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Where did pollsters find the elusive Liberals of Edmonton Strathcona?

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Heather McPherson, the federal NDP candidate in Edmonton Strathcona. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Volunteers for NDP candidate Heather McPherson's campaign in the federal Edmonton Strathcona riding are asking themselves, where the heck are those mobs of Liberal voters one pollster claims to have identified in the riding?

Door-knocking in 2019 in the progressive-leaning riding on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River feels much the same as it did in 2015, when New Democrat Linda Duncan went on to win by a comfortable 7,051-vote margin, NDP volunteers in the riding insist.

Things have changed in the past four years, of course. For one thing, Duncan is about to retire. But the Dipper doorknockers maintain they're getting about the same number of positive responses as they have in recent elections. There are few Liberal signs on private property.

So where are the hordes of Liberals the riding-specific poll by Toronto-based Mainstreet Research claims to have unearthed in September?

The first political activists in the riding heard of it was in a detail-deficient iPolitics story published on September 23.

Absent other information, the results showed up as a big jump for the Liberals in the 388Canada.com poll tracker on September 25 and 26 -- a development that if real could result in a split vote that favours Conservative Sam Lilly in what may be the only riding in the province with the potential to elect an opposition member this year.

The Liberals, understandably, jumped on it and pushed the poll's results hard in their efforts to boost their candidate, Eleanor Olszewski.

New Democrats believe it's a false narrative, but fear that if too many voters were persuaded by it, it could get Lilly elected.

A Star Edmonton story mentioned it -- again with very few facts -- on October 1. (The traditionally Liberal-leaning Star acquired iPolitics a year ago.)

On Saturday, Postmedia's Alberta newspapers, which nowadays campaign openly for the Conservatives, claimed in a riding profile presumably based on Mainstreet's poll, which was not acknowledged, that the NDP and Liberals are polling "neck and neck" in the riding and suggested Lilly would win.

So does the Mainstreet poll indicate a real trend, or is it an outlier for whatever reasons?

To answer this important question, it would be helpful to get more information about the poll's methodology and the wording of the questions it asked. Strangely, though, that information does not show up in any of the credulous mainstream media accounts seen so far. I asked Mainstreet president and CEO Quito Maggi for that information.

His emailed response was not particularly informative, unfortunately. "The poll was conducted for and published by iPolitics, it's behind their paywall for subscribers," he responded. "I can't provide further details beyond confirming that it exists and that the quote (in the October 1 Star story) is an accurate reflection of the poll findings at the time."

For more information, he suggested subscribing to iPolitics.

Well, sorry, but AlbertaPolitics.ca's subscription budget is all tapped out. So we'll just go with what we know about past Mainstreet polls, which are sometimes accurate, sometimes not so accurate, and now and then, in Maggi's own words, "a catastrophic failure."

The best example of the latter category was the 2017 Mainstreet prediction Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi would lose to his Conservative challenger by a wide margin. Nenshi won. That was the poll Maggi termed catastrophic.

Then there was the riding poll just before the Nanaimo, B.C., byelection in January in which the pollster said the B.C. Liberals had a huge lead over the NDP candidate (who won) and Mainstreet's much-reported forecast of a Green Party victory in the Prince Edward Island provincial election in April (which the Conservatives won).

Mainstreet also got the winners right but the margins wrong enough to be outside its margin of error in this year's provincial elections in Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec. Other Mainstreet polls have done better.

Still, this suggests at the very least that both the Star and Postmedia need to give their readers more information about the polls they report on.

Mainstreet's history notwithstanding, I'd bet money all three major parties' campaigns have a good grip on what's really happening on the ground now in Edmonton Strathcona -- and that it's not quite what Mainstreet said last month.

I've heard suggestions the Liberals are playing a long game -- get a weak Conservative candidate elected and then beat him with a star candidate in four years. Maybe, but I don't think that's the way political parties usually think, especially in an election this close. True or not, though, if the NDP loses narrowly and the Liberals get blamed, they may not be forgiven for it in the riding by the time the next federal election rolls around.

Or maybe progressive voters in Strathcona will blame one of the Green, Communist, Marxist-Leninist or People's Party candidates. Who knows?

My bet is the NDP are in fact a hair ahead of the other parties right now. After all, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion shows the riding leaning NDP, and despite being impacted by the Mainstreet poll bump, the 388Canada.com poll aggregation site, updated on October 14, calls it a toss-up with the Conservatives narrowly ahead. In other words, it's the NDP and the Conservatives who are neck and neck.

Regardless, if you're a New Democrat and you live in Edmonton Strathcona, or for that matter just someone opposed to the Conservatives, you'd better get out there and make sure on election day that McPherson is far enough ahead to win.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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