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There's no way to spin Environics poll but as good news for right-wing Wildrose Alliance

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Alberta is not quite at the point where it can be said with confidence that the next government will be formed by the far-right Wildrose Alliance Party, but that possibility seems a lot closer today than it did two weeks ago.

Results of a new poll published Sunday by Environics Research Group shows Danielle Smith's party in a statistical dead heat with the Conservatives under Premier Ed Stelmach.

These results are bad news for Stelmach's Tories, and terrible news for the Liberals under Dr. David Swann. New Democrats can take a little comfort from the numbers, but, really, no amount of spin can change the fact this survey contains very good news for the Wildrose Alliance.

The results in a nutshell show the Conservatives still barely in the lead with 34 per cent of decided voters, the Wildrose Alliance on their heels with 32 per cent, the Alberta Liberals down four per cent since spring to 19 per cent, the New Democrats at 13 per cent and the undecided vote at 17 per cent.

The survey also shows that health care is now extremely high on Albertans' radar -- listed as the No. 1 issue by 47 per cent of the respondents, up a breathtaking 27 percentage points since last spring, the last time Environics asked this question.

That much has been reported in the Calgary Herald, which sponsored the poll.

Looking a little more closely at the results and the methodology, however, suggests the picture may in fact be worse for Stelmach's Tories, who are reeling after a very bad two weeks of devastating revelations about the parlous state of Alberta's health care system, controversial firings and political turmoil.

First, this is a solid poll that uses sound telephone methodology and had a large sample of more than 1,000 respondents.

Moreover, Environics' pollsters went into the field on Nov. 22 and were there for a long time by polling standards, until Dec. 2. It would be extremely interesting to know if they were seeing any trends developing during that period. For example, were the numbers for Conservative supporters stronger in the first few days of sampling? Did the Wildrose Alliance results grow stronger toward the end of the sampling period?

Environics isn’t saying, but there’s a wager to be made that the Wildrose Alliance numbers were in fact growing stronger daily as the health care crisis seemed to get more frenzied with the firing of Dr. Raj Sherman, the Conservatives' former Parliamentary Assistant for health, on Nov. 22 and Alberta Health Services chief Stephen Duckett on Nov. 25, and as the sense of panic spread from the premier's inner circle to cabinet and into his caucus.

There's more bad news for the government in the very high importance Albertans now place on health care relative to just a few weeks ago. This clearly shows that voters have noticed and are worried about the Conservatives' dismal performance on this file since Sherman fired off his fateful email criticizing his own government’s emergency room performance on Nov. 17.

All of this bodes ill for a government that already has a well-organized and well-financed opposition party breathing down its neck.

Meanwhile, if the Tory performance on health care was terrible, the Liberal performance was bad too, everywhere except in the countryside, where they picked up three percentage points and the NDP picked up two. (There would be some interesting number crunching to be done here if we had access to a more precise regional breakdown from Environics.)

Judging from the Environics numbers, it seems that, in the Edmonton area at least, the New Democrats did a better job of exploiting the government's confusion and incompetence over the apparent collapse of the province's emergency care system than the Liberals could manage.

Maybe it's just their damaged brand but, no matter how bad things get for Stelmach's Conservatives, the poor Liberals seem unable to capitalize on it. Managed correctly, this phenomenon could soon allow the NDP to become the voice of the centre-left opposition in Alberta.

Of course, the nascent Alberta Party is hoping to take advantage of this phenomenon, but Environics unfortunately seems not to have asked a question to gauge their level of support.

Now, remember that if an election were to be held tomorrow, the results of this poll still suggest the Conservatives under Stelmach could hang on to a bare majority, and would certainly survive as a minority. Notwithstanding Wildrose Alliance gains from the Liberals, the Tories are so far managing to hold on to their committed voters.

But any general election in Alberta won't be held tomorrow, and what this poll appears to track is the start of an undeniable trend away from the Conservatives and Liberals and toward the Wildrose Alliance.

However, Environics gave us only a blurry snapshot of Alberta’s electorate because during the 11 days they pressed the shutter button, the electorate wasn't standing still.

To get a more focused picture of what's going on, we need another poll … fast!

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

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