The Tories would win between three and 13 seats, setting them up for a slightly better performance than they had in 2011.

Abingdon gives the Liberals a more comfortable edge, with the closest seat count being 19 for the Liberals and eight for the PCs.

Neither poll shows the NDP or Greens with enough strength to win a seat, on paper at least. If the NDP does end up near 18%, I imagine Redmond could secure his seat. The same goes for Peter Bevan-Baker of the Greens, particularly if they take 12% of the vote. New Brunswickers recently showed that a Green leader can be elected even if the party finishes in fourth place, so PEI could do the same.

Barring a dramatic turn in fortunes brought on by the upcoming leaders debates, the Liberals look like they will be returned with a majority government. But there are not a lot of voters that need to be swung in PEI, so hold off on your bets.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Post-debate polls suggest Wildrose slipping, but what about the NDP?

As debates go, the Alberta leaders debate last night seemed potentially consequential. Most debates tend to be dull affairs where each party leader lives up to their lowest expectations. But last night did not feel like that. What do the polls say?

One poll done just after the debate concluded, by Mainstreet Technologies, showed a big win for the NDP's Rachel Notley, with the Tories' Jim Prentice in second. That fit with the consensus view. But a voting intentions poll done by Mainstreet released this afternoon suggests that the NDP has not had a boost, though Wildrose has taken a hit.

A poll by Forum Research, done on April 22 and 23 (so before and after the debate), showed a similar slip for Wildrose. But the Tories dropped as well, and the NDP surged into first place. Is it an outlier, or a sign of things to come?

The projection, as always, takes the middle road. The NDP is now first in the vote projection with 35%, enough to give the party 26 to 45 seats. That flirts with a majority, but is mostly in minority territory.

Or Official Opposition territory, as with 32% Wildrose can win between 25 and 42 seats. That is down from the 35% the party had in the last update.

The position of the PCs has improved slightly, with 25% and five to 31 seats. That no longer puts them only in third place. They could still potentially finish in second, at least in regards to the likely averages.

At 5% and one to three seats, the Liberals can hope for the balance of power but nothing more.

Forum's poll, reported by the Edmonton Journal, put the NDP up 10 points from their previous survey of April 7-9. They led with 38%, followed by Wildrose at 25% (-5) and the Progressive Conservatives at 20% (-7).

Mainstreet's poll in the Calgary Herald showed Wildrose down three points since the poll of April 20, but still narrowly ahead with 32%. The NDP was unchanged at 31%, while the Tories were up one point to 26%.

These are opposing trends, though the margin of error in the Forum poll (+/- 3%, with Mainstreet's at +/- 1.5%) could explain much of the divergence.

The two agree on Wildrose being down, which is a believable result considering Brian Jean's middling performance last night. But they disagree on the trends for the NDP and the PCs. Mainstreet has the Tories still very much in the race. Forum has the NDP at almost double the PCs' support.

Part of that may be one of the oddities of the Forum poll. In total, Mainstreet gave the Liberals and Alberta Party 12% support. Adding the 'others' to that number, we get to 18% for Forum. Considering the slate of candidates these three categories include, that is just not plausible. The Liberal score may only be slightly inflated, but for the Alberta Party to have 4% to 6% support, they would need to average about 10% to 14% in each of the 36 ridings where they are running candidates. That just isn't very likely.

And what of the 5% Forum awarded to other parties? That will have to go somewhere, and is nowhere to be seen in Mainstreet's estimations (which do not include the option).

These polls are in some serious disagreement, but that discord might not be as dramatic as it seems considering the margin of error. The broader trends are still relevant - the New Democrats doing historically well, Wildrose polling just under its 2012 support but high enough to win a large number of seats, and the PCs in third. We will need some more polling, and particularly some polls done once the debate can sink in a little more (and perhaps fade from memory) to get a better idea of the precise state of the race.

But we shouldn't be too shocked at these results. The electorate is extremely volatile in Alberta, and for the last two weeks we have only heard from Mainstreet. Sooner or later, another voice was going to get involved and muddle things.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Wildrose moves ahead in new poll

The latest poll out of Alberta, the only one in the last week, shows Brian Jean's Wildrose moving ahead in provincial voting intentions as the Liberals collapse. In the projection, the movement has tipped a lot of races against the governing Progressive Conservatives in dramatic fashion.

The projection currently gives Wildrose the lead with just over 35% of the vote, enough to give them between 33 and 48 seats. That makes them the only party in the projection with a likely range surpassing the 44-seat mark needed for a majority government.

The New Democrats, at just under 32%, have improved their position significantly. Rachel Notley's NDP is now on track to win between 28 and 41 seats, which gives it plenty of overlap with Wildrose.

But it also gives the New Democrats no overlap with the Progressive Conservatives, who are now the odds-on favourite to finish third in the seat count with between four and 21 seats (the government's incumbency advantage tips the scales closer to 21 than to four, it should be said).

David Swann's Liberals are down to just over 4% of the vote, but because of how it is likely to be concentrated they could still hold on to between one and three of their seats.

The PCs are in a lot of trouble as they are only proving to be competitive in Calgary, and even there they trail in second with 30% in the projection to Wildrose's 35%. The New Democrats are dominating Edmonton (60%) and Wildrose is well-positioned in the rest of the province (43% to the Tories' 27%). It is a bit of a perfect storm for the opposition parties heading to the May 5 vote. Wildrose and the NDP look to have their vote concentrated in the right places, whereas the Tories have theirs spread out too evenly.

Mainstreet was last in the field on Apr. 13, and has showed significant shifts in support for Wildrose and the Liberals since then.

Wildrose was up four points to 35%, putting them ahead of the NDP, up just one point to 31%. The PCs were also up a point, increasing to 25% support.

The Liberals were down six points to just 4%, putting them in a tie with Greg Clark's Alberta Party (down one point to 4%).

The Liberal collapse is interesting. I asked Mainstreet whether they were making some adjustments for the Liberals or not, and I was told that all respondents had the Liberals as an option. That suggests that either Albertans are very aware of whether or not they have a Liberal candidate in their riding, or that even the party's 4% support is over-stated.

Mainstreet asked Liberal supporters what they would do if there was no candidate in their riding. The result bodes well for the New Democrats, as they were the choice of 61% of Liberals. Only 10% chose Wildrose and just 2% the Tories, suggesting that all of the Blue Liberals that flocked to the PCs in 2012 are now gone. What's left are people who are either centre-left or just anti-PC. Another knock against Jim Prentice's re-election chances.

Turnout is unlikely to benefit the Tories either, as Mainstreet found no real difference between all decided voters and those who say they are certain to vote. In fact, it only widened the margin between the Tories and Wildrose.

But the PCs do seem to have hit rock-bottom. They dropped five points in Edmonton, but were up slightly in Calgary and in the rest of Alberta. In those two regions, the race seems to be shaping up as a PC/Wildrose contest, as the NDP was down two points outside of Edmonton and Calgary and was unchanged in Calgary itself. The New Democrats may have hit their ceiling.

Their support is almost comically unbalanced, however, with their vote jumping 13 points to 64% in Edmonton. Their nearest rival was 48 points behind.

Wildrose is picking up some steam, with a gain of six points in Calgary and more marginal increases in Edmonton and the rest of the province.

On paper, it looks like Liberals have crossed over to Wildrose, as the increases that Wildrose experienced were almost identical to the decreases that the Liberals suffered (seven points in Edmonton and Calgary, four in the rest of the province). Considering the second-choice numbers for remaining Liberals, it is possible that all of the anti-PC Liberals have jumped ship to Wildrose. A more likely explanation, though, would be a lot of cross-pollination between parties, the end result being a jump for Wildrose.

Mainstreet also had two riding polls out yesterday.

One, in Calgary-Fort, gave the NDP a decent lead over Wildrose. The other, in Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview, gave the NDP a wide advantage over the Tories.

The result in Calgary-Fort differed little from the projection, particularly considering the margin of error, and so serves to confirm that the NDP is indeed doing well in pockets of the city.

Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview, however, had the NDP with far less support than the projection expected. This is not too much of a surprise, since the proportional model can balloon a surging party's support in regions where they already have a strong base. It suggests that the NDP's support in Edmonton may be more uniformly spread, giving them a better chance in every riding. But with 64% support citywide according to Mainstreet, they already have pretty good odds.

But the campaign has been dominated so far by one-day IVR polls from Mainstreet Technologies. It would be very helpful if we had multiple sources to work with, each using different methodologies. I imagine - and hope - that a flurry of post-debate polls will crowd the playing field a little soon and give us a clearer picture of the race.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Alberta projection updated with candidate slates

The Alberta projection has now been updated to take into account the number of candidates each party will have on the ballot on May 5.

Only the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats managed to nominate candidates in all 87 ridings, while Wildrose had one candidate barred from running. The Liberals came up just short of a two-thirds slate, while the Alberta Party and Greens fell well short of a 50% slate.

The projection has accordingly been adjusted to reflect these vacant spots. The Liberals have been reduced by the proportion of candidates they have on the ballot, as past experience shows that polls are largely unable to account for this fact.

The table below is a list of parties that did not run a full slate of candidates in recent elections but were nevertheless included in most polls. Parties that had a slate of at least 90% were not included, as it appears that this has little effect on the accuracy of the polls.

All of the numbers have also been rounded, because when we're looking at numbers as small as these a few decimal points can make a big difference. The issue, though, is that most polls only report whole numbers.
As you can see from the chart above, in virtually all recent cases the polls overestimated the support of parties not running a full slate by roughly the same proportion as the number of candidates they were running.

The poll average column shows the average of all polls conducted within seven days of the vote. The expected result shows the poll average adjusted by the candidate slate.

Only in the recent cases of the Saskatchewan Liberals, the Manitoba Greens, and the People's Alliance in New Brunswick have parties outperformed the expected result. And in the case of the Saskatchewan Liberals, their slate was so small that the adjustment reduced them to almost zero. They actually took 0.6%, just above the level needed to round them down to zero.

It would seem that many poll respondents are unaware of whether or not a candidate for a particular party is running in their riding. How this affects their voting behaviour is a puzzle. Do they discover only in the ballot booth that their favoured party is not on the ballot, or do they discover this in only the very last days of the campaign? And what do these people do? Spoil their ballot, not show up, or vote for another party?

Or is this overestimation just a sign of a party's lack of funds, organization, and get-out-the-vote infrastructure?

In the context of Alberta, what will these Liberal voters do? They could be worth three percentage points. An argument could be made that they could go to any of the three major parties, or the Alberta Party in ridings where they have a candidate where the Liberals do not. But it is impossible to speculate with much confidence. Rural Liberals may be different from Edmonton Liberals and Calgary Liberals. The local race may play a very big role as well. They may cast a ballot for the NDP in ridings where they have a good chance, or for the PCs in ridings where the race is between the Tories and Wildrose. Or they could even vote for Wildrose to send the PCs a message.

In regards to the other parties, the projection has also been adjusted. Support for other parties is often overestimated in polls, and in the past I have found that an effective measure of their likely support is based on two factors: the average support a party received in the previous election in the ridings where it had a candidate, and the number of candidates it has nominated in the current election.

In the case of the Alberta Party, to take an example, it has nominated 36 candidates. The party averaged about 3% per candidate in 2012. Take into account leader Greg Clark's potential performance in Calgary-Elbow, and you end up with the party capturing 1.5% of the vote. That is what the projection assumes will happen, and added to that are the expected vote shares for the Greens, independents, and an assortment of fringe parties.

Friday, April 17, 2015

March 2015 federal polling averages

With the Alberta election continuing to shock and amaze, I'm a little late getting to the federal averages for last month. It was a busy month, with 10 national and four regional polls being conducted, interviewing a grand total of almost 33,000 Canadians. And the numbers put the Conservatives in first place for the first time since Justin Trudeau became Liberal leader.

The Conservatives averaged 32.3% support last month, a drop of 0.4 points since February. That nevertheless put them in first place, as the Liberals dropped 2.1 points to 31.5%, their worst score since December 2013 (or September 2013, if we're looking for a month with more robust polling).

The New Democrats were up one point to 21.2%, while the Greens were up 1.6 points to 7.9% support. The Bloc Québécois was up 0.2 points to 4.8%, and 2.4% said they would vote for another party.

Though the Conservatives came out narrowly ahead in the aggregate, of the 10 national polls in March they actually only led in half of them. But their range in those 10 polls, at 30% to 35%, was tighter than the range of the Liberals: 28% to 36%.

In February, the Conservatives ranged between 31% and 35%, so there hasn't been much change. The Liberals, however, ranged between 32% and 39% last month.

The New Democrats scored between 19% and 23% in March, compared to a range of between 17% and 23% in February. They've pulled their knees up a little.

The Conservatives led in British Columbia with 30.2%, a drop of 0.2 points since February. The Liberals were down five points (the biggest shift anywhere in March) to 28.6%, their worst since September. The NDP was up 3.6 points to 25.6%, not coincidentally their best since September. The Greens were up 1.8 points to 13%, their best in 10 months.

In Alberta, the Conservatives were down 3.6 points to 49%, their worst since May 2014. The Liberals were down slightly by 0.3 points to 24.1%, while the NDP was up 2.6 points to 17.2%. That is their best since last spring. The Greens were up one point to 6.6%.

The Conservatives were up 0.3 points to 41.2% in the Prairies, and have actually averaged around 41% for the last three months. The Liberals were down 1.7 points to 29.3%, and the NDP was up 0.6 points to 19.2%. The Greens increased by 1.5 points to 8.3%.

The Liberals and Conservatives were virtually tied in Ontario, as the Tories were down 0.5 points to 36.2% and the Liberals were down 1.3 points to 36.1% (their worst since September 2013). The NDP was up one point to 18.4%, while the Greens were up 1.3 points to 7.4%.

In Quebec, the Liberals fell 2.4 points to 26.6%, their lowest mark in two years. The NDP was also down, slipping 1.1 points to 26%, its worst score since November 2013. The Conservatives were up 1.4 points to 20.8%, and the Bloc Québécois was up 0.5 points to 19.4%. The Bloc has been around 19% for three consecutive months. The Greens were up 1.1 points to 5.5%.

And in Atlantic Canada, the Liberals dropped 1.7 points to 48.9%, followed by the Conservatives at 24.4% (+2.5), the NDP at 17.7% (-2.2), and the Greens at 7.2% (+1.3).

With these levels of support, the Conservatives would win about 144 seats, up one from February. The Liberals would take 117, down 10 from last month, while the NDP would be up seven seats to 70. The Bloc would win five seats and the Greens two.

The Liberals suffered losses in British Columbia, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada, while the NDP was up primarily in B.C. and Ontario. The Conservatives made gains in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

It really wasn't a very good month for the Liberals. They were down in every single region of the country. That compares badly to the NDP, which was up everywhere west of Quebec, and the Conservatives, who decreased in three of the six regions and were up in the three others.

The polls so far in April show that things have yet to improve for the Liberals, and the Duffy trial has yet to land a truly damaging blow on the government. But with the New Democrats taking advantage of the softening Liberal numbers instead of the Conservatives, Stephen Harper is not getting any closer to a majority government.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Momentum with Notley's NDP in Alberta

The numbers continue to amaze, as a new poll this morning puts Wildrose and the New Democrats neck-and-neck in Alberta's provincial election campaign. The governing Progressive Conservatives, gunning for their 13th consecutive electoral victory stretching back to the Nixon administration, have dropped out of the three-way race.

The projection still gives Wildrose the lead with 31% support, or between 29% and 33%. The New Democrats overlap a fair bit, with between 26% and 31% support (or 29% more precisely). The PCs are in third with between 24% and 28% (or 25%), while the Liberals trail at length with 10% to 12% support.

Wildrose also has the edge in seats, and is projected to take 35. The PCs come up second by a hair with 24, while the NDP takes 23. 

But the ranges tell a more nuanced story. While Wildrose is comfortably ahead with between 27 and 44 seats, the NDP is more solidly placed to form the Official Opposition with 18 to 34 seats (and they could even conceivably win a plurality). The PC range tops out at 33, similar to the NDP, but bottoms out at just nine.

The Liberals stand at four seats and a range of four to nine, though that is likely to change this weekend once the official candidate list is out. The model currently assumes every party is running a full slate. The numbers will be adjusted once it is known exactly where each of the parties will have a candidate running.

Note that the projection now gives the other parties a range of zero to one seat, and 5% support. That seat belongs to the Alberta Party.

I'd also like to address the polls being done by 1ABVote (or 1Question, as they appear on Wikipedia), since I have received a lot of inquiries about them. I've spoken with Brian Singh, the man behind the polls, in the past, and I don't doubt that his polls are genuine. But this site does not and never has included polls commissioned by interest groups or political parties. As 1ABVote is an organization that is trying to unite progressives in Alberta, it does not qualify for inclusion in the aggregate. 

But let's get to the poll that was added to the aggregate this morning. It was done by Mainstreet Technologies and published by the Calgary Herald.

Mainstreet was last in the field on April 7. It recorded no change for Wildrose since then, as the party remained in first with 31% support.

The NDP picked up four points and was second with 30%, while the PCs were down three points to 24%.

The Liberals were down two points to 10%, and the Alberta Party was up two points to 5%. The number of undecideds ticked down by a point to 23%.

Turnout is unlikely to boost the Tories, as Mainstreet finds only Wildrose gets a boost among those who say they are certain to vote. The party is bumped up to 35% among these Albertans, with the NDP dropping to 29% and the PCs holding at 24%.

The poll showed the Tories have weakness not only in voting intentions but on the issues, as they led in none of the categories investigated by Mainstreet.

Wildrose led on the issues of taxes and healthcare, while the NDP was ahead on the environment. The two parties were nearly tied on education, and the only three-way race was on job creation. That the PCs could not poll better than Wildrose or do much better than the NDP on this issue is particularly problematic for them.

At the regional level, the race is closest in Calgary. Wildrose was narrowly ahead with 29%, while the Tories were down six points to 27% in the city. The NDP was up to 25%, the Liberals to 13%.

The New Democrats dominated in Edmonton with 51%, followed at a distance by the Tories at 21%, the Liberals at 13%, and Wildrose at 10%. There were only marginal changes since April 7.

Wildrose held a wide lead in the rest of Alberta with 39%, with the NDP gaining six points to surge into second place at 26%. The Tories were down to 23%, while the Liberals were down six points to just 7%.

These polls still boggle the mind, but it is hard to deny that they are pointing to something very real in Alberta. The real question is whether it will endure until May 5, of course. It would also be useful to have a few more polls from more established outfits to help confirm the trend.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Three-way race, but Prentice lagging rivals

A new poll by Forum Research shows Wildrose, the New Democrats, and the Progressive Conservatives locked in an improbable three-way race in Alberta. But the approval ratings of the leaders shows that Jim Prentice is in trouble.

The new projection reflects this three-way battle, with Wildrose narrowly ahead with 30% of the vote (or between 28% and 32%), enough to give them 35 seats (or between 22 and 44). The PCs trail with 28% of the vote (or between 26% and 30%) and 28 seats (or between 19 and 45), while the New Democrats stand at 26% (24% to 28%) and 18 seats (14 to 20).

Interestingly, the polls now point to a minority government. Though both Wildrose and the PCs do hit the majority mark of 44 seats at the very top of their ranges, the odds are far more in favour of either party falling short. The minimum/maximum ranges, however, show that things are close enough that almost any result for either of the two parties is plausible.

The poll by Forum is directly in line with what every other recent poll has shown. The last three polls, all taken in April, show a very tight cluster of results: 30% to 31% for Wildrose, 25% to 27% for the PCs, and 26% to 28% for the NDP. They also all give the Liberals 12%.

So it is a pretty clear picture. And this poll from Forum is a welcome change from its normal procedure, as the survey was taken over three days. Forum usually polls in one evening, as Mainstreet Technologies has been doing in this campaign. A sample drawn over a few days is going to get something a little more representative, as the kind of people at home on a typical Tuesday night might be different from those at home on Wednesday and Thursday (were the Flames playing, for instance?). The poll also has less potential of being skewed by a single day's events.

This survey gave Wildrose 30% against 28% for the NDP and 27% for the Tories. The Liberals trailed with 12% support, while the Alberta Party was at 2%.

Wildrose was ahead in Calgary by a comfortable margin, with 35% to 28% for the PCs and 20% for the NDP, and was ahead outside of the two main urban centres.

In southern Alberta, Wildrose had 40% to 23% apiece for the PCs and NDP. In central Alberta, the margin was narrower at 35% for Wildrose to 30% for the Tories and 22% for the NDP. And in northern Alberta, the race was closest at 33% for Wildrose and 29% for the PCs. The NDP was third with 19%.

The New Democrats had the lead in Edmonton, with 40% to 26% for the Tories and 18% for Wildrose.

The Liberals did best in Calgary with 14%, while the Alberta Party managed 3% in Calgary and southern and northern Alberta.

These regional results are broadly in line with what other polls have shown.

But what makes this poll stand out is that it included approval ratings for the five party leaders. And they look bad for the premier.

With an approval rating of just 22%, Prentice was less popular than his three chief rivals, and only put up a better score than Alberta Party leader Greg Clark. And even there, Prentice was benefiting from Clark's obscurity. If we remove the undecideds, Prentice's 26% approval rating is woefully behind everyone.

But those undecideds are very important. Most Albertans appear to have made up their mind about Prentice (his disapproval rating, at 63%, is horrible). But a large portion have not come to terms with who the other leaders are.

This is most significant for Brian Jean, the Wildrose leader and the leader who is the most unknown of the big four. Fully 47% said they don't have an opinion of him, and among those who do it was split: 29% approval to 24% disapproval. Jean has a lot of potential for growth, but also for decline. It all depends what Albertans make of him when they see more of him.

David Swann of the Liberals has a similar problem, with 44% still unsure of him. His disapproval was slightly higher than his approval rating, at 31% to 25%.

Rachel Notley has a lower unsure score, but at 38% it is still rather high. But the good news for her is that her approval rating is the best in the province at 42%, meaning that she would still have a strong score going into election day even if every undecided went over to the disapproval column. Among decideds, her approval rating is a glittering 67%. This suggests that her party's numbers may not be so shaky.

These leadership numbers tell us a lot. Prentice and the PCs are definitely in trouble, but only if Jean manages a decent campaign and voters stick with Notley. But there are still a lot of undecided Albertans - if Prentice can convince them that Jean is not up to be premier and that Notley, while likable, is also not up to the job, he can pull it off. But he is starting this campaign from a position of real weakness.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What is going on in Alberta?

You know things are strange when it seems even pollsters can hardly believe their own numbers. In Mainstreet's latest missive, we're told to prepare for some 'drastic swings' in the coming weeks. ThinkHQ cautions us that we 'need to be careful about reading too much into the early horserace numbers'.

I'll add to that sentiment. Everyone in Alberta polling was already spooked by 2012. This sort of terra incognita is just terrifying. Here be dragons, folks.

It isn't that the polling is contradictory. Quite the opposite, and that makes it even more off-putting. Predictable Alberta is being turned upside down, and who knows what will fall out of it.

The Calgary Herald is doing double duty on Alberta polling these days, coming out with new numbers from ThinkHQ last night (also reported by Metro Calgary and CTV) and then even more new numbers this morning (here reported by the CBC) from Mainstreet Technologies. And the two polls, one conducted online and the other via IVR, showed virtually identical results.

Wildrose scored 31% in both polls, with the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats only a point apart for second place.

ThinkHQ had the NDP with 26% to 25% for the PCs, while Mainstreet had the PCs at 27% and the NDP at 26%.

Both polls also put the Liberals at 12% support.

There is a lot of agreement to go around, but these numbers are unprecedented. In my Alberta polling archive going back to 2008, I have no poll showing the PCs in third place, and only in the darkest moments before Alison Redford resigned have the Tories polled this low before. In none of these polls going back seven years has the NDP even managed 20%, but here they are at 26%. From an electoral perspective, the last time the New Democrats took this much of the vote was in 1989.

This is not to say that the polls are unbelievable. With the Insights West poll from last week, we now have three separate pollsters showing broadly the same thing. Jim Prentice has gambled on an early election, and the first roll of the dice is looking very bad for him.

Wildrose has recovered, certainly, but at 31% is still below where it stood on election night in 2012. They are benefiting from the PCs' slide by default, as the NDP makes important gains.

Regionally, the two polls are also in broad agreement, though it should be pointed out that ThinkHQ reported the results for the cities of Edmonton and Calgary only, rather than the wider CMA. And ThinkHQ had no results for the rural parts of Alberta.

Nevertheless, both polls showed strong results for the NDP in Edmonton (42% for ThinkHQ, 20 points up on the Tories, and 52% for Mainstreet, 31 points up), with a close race between the PCs and Wildrose in Calgary. Mainstreet gave Wildrose a sizable advantage outside of the two main cities.

As the projection suggests, this makes for a confused race. Though marginally ahead in the popular vote, Wildrose is projected to take between 18 and 38 seats, or 25 more precisely. That gives the Tories the edge on winning the seat count, with between 20 and 49, or 35.

This is in large part because of the PCs' lead in Calgary, which alone provides them with half of their seats. With enough residual support to retain some seats in Edmonton and the regions, this gives them the edge.

But it is a knife's edge, because there are a lot of very close races. The maximum and minimum ranges show just how many, with the PCs projected to take between nine and 61 seats, and Wildrose between eight and 55 seats. In other words, more than half of the 87 seats up for grabs could swing between Wildrose and the PCs with only a small shift in voting intentions.

The NDP has more surer footing, since its vote is so concentrated in Edmonton where almost all of their projected seat wins are located. But if the NDP is really moving into contention, it opens up a lot of possibilities for them. And this is likely at the detriment of the Liberals, who are probably being over-estimated in the model (which is only karma as the model under-estimated them in 2012).

This is a nightmarish scenario for pollsters. With three parties so close to each other, pollsters could easily get all three parties within the margin of error and still miss the order entirely. And with so many close races, the seat projection model is really going to be blowing steam out of the hinges.

Will it hold, though? It is hard to imagine that such a close three-way race would be able to sustain itself for the next month. Voters tend to go one way or another en masse at some point. And ThinkHQ found that 19% of Albertans said they strongly agreed they could change their mind, while another 39% said they somewhat agreed. That mean 58% of Albertans are considering their options.

Perhaps we should indeed expect some drastic swings, then.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Alberta PCs favoured as election kicks off

It couldn't be avoided indefinitely. The time has finally come for the polls, and, to tackle a provincial election in Alberta once again.

The new projection for the Alberta provincial election is now live, and you can see all the details (as always) by clicking on the chart at the top of the page. Before getting into the intricacies of the model and the difficulties this election poses, let's quickly take a look at the numbers.

The Progressive Conservatives under Jim Prentice lead the pack, with between 30% and 34% support. This should be enough to give the Tories between 35 and 59 seats, straddling the line of 44 seats needed to form a majority government. At 46 seats, the model narrowly favours a PC majority at this stage.

Wildrose, under newly minted leader Brian Jean, is second with between 27% and 30% of the vote and between seven and 25 seats. The maximum range does put Wildrose in a position to win, but that would require a, well, Alberta-esque miss by the polls.

The New Democrats, also under a new leader in Rachel Notley, are in third with between 18% and 21% support. This could net them between 11 and 15 seats, making the Official Opposition role well within their grasp.

The Liberals, under new/old leader David Swann, round out the table with between 15% and 17% support, enough to give them between nine and 12 seats.

Support for other parties (and more on that later) sits at between 4% and 7%, and could result in one seat for the Alberta Party.

Those are the broad strokes, and you can take a look at the Alberta projection page to see the regional and riding breakdowns.

The model itself is identical to the one being used for the upcoming federal election. The full methodology is explained here, and the thinking that has gone into the model is summarized here.

Haven't we learned our lesson?

From a polling perspective, the 2015 Alberta provincial election is going to be a rough one. It will probably be impossible to say anything about the polls without referencing or being heckled about the debacle in 2012.

So, what happened?

There are as many theories about what happened in 2012 as there are about the Kennedy assassination. Some of those theories seem to explain most of what happened, but we are still left with a question mark.

There is no doubt among pollsters that for much of the 2012 campaign, Wildrose under Danielle Smith was leading in the polls. Had an election been held at midpoint, and had voters cast their ballot as they said they would, Smith would be premier today instead of having lost her bid for the PC nomination in the riding of Highwood.

But something certainly happened in the last stage of the campaign. Changing government after 41 years is quite a big decision, and handing the reins over to the untested and relatively unknown Wildrose was, for many voters, too much. When the views of a few candidates were disseminated, a lot of the worst fears were confirmed: Wildrose was not ready, and voters swung back to the PCs. Coupled with Liberals and New Democrats voting PC to block Smith from the premier's office, as well as the well-oiled machine that was the PC Party, it was enough to give the Tories another big victory.

Why didn't the polls pick this up? For the most part, they couldn't. The election was held on April 23, a Monday. The last polls by Abacus Data and Campaign Research wrapped up on April 19, the Thursday before the vote. ThinkHQ was done on April 18, the Wednesday. Léger's polling was out of the field on April 16, a full week before the vote, and Return on Insight was done two days before that. If there was a late shift going on, these pollsters were out of the field too early to catch it.

This was particularly the case for Léger, which was doing the traditional live-caller polling. Its final poll of the campaign put the gap at just six points between the PCs and Wildrose, the narrowest margin anyone was showing at the time. If Léger had polled that final weekend, what would it have found?

Complicating matters, however, is that not every pollster was out of the field early. Angus Reid did its final polling on the Friday and Saturday before the vote, yet gave Wildrose a nine-point lead. Forum Research, also polling on the Saturday, also put the gap at nine points.

It strains credulity a little to believe that in a period of 48 hours, the electorate swung from a nine-point Wildrose lead to a 10-point PC victory. The final Forum poll done on April 22, the eve of the election, did show the gap narrowing to just two points, hinting at the surprise that was to come. But that swing should have been picked up a little earlier, as the internal polling in Alberta was reportedly picking up. And the PCs won the advanced vote by a comfortable margin as well (44% to 37%, vs. 44% to 34% among votes cast on election day).

That does leave some uncomfortable questions about what happened with the polls in those final days. Was there a bit of herding going on? Were the online panels and IVR methods being used ill-equipped to reflect the voting intentions of Albertans? Were opinions so weak that, even if the polls were right at the time, they were unable to make any real guess about what would happen in the voting booths?

These questions are impossible to answer, but they do lead us to approach this campaign (and every other one since) with a good deal of caution.

That election was the first one in which I relied heavily upon ranges, and that turned out to be a good idea. On election day, the Forum poll and these ranges led me to be one of the few commentators suggesting that Wildrose might actually fail to win. And after the election was over, the model showed that it could do pretty well with the right poll numbers, awarding the Tories 65 seats to 18 for Wildrose and five for the NDP. The actual results had been 61 for the PCs, 17 for Wildrose, five for the Liberals, and four for the NDP. The model missed on the amazing resilience of a handful of Liberal MLAs. The party's vote tanked everywhere, but those five MLAs retained far more of their vote than they should have.

So I'm confident that the model can do the job again in 2015, if the polls can do their job. Just because they missed in 2012 does not mean they will miss in 2015. There is nothing about Albertans that makes them more unpollable than other Canadians. The miss in 2012 was primarily caused by the dynamics of the 2012 race. Those dynamics have changed. If the polls miss in 2015, it will be because of the dynamics of this race, and not because pollsters were foolhardy enough to try polling Albertans again.

The 2015 model and the dynamics of the campaign

In some ways, the model should do a better job projecting seats in 2015 than it did in 2012. The data is better, as we now have results for Wildrose in all ridings throughout the province. But there are a few factors that complicate things:

A new PC electorate. The PCs in 2012 were a coalition of Red Tories and Liberals/New Democrats who disliked the idea of a Wildrose government more than they did a PC government. It seems that these fears, for the time being, have gone away. The Liberals and NDP took 20% of the vote in 2012. They are currently projected to take 35% of it, and almost all of that extra vote is coming from the PCs. The model may not be able to capture all of these very specific shifts.

Wildrose in a different light. In 2012, Wildrose was a relatively unknown party with a charismatic leader who did not seem to align with all of the politics of her party. It made for an odd combination. Were Wildrose supporters voting for Smith, the Wildrose platform, or against Alison Redford? Now, the party seems quite a bit more monolithic. But compared to Smith, Jean is an unknown. And compared to 2012, Wildrose is a party that is no longer looking like a winner, but rather a party in the midst of political post-traumatic stress. Will this shift its electorate in unexpected ways?

The rise of the NDP. The New Democrats are currently polling at a level about twice as high as their results in 2012. If this surge occurs proportionately to their 2012 results, the model will have no trouble accounting for it. If it does not, it could miss some things. The party is doing very well in Edmonton - will that lift all boats equally?

The oddity of the Liberals' 2012 results. One of the strangest things about the 2012 election was the ability of five Liberal MLAs to resist the wider shifts that almost destroyed the party. And three of those MLAs are not running again in 2015. Though the model does take into account the lack of an incumbent, it is based on a generic incumbent and not these super-incumbents that the Liberals had in 2012. That means that the ridings these three MLAs are vacating could be at play to a greater extent than the model suggests, and that the Liberals, if they take as much of the vote as the polls give them, could win some ridings in unexpected places.

There aren't too many other oddities for this campaign. The riding boundaries are the same as in 2012, and the four major parties that ran full slates in 2012 will do so again in 2015.

One potential wildcard is the Alberta Party. They aren't polling at a level that makes them much of a factor yet, but in the fall's by-elections the party did show it can pull in a big share of the vote when it puts in an effort. Leader Greg Clark is running again in that Calgary riding he almost won, and the model does think he has an outside chance of winning it this time.

Nevertheless, I have made the choice not to include the Alberta Party as a separate entity in the projection model. Many will undoubtedly question that choice. But the party only fielded 38 candidates in 2012, or 44% of a full slate, and does not seem to be planning to run a full slate in 2015. Generally, I do not have a party listed separately in the projection if it did not run a candidate in at least two-thirds of ridings in the previous election. Less than half is really pushing it.

Another requirement is that a party needs to be listed separately in the polls. Granted, the last two polls did include the Alberta Party separately, but the vast majority of polls conducted since 2012 have not. That would indicate that the vast majority of polls in this campaign will not include the Alberta Party separately, and it would be a bad idea to try to estimate this party's support going forward if most polls do not have any data for it.

If the evolution of the campaign warrants the Alberta Party being added to the projection separately, I will do so. For now, it doesn't make the cut.

But let's hope that the polls will. Another miss in Alberta would be disastrous for the industry, particularly in a province with a lot of business interests which might be keen on some market research. Hopefully that will galvanize pollsters to do a good job, and thus give voters a clear idea of what is going. I'll do my best here.