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Poll puts NDP in third place among Albertans -- a plausible result despite a pollster's debatable analysis

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Quito Maggi

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Late last week, the Calgary Herald reported the results of a poll that indicated Alberta's NDP government has "plummeted"? to third place among the province's major political parties and that Premier Rachel Notley’s personal approval levels have also "plunged."

Notwithstanding the colourful language used by the news story's author, possibly a reflection of his employer’s ongoing efforts to direct public opinion in Alberta, the horserace numbers provided by the Mainstreet Research poll for Postmedia's Calgary newsroom seemed quite plausible.

Mainstreet's demon-dialer poll of 3,092 Albertan residents on one day, Feb. 3, requires all the usual caveats about this type of technology and methodology, including the one about how it tends to skew toward older, more conservative voters who sit at home waiting for their landline telephones to ring and give them something to do.

Nevertheless, it believably indicated a fairly close three-way race among decided voters with the Wildrose Opposition at 33 per cent province-wide, the Progressive Conservatives at 31 per cent and the New Democrats at 27 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, that broke out rather differently by region with the Wildrose leading the PCs in rural ridings and narrowly in Calgary, and the New Democrats continuing to lead strongly in Edmonton.

Meanwhile, according to the Toronto-based polling company that came up with these numbers, Notley's own approval ratings have fallen to 36 per cent province wide -- 44 per cent in Edmonton, 22 per cent in Calgary and 17 per cent in the rest of the province, which is the way we usually divide up the geography around here.

Mainstreet also identified a significant stream of support back to the PCs, presumably among centre-right voters, plenty of whom supported Notley's NDP last May. It reported an increase of more than 10 per cent in support for the PCs during a period when the party’s legislative caucus under interim Leader Ric McIver said and did very little.

This is a number that ought to worry both the New Democrats, who presumably don't want just to be a one-term government, and the Wildrosers led by Opposition Leader Brian Jean, who still hold onto the fading hope they can stampede the Tories into a hostile reverse takeover under the banner of an urgent need to unite the right.

As for the once-powerful Tories, now fallen on hard times, this may persuade them to think extra carefully before they jump into bed with the Wildrose Party, which hopes to do to them exactly what the Reform-Alliance party did to the federal PCs when those two parties found themselves in a similar sleeping arrangement back in 2003.

As noted, despite grounds for quibbles, these latest Alberta results will hardly strain the credulity of anyone who stays reasonably in touch with the mood of Albertans.

Mainstreet President Quito Maggi's explanation for them, however, is harder to swallow, and I daresay reflects the thoughts of someone who lacks a local's take on what makes Albertans tick.

The way Maggi sees it, according to the Herald's report and his own news release, it's all about historically low oil prices and the generally lacklustre state of the economy here in Alberta. "Even though the premier doesn't set the price of oil, she's the one in power," he said in his release. "She just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time."

But there's really nothing in the data Mainstreet provided that suggests most Albertans blame Notley for the general state of the economy, which people in this province understand better than most is driven by factors outside any local political leader's control.

Maggi is certainly entitled to his opinion, of course, but, historically, Albertans have been disinclined to punish their political leaders too severely when the economic going got tough. Consider PC premier Ed Stelmach, who remained personally popular through the lowest ebb of the last global downturn in the mid-zeroes.

So if the poll is accurate and Albertans are losing faith in Notley, it's unlikely because they blame her personally for low oil prices. More likely, they're starting to worry she hasn't grasped the gravity of the current situation, and, as a result, their confidence in her to deal with it is faltering accordingly.

This is both good news and bad news for the government. It's not good for them that it's happening, but it does mean doing something about it is not out of their hands if oil prices remain depressed.

But the NDP's strategic brain trust is going to have to find a way to deal with this perception if they expect to turn things around before the next election, presumably in 2019. To do that, they may themselves have to think about how much they trust their instincts and how much they listen to their own non-Albertan experts, who may misunderstand how we think here just as some pollsters do.

Additional potential good news in this for the NDP -- other than the thought they could always have fallen further, faster -- may be that the poll suggests Albertans generally approved of their decision, controversial among traditional NDP supporters, not to muck with the generous royalty arrangements enjoyed by the province's oil and gas companies.

Of course, the majority of those who backed the NDP’s post-royalty-review support for the status quo are likely to be Wildrose and PC supporters -- and the drop in NDP support and confidence in Notley herself may include traditional NDP supporters disillusioned with the review process. Still, under the circumstances, this particular number is probably a positive for the NDP.

Of course, it also wouldn’t hurt if something happened to bring oil prices back a little faster than most forecasters are predicting right now, because there's nothing like the arrival of a lot of cash just before closing time to make a government look good!

Meanwhile, we're probably all doomed to hear from more folks who aren't from around here telling us why we think the way they think we think.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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