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Credible Environics poll puts Alberta's Wildrose Alliance support in perspective

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The release of a reputable Environics poll yesterday shows Ed Stelmach's Alberta Conservatives are still ahead of the Wildrose Alliance party, if only by a nose.

Does this mean Alberta's media -- which loves a horserace, even at the expense of accuracy -- will stop saying the far-right Alliance led by former journalist Danielle Smith "is leading the government in public opinion polls across the province"? After all, until yesterday there'd only been one poll that put the Wildrose Alliance is in the lead, and it was based on controversial methodology.

Don't count on anything so sensible. The idea the brash new Wildrose Alliance led by an interesting new leader might soon topple Stelmach's boring old government is just too compelling -- too entertaining -- for the media to let go. What’s more, it's not a stretch to say election of the "upstart" Alliance would suit many of the people who own and influence media companies, always a powerful incentive to cover a story in a particular way.

Indeed, the Edmonton press played the poll's results -- which showed the Conservatives with a narrow four-point lead over the Alliance province-wide -- as closer than they were. "Alberta Tories remain tied with Wildrose Alliance, " said the headline in the Edmonton Journal. Ah well, the results, at least, were close to the margin of error.

Environics' numbers were far from the conclusions of the Angus Reid survey that caused Wildrose fever to break out in December 2009. That poll concluded that if an election had been held that day, the Alliance would have formed a majority. (Reid was back in the media yesterday, publishing a second poll just hours after Environics, claiming the Alliance now has the support of 42 per cent of Albertans.)

The trouble is, the Reid polls are on-line surveys based on interviews with a group of Albertans interested in politics who have selected themselves for the job. The advantage of these on-line panels is that they’re cheap to run. The disadvantage is their results can't be called scientific and aren't particularly credible. Moreover, Reid doesn't have a good track record forecasting Alberta politics. A Reid poll in 2008 missed the election result by ten percentage points -- well outside the claimed margin of error.

But never mind the facts, the December story was just too good for most journalists. It soon spawned a cottage industry generating reports that the Alliance was "leading in the polls." Even Britain’s venerable Economist -- the pretentious newsmagazine for people who wish they were rich -- famously got into the act.

None of which is to denigrate the remarkable achievement of Smith and the Alliance. With a little help from the Calgary energy companies that bankroll it and some former Reform Party strategists who know their stuff, the party has made tremendous gains. A year ago it was the fringiest of fringe parties, polling in the single digits. Today it has elected an MLA in a by-election, attracted two Tory floor crossers and is a contender.

But it is not what the media says it is -- not yet, anyway.

By contrast, the only trouble with the Environics poll was that the pollsters didn't provide a breakdown by region of where party support in Alberta is strong. Where the parties find their support will likely be a significant factor that could determine how the next Alberta general election plays out.

If, as seems possible, the Wildrose Alliance is strong in Calgary, the Liberals and the NDP are strong around Edmonton, and the Conservatives maintain their grip on rural ridings, almost anyone could form a government! A minority government is a strong possibility.

Add the unknown effect of the Alberta Party -- an unlikely alliance of Red Tories, Blue Liberals and environmentalists now in its formative stages -- and an interesting situation becomes fascinating.

We Albertans should count our blessings. If nothing else, our politics are interesting again for the first time in a generation!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

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