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Alberta pollster predicting UCP victory has a bit of a history

On July 30, United Conservative Party MLAs were Tweeting around a graphic from a new poll that showed their party with a wide lead over the New Democratic Party in all regions of Alberta, including the Edmonton area, which lately has been seen as an NDP stronghold.

Mysteriously, the UCPers didn't include any information in their Tweets about who did the poll.

My guess is that was because the pollster in question -- Mainstreet Research of Toronto -- comes with a bit of a history.

Mainstreet is the polling company that was in effect fired last year by Postmedia's Calgary news operation for what the pollster later conceded had been "a catastrophic polling failure."

Controversial polls published by the company for Postmedia's Calgary news outlets during the province-wide October 2017 municipal elections showed Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi far behind his strongest opponent, former Progressive Conservative Party president Bill Smith.

One Mainstreet poll placed Mayor Nenshi 17 points behind Mr. Smith -- which, if true, would have been slam-dunk territory for his conservative challenger. Alberta conservatives badly wanted this outcome to advance their narrative progressive politics are kaput in Alberta, especially Calgary, and voters were swinging back to the right.

In the same time frame, though, opinion surveys by several other pollsters showed Nenshi in the lead, though by smaller margins.

On voting day, though, Nenshi was re-elected with a lead of eight percentage points.

This led to unverified accusations by Nenshi supporters that Mainstreet was producing "co-ordinated polls" designed to help Postmedia, as the CBC put it in a headline, "influence Calgary mayoral race."

In late October 2017, shortly after the municipal election, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, a national standards association for public opinion researchers, said it would launch an inquiry "into underperforming and conflicting election polling results published during the recent municipal elections in Calgary."

In January this year, MRIA announced the members of its panel. An MRIA spokesperson said at the time the panel would consider the work of all pollsters, even those like Mainstreet that were not affiliated with the association.

Meanwhile, Mainstreet vowed to fix the problems the bedevilled its October 2017 polling. It no longer appears to work for Postmedia, which publishes the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun and their websites out of the same newsroom, although the U.S.-owned corporation left the door open a crack to a renewed relationship with the pollster.

In December 2017, Mainstreet dropped a threat to sue a Calgary pollster who had worked for the Nenshi campaign over critical comments he made about Mainstreet's polls.

Which brings us back to the present and the poll the UCP was crowing about on Monday. Mainstreet said the demon-dialler survey of 936 Albertans, which was collecting responses between July 15 and July 17, was not done for a third party.

"Among decided and leaning voters, the UCP led by Jason Kenney currently enjoy just over 52 per cent support while the NDP led by Rachel Notley have 32.5 per cent support," Mainstreet's report summarized its results. "The Alberta Party with Stephen Mandel at the helm have 5.4 per cent. The Liberals led by David Khan are at 4.8 per cent, and the Greens have 3.1 per cent support."

At a quick glance, it's interesting to note the poll claims shows undecided voters as only 7.8 per cent province wide, and only 6.7 per cent in the Edmonton area. It actually indicates the undecided vote is higher in rural areas, which are thought by most Alberta political observers to be solidly in the UCP camp.

This seems unlikely. Other polls being done in the same time frame for private clients place the level of undecided voters at between 22 and 24 per cent province-wide, and 24 and 30 per cent in Edmonton. But, again, nothing is impossible, as polls provide a snapshot of voter opinion at a moment in time.

Some parts of the poll are also heavily weighted to account for the low number of respondents between 18 and 34, who tend to be more progressive in their voting intentions, and the high number of respondents over 65, who tend to be more conservative.

Of the poll's 936 respondents, 151 were in the 18-34 demographic. That number was adjusted to 317 by the pollster. Meanwhile, 297, nearly a third of the sample, were over 65, which the pollster adjusted downward as if it were 158. It certainly seems likely Mainstreet has analyzed the seniors' vote with a high degree of precision.

None of these qualifications are meant to suggest the poll published yesterday by Mainstreet is outside the realm of possibility. NDP supporters who wish to be disheartened by the results are welcome to feel gloomy. UCP supporters enthusiastic about them are equally welcome to feel euphoric.

Others, however, may wish to await the results of more polls by several reputable pollsters before passing judgment on whether this is the best of times or the worst of times, the epoch of belief or the epoch of incredulity, etc.

This may explain why Kenney, who undoubtedly has some polling of his own, begged his supporters to "take nothing for granted."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David Climenhaga

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