The story so far:

Feisty upstart right-wing party leads in polls;
is set to unseat plummeting Conservatives

This, at any rate, is how Alberta’s mainstream media have been portraying the contest between the Alberta Conservatives of Premier Ed Stelmach and the Wildrose Alliance party led by former journalist and Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith. For weeks in Alberta, you couldn’t read a story on the topic without being reminded that the far-right Alliance was “leading the government in public opinion polls across the province.”

This version of reality was always about five parts wishful thinking, four parts spin and one part fact. Indeed, it may not even be one part fact, seeing as the latest credible polling results yesterday show that Stelmach’s Conservatives are still in majority government territory, if only just. These results tend to confirm the findings of a similar poll in March that said … the same thing.

Nevertheless, Alberta’s mainstream media are struggling manfully to keep the horserace yarn alive — in the hope, presumably, that if they say it enough times it will become reality.

So how did the Calgary Herald spin the results of the new Environics poll published yesterday that reveals — after weeks of stories saying the opposite — that Stelmach’s Tories remain in the lead, if not as comfortably as they would like?

Poll shows Wildrose continues to break era of Tory domination,” said the headline in the Herald’s on-line edition yesterday — followed by a repetitive sub-head that added, “Poll shows end of single-party domination.” The Edmonton Journal, playing Izvestia to the Herald’s Pravda, ran the same story under the same headline in its on-line edition.

Well, it might be true. Eventually. But whether it is or not, it looks like Alberta’s mainstream media is prepared work hard to keep this alluring storyline alive.

They love this tale, as has been suggested here before, because the media has always appreciates the drama of a tight race, and because the idea that a brash new political party led by an engaging new leader might soon topple Stelmach’s boring old government is just too entertaining to drop. Moreover, it’s not a stretch to say election of the “upstart” Alliance would suit many of the people who own and influence media companies, which was always a powerful incentive to cover a story in a particular way.

In fact, only two polls have ever actually shown the Alliance in the lead. Both were done by the Angus Reid organization using controversial on-line methodology. Other polling companies that use more conventional — and more reputable — telephone methodology keep getting results that are at odds with the media’s suspenseful storyline.

An Environics poll on March 10 showed Stelmach’s Conservatives in the lead, and yesterday’s survey by the same company seems to confirm that result. 

Despite the awkward headline that tried to take the story where the facts don’t want it to go, the author eventually got around to quoting someone who suggests the results in fact mean Conservative support has fallen about as far as it’s going to.

The fact is, when a general election is eventually held in Alberta, almost anything could happen — except an NDP majority, sad to say. Certainly, the Liberals and NDP could benefit significantly from Conservative-Wildrose vote splitting. Or either the Wildrose Alliance or the Conservatives could emerge victorious. It’s just too soon to tell.

Don’t rule out even more bizarre outcomes, like the Liberals and Conservatives teaming up, with or without the help of the NDP, to keep the Wildrose Alliance out of power. Or the Wildrose Alliance striking an agreement with the Liberals to topple the Tories.

Any of these things are within the realm of possibility in Alberta’s suddenly interesting political scene over the next couple of years.

However, for the time being, as the polls show even if the local media doesn’t want to admit it, Premier Stelmach’s Conservatives remain in the lead.

If an election were held tomorrow, the Conservatives would win a majority.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...