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Never mind the media narrative... the real fight's between the Alberta NDP and the Wildrose!

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Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason

A poll by conducted during the weekend that the Tories were selecting Alison Redford as their leader illustrates why Alberta voters should be extremely cautious with the inevitable media claims the next provincial election will be a titanic battle between two articulate and powerful women leaders.

The telephone survey of 1,237 Albertans conducted Oct. 1 and 2 by the Citizen Society Research Lab at Lethbridge College, which shows the governing Progressive Conservative Party with an overwhelming lead in public support, tends to reinforce the conclusion of an Environics Research Group poll in July that showed the Conservatives with an even more commanding lead.

But if these two polls are in fact an accurate reflection of voter sentiments at the time they were taken, as seems likely given their methodology, then they strongly suggest that the real fight is not between the Tories under Alison Redford and the Wildrose Alliance led by Danielle Smith, which is almost certain to be the mainstream media narrative regardless of the facts.

If the Tories can hold onto their dominant position, the interesting battle will in fact be between the Wildrose Party on the right and the New Democratic Party under stolid old (and uninterestingly male) Brian Mason on the left to see who forms the Opposition.

According to both polls, the NDP and the Wildrose enjoy statistically identical levels of support province-wide. Both also have strong regional stomping grounds -- the Wildrosers in Calgary and the NDP in Edmonton -- an advantage in our first-past-the-post electoral system.

Indeed, forget such concepts as statistically identical and margins of error for a hopeful moment -- the more recent CSRL poll shows the NDP running ahead of the Wildrose Party in overall support throughout Alberta.

Furthermore, again basing our conclusions on just these two methodologically sound polls, the NDP would appear to be the only party in Alberta right now whose support is growing.

So if present trends continue it is entirely possible that the NDP, and not the Wildrose Party, could emerge as the Official Opposition after the next election.

But don't expect to hear this interpretation of the numbers from the mainstream media, which is deeply committed to the Titanic Battle Theory. Moreover, as we saw during the lead up to the last federal election, the media will do almost anything to downplay any talk about an Orange Wave, here in Alberta or anywhere else except Holland or the Ukraine. You have to forgive them, though, for they are so deeply set in their ways that they just can't help themselves.

I can almost hear the squeaks and Tweets of protest from supporters of the Alberta Liberals, but, really, none of these polls shows anything like a promising trend for that party.

CSRL first: this poll places support among decided voters as follows:

Progressive Conservatives – 47.7 per cent
New Democratic Party – 16.3 per cent
Wildrose Party – 16.1 per cent
Alberta Liberals – 13.4 per cent
Alberta Party – 3.4 per cent

Environics second, back in July this telephone survey of 900 Albertans placed support among decided voters as follows:

Progressive Conservatives – 54.2 per cent
Wildrose Party – 16.4 per cent
New Democratic Party – 13.6 per cent
Alberta Liberals – 13.6 per cent
Alberta Party – 4 per cent

Now, as in all discussions of polling of this type, there are plenty of caveats about any conclusions based on this data or anyone else's.

First, to muddy the waters, there are two other polls by a company called ThinkHQ Public Affairs. The ThinkHQ surveys -- one back in July and the second of 1,000 Albertans between Sept. 19 and 24, use someone's self-selecting online panel (Angus Reid's, perhaps?) and consistently yield higher results for the Wildrose Party. Naturally, these are the results that are touted by Wildrose supporters.

The latest ThinkHQ poll put the Tories at 40 per cent support among decided voters, the Wildrose at 24 per cent, the NDP at 16 per cent, the Liberals at 14 per cent and the Alberta Party at 3 per cent.

As readers know, it's the view here that online polls should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when we don't know important facts such as who actually did the polling. So it's interesting that this polling company seems to consistently different results among right-wing parties but produce results in line with other pollsters for the centrist parties.

Second, all four of these polls are too early. Conservative support is bound to fall now that the governing party has a leader -- and it wouldn't have mattered who the leader was for this to happen. Premier Redford will have her fans and her detractors within Tory ranks, and some of the detractors will go somewhere else.

It remains to be seen if they move toward the Wildrose Party on the right or the NDP a little to the left, but it will take some time and then more polls to show us what is happening.

To a degree, this is likely to depend on Redford's performance in office -- and today, when she unveils her new cabinet, will have a lot to do with what happens next.

If she tilts to the right or appears to be underperforming sufficiently to disappoint the progressive non-traditional Tory voters who flocked to her side during her campaign, the NDP may benefit.

If she appears too much like a squishy lefty to the party's market-fundamentalist and social conservative hard core, the Wildrose Party will probably benefit.

One thing is certain, cabinet building is the hardest job that must be faced by any premier. Redford must balance regional interests, the rural-urban divide, questions of diversity, points within the political spectrum under the big Tory tent, and personalities, almost all of them ambitious and some determined not to be thwarted. What's more, she must do it without either alienating too many voters or causing a riot within her caucus.

If her choices today seem sound to you, even if you don't particularly like some of the people involved, she has probably done her job right.

But if they seem flaky, they probably are!

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

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