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Shift happens, but not this fast -- getting a handle on Alberta's wonky polls

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Alberta Premier Alison Redford

Whatever went wrong with those notorious pre-election Alberta public opinion polls, it's not, as many pollsters now appear to be trying to persuade us, the fault of voters for changing their minds too quickly for our serious and scientific opinion trackers to keep up.

For weeks they told us with unshakeable confidence the far-right Wildrose Party was a deadbolt cinch to win a huge majority in Tuesday's Alberta election and bring the 41-year-old Conservative government to a humiliating end. In the event, the Tories under Premier Alison Redford did quite nicely, thank you very much.

We'll probably never know the full extent of what happened because, with one or two honourable exceptions like Janet Brown and Brian Singh, both quoted in a useful Globe and Mail story on what went so spectacularly wrong, most pollsters seem to be determined to make excuses or blame respondents for lying to them.

Said poll commentator Eric Grenier of ThreeHundredEight.com: "Wildrose's support simply cratered, and to an extent that no model or method could have anticipated."

Well, it's true, shift happens. But not this fast. And it's poppycock to suggest these shifts couldn't have been predicted if pollsters had been paying attention.

A number of factors contributed to this debacle, but the key one is that Albertans were never as dumb as the pollsters, media commentators and Wildrose strategists gave them credit for being.

For more than two years, the mainstream media in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada have been spinning a yarn about the "upstart right-wing party" led by Danielle Smith, a plucky little scribbler from Calgary, and how it was "soaring the polls." This cliché started back when there was only one poll in which it soared.

This story always came to the marketplace of ideas complete with an agenda -- pushed by right-wing journalists from right-wing media and encouraged by right-wing think tanks and right-wing Astroturf groups to boost the right-wing agenda of the Harperites in Ottawa and their fellow travellers in the Alberta business community.

It was a compelling tale, cleverly marketed: the (justified) sense change was needed and desired by a lot of voters, added to Thatcherite fear-mongering There Is No Alternative, but leavened by the appealing personality of Smith. She gave the impression that no matter how necessary the harsh medicine the right was about to administer to the rest of us, it wouldn't taste that horrible.

Lots of us -- not just pollsters -- were persuaded to swallow this ideologically distilled codswollop, even if we didn't accept the premises on which it was based. It is said here many honourable pollsters were among those who bought into this manufactured wisdom, and that it began to affect the assumptions that underlay their research.

In addition, however, there were a few pollsters whose intentions were not so honourable, and who purposely devised push polls designed to move public opinion in the direction they wanted it to go -- toward the Wildrose Party.

These polls were not just treated with undeserved credibility by the media, they were used along with more legitimate polls by analysts like Grenier who aggregate the results of numerous surveys done by others to produce seat estimates. This added to the sense a Wildrose victory was unstoppable.

Then there was poll fatigue -- especially with pollsters using methodologically questionable push-button telephone polls, which had handsets jumping off their stands all across Alberta. After you'd received three or more of these things in a day, as happened in many households, serious resistance to answering calls from strangers began to set in.

Who bothers to stick around to answer questions delivered in such a format? Only the politically committed, ideologically driven and deeply unsatisfied, which included significant numbers of far-right Wildrose supporters, had the patience to answer all the questions.

Ordinary voters -- who in Alberta tend to vote Conservative -- didn't even bother to pick up.

There may also have been a spousal factor -- and this may be a bigger contributor in Alberta than many of us would like to admit. Face it, when your spouse has a bee in his bonnet (or hers, I suppose) about property rights, gun registration or kooky religious doctrines, who needs the argument that's inevitable if you're overheard telling a pollster you’re not planning to vote Wildrose?

That's why we have secret ballots in this country, and it's said here that on April 23 plenty of Albertans wisely took advantage of that fact.

Then there's this key fact: It was obvious early -- despite the best efforts of the media to ignore it -- that the Wildrose Party advocated policies and held attitudes that defied the broad consensus of Canadian society, and that includes Alberta society.

This was true even before it was apparent the Wildrose Party offered a safe and uncritical haven to racists and homophobes or that its leader didn't believe in climate change, attitudes that are not shared by the majority of Canadians no matter how many times you angrily repeat the opposite on right-wing talk radio.

Public opinion polls showed Albertans wanted to preserve public health care. The Wildrose Party was triumphally open about its plans to privatize and commercialize the health care system, notwithstanding its mendacious insistence it believed in publicly funded health care.

Public opinion polls also showed Albertans support public education. The Wildrose Party's plans for education were also well known.

The desire of Canadian women for reproductive choice may often be softly spoken, but it is clear enough. Notwithstanding Smith's attempt to have it both ways and claim she personally was pro-choice, it was pretty clear where the party was going with this.

Never mind "conscience rights" and "Dani Dollars," there were plenty of areas where Wildrose policies past and present were well known, despite the party's efforts to soft-pedal them in the election run-up. Among them, opting out of the Canada Pension Plan, dumping the RCMP, shutting down the Human Rights Commission, setting up "firewalls" around Alberta.

So it turns out that Albertans were paying attention. 

If nothing else, it should have been a warning to pollsters that Albertans' attitudes on topics like these were at odds with their supposed support for the Wildrose Party. But pollsters too appear to have been carried away by the suspenseful tale being spun by the media to have noticed the obvious.

This is not to detract from the clever and subtle campaign of Redford's strategists. Nor is it to accept the absurd myth repeated tirelessly by Wildrose propagandists that Redford and her PCs are liberals. Nor is it to say the PCs are the best possible choice for Alberta.

But it is to say Albertans tried to make the best possible choices under the circumstances for themselves and their province, and if our pollsters had been paying attention they would have seen they were likely to do so.

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

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