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Environics poll shows Tories in full flower, Wildrose withering on the vine

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Alison Redford

From the perspective of Alberta’s market-fundamentalist Wildrose Party Opposition, yesterday's Environics Research Group poll of voter support for the province's political parties did not contain particularly good news.

The survey -- the first major Alberta opinion poll to be published since the April 23 provincial election -- shows support for Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative government remains at a commanding level almost identical to where it was on the day of the election.

As for the Wildrose Party, which saw its support peak a few days ahead of the spring election, the Environics numbers indicate the right-wing opposition party's support is slumping, possibly quite seriously give or take the margin of error. (Note that at least one other poll, which will be published very soon, has produced similar results.)

The two traditionally more moderate opposition parties, meanwhile, have seen their committed voter support grow back closer to the levels seen in the recent past, according to Environics' results, particularly in the case of the NDP. The Liberals have a little further to go to get to where they once were, but nevertheless their results are much better too.

This suggests -- to me, at any rate -- that traditional Conservative voters who flirted with the Wildrose Party during last spring's campaign, when Alberta's Natural Governing Party seemed to be on the ropes, are returning to their traditional electoral home. NDP and Liberal supporters, meanwhile, who deserted their parties in droves to vote strategically for Redford’'s PCs also appear to be going back to their parties.

It is probably a little early to forecast with much confidence that these results mean the Wildrose Party, led by former broadcaster Danielle Smith, reached its historical high tide of support on about April 19 or 20.

Buoyed by open media support in the weeks before the election, lingering dissatisfaction among voters with the PC government of former premier Ed Stelmach and a series of pre-election polls that turned out either to be highly misleading or to be tracking extreme volatility on the part of the electorate, the Wildrose Party appeared for a few days to be on the cusp of a majority.

But then a series of ill-timed bozo eruptions by candidates from the party's social conservative wing apparently alerted voters to what they were on the verge of electing. At any rate, that seemed to be the beginning of an influx to Tory ranks of progressive voters motivated by a desire to block at any cost victory by the Wildrose Party, which they viewed as dangerously extreme.

Wildrosers are within their rights to respond by claiming that the conclusions of Environics' pollsters, who were in the field between Aug. 10 and Aug. 22, were reached before a number of serious public relations embarrassments unfolded for the government. These include most significantly the first-quarter fiscal update in which Finance Minister Doug Horner told Albertans there would be a bigger deficit than was predicted before the election, but also the sudden and apparently politically motivated decision to drop plans for a police college in Fort Macleod, part of a riding that voted Wildrose on April 23.

Wildrose supporters are also entitled to expect that their mostly inexperienced 19-member caucus will grow more effective as it learns on the job over the next couple of years and watches veteran NDP and Liberal Opposition members in action.

Still, given the ferocity of the public response to the Alberta Health Services expense account scandal that broke well before the polling data was collected, the conclusion is hard to avoid that the public does not blame the Redford PCs for a situation that developed under Stelmach's leadership. Leastways, Premier Redford and her strategists have the political skills or good luck to be able to weather such storms. Whatever the reason, the effects of that particular controversy rolled off Redford's government like water off the proverbial duck's back.

In detail, the Environics poll of 1,000 respondents throughout Alberta results show support among committed voters for the PC party at 43 per cent, down a statistically insignificant point from 44 per cent on April 23.

Wildrose Party support, however, fell to 26 per cent from 34 per cent. NDP support grew to 13 per cent from 10 per cent and Liberal support grew to 14 per cent from 10 per cent. Support for other parties, whoever they may be (the Alberta Party? Social Credit?), edged upward to 3 per cent from 2 per cent, Environics said. Another 13 per cent of respondents indicated they were undecided or did not answer.

The PCs, moreover, enjoyed strong support in Edmonton, Calgary and Alberta's larger cities, with the Wildrose managing a much narrower lead only in rural areas. NDP support was significantly stronger in the Capital Region -- at 20 per cent, it was effectively tied in the region with the Wildrose at 21 per cent.

There can be few complaints about the methodology used by Environics to conduct this telephone survey of randomly selected Albertans, their numbers weighted by region.

The Redford Tories have taken steps to defuse some of their more serious recent problems, pledging, for example, to enact Canada's strongest public transparency laws for elected officials and recruiting new issues management and strategy talent to guide them down the long road to the next election.

All this suggests that if the satisfied mood of Alberta's voters does not change, Redford and her government have the ability not just to survive but to thrive. Given low expectations, the same can be said about both the Liberals and the NDP.

However, the future of the Wildrose Party is not so clear. It has been argued here that expectations for the party were so high just before the April election that anything but an election victory posed a threat to its survival.

Smith's undoubted political talents notwithstanding, Wildrose supporters will continue to drift back to the PCs if the party can't generate enthusiasm and support like it did in its salad days before April's election. Rural municipal politicians, used to having their way in Edmonton, will soon grow tired of being left out in the cold.

That would leave the Wildrose Party, thoroughly marginalized, in the hands of its most extreme far-right factions.

In other words, the Wildrose Party cannot expect to survive if it continues to post poll results like those reported by Environics yesterday.

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

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