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40-30-20-10: The 'new normal' shows Alberta Conservatives still in majority territory

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Alberta pollster Janet Brown

Two polls with similar results illustrate there's a "new normal" in Alberta politics -- and despite plenty of recent speculation about the fate of the Progressive Conservative government, it's not the worst news imaginable for Alberta's Natural Governing Party.

Pollster Janet Brown's easy-to-remember formula for the new normal looks like this: 40-30-20-10.

That is, Brown said yesterday, 40 per cent of voters favour the Conservatives, 30 per cent like the Wildrose Alliance, 20 per cent back the Liberals and 10 per cent are sticking with the NDP. This means the governing Progressive Conservatives -- despite all their recent troubles -- are still camped out in majority government territory. "This is starting to look like the 'new normal' in Alberta," she explained.

On Friday, a telephone survey released by Environics Research Group showed the following results:

Conservatives: 38 per cent
Wildrose Alliance: 26 per cent
Liberals: 22 per cent
New Democrats: 10 per cent
Undecided: 18 per cent

Environics was in the field conducting this poll of 1,011 Albertans between Jan. 20 and 31. Smack dab in the middle of this came the Jan. 25 announcement by Premier Ed Stelmach that he would step down. Liberal Leader David Swann dropped his nearly identical bombshell two days after the poll closed -- but the party was clearly in turmoil internally at the time pollsters were making their calls.

However, none of this seemed to hurt either party. Indeed, it may even have helped!

At any rate, both parties posted gains over Environics' previous poll last November -- up 4 per cent for the Tories and up 3 per cent for the Liberals. Meanwhile, the Wildrose Alliance, according to this poll, slumped 6 per cent, while the NDP slipped 3 per cent.

The shocker in this poll, according to all the usual suspects, was the amount the far-right Wildrose Alliance seems to have fallen -- but it's only shocking because it's an obvious contradiction of the exciting storyline the mainstream media has been feeding us for more than a year.

Meanwhile, last weekend the subscriber-only Alberta Scan newsletter, working in co-operation with Brown, published the results a Trend Research poll she had helped develop that showed these results:

Conservatives: 40 per cent
Wildrose Alliance: 33 per cent
Liberals: 19 per cent
NDP: 8 per cent
Alberta Party: 0.1 per cent

That poll of 900 Albertans was conducted between Jan. 17 and Jan. 24, immediately before the Conservative Party seemed as if it were melting through the floor of the Legislature Building.

Both polls use legitimate, reliable methodology. Notwithstanding small variations (all but the Wildrose results in the Environics poll are within the statistical margin of error of the Trend survey) together they make a pretty compelling case this is the way things really are just now in Alberta.

That is, we are in a situation in which the Conservatives under any leader, including Stelmach, would retain their majority in a general election, and in which the Liberals under any leader, including Swann, would also be able to hang on close to traditional levels of representation.

This contradicts the popular journalistic tale about how Alberta is on the cusp of a historic transformation of truly geologic proportions. But although it's not quite as good a yarn, it's much more likely a true one.

Naturally, opposition parties that rely the most on the story of transformational change to keep voters engaged are bound to take issue with whichever survey that shows them in the worst light.

Supporters of the Alberta Party, for example, claimed earlier this week that the Trend poll couldn't be trusted because "everything changed" right after it was conducted. Alas, while the Environics survey was taken after everything changed, nothing much seems to have changed. Unfortunately, Environics didn't measure Alberta Party support. But its other conclusions strongly suggest the Trend poll got it mainly right.

For the moment, the Wildrose Alliance will only say stiffly that they don't comment on polls, and we've not heard from the NDP. However, it's likely strategists for both parties are worried by these results. The Alliance must be praying that this will make the Conservatives confident enough to pick a candidate with weaknesses they can exploit. New Democrats are surely crossing their more secular fingers that the Alberta Party really is right off the radar, and will stay there in the face of slumping support for their party.

Regardless, the Environics poll makes it pretty clear that support remains strong for the Conservatives and around traditional levels for the Liberals, and that we are not just yet on the verge of a tectonic shift that will sweep the Wildrose Alliance or anyone else into power.

Moreover, it seems likely that the selection of new leaders by the Conservatives and Liberals will give both those parties a boost in the polls, at least for a while. This is of particular value to the Conservatives because they get to pick the moment when an election is called.

Finally, since the rise of the far-right Wildrose Alliance, the media narrative has consistently identified the Conservatives under Stelmach as "Red Tories," close to the centre of the political spectrum and therefore a legitimate target fro attack by an invigorated far-right.

This is quite misleading for a party that is in reality much farther to the right. Nevertheless, numbers like those in both these polls should strengthen the hand of those Conservatives who argue their party is more likely to survive by running in the centre, instead of trying to outflank the Wildrose Alliance on the far right.

In the coming Conservative leadership contest, this is better news for leading centrist candidates Doug Horner, Gary Mar or Alison Redford than for a fiscal hawk Ted Morton.

The "new normal" does not mean change is impossible in Alberta. It does, however, mean that it is not inevitable, as the professional storytellers would have us believe.

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

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