Alberta Conservative strategist Stephen Carter

What’s with the recent buzz there’s a private Conservative poll that shows NDP support surging in the Edmonton region?

Is this a real Orange Wave, or is it just hair dye?

Specifically, is it orange hair dye selectively applied by professional creators of new political realities? Or is it evidence of a verifiable trend finally reaching critical mass? Or a little of both?

Here’s what is known and verifiable: At least eight political polls were conducted in Alberta in 2011, some of better quality than others. Together, they demonstrated the NDP to be on a gradual but steady upward trend in support province-wide. There are said to be a couple more private polls out there that show much the same thing.

The first of the eight, conducted by Trend Research Inc. just after New Year 2011, put NDP support at 8 per cent. The most recent poll, done by Environics Research Group between Nov. 4 and 8, put the New Democrats at 14 per cent. The best poll from the NDP perspective, done by the Citizen Society Research Lab on Oct. 1 and 2, showed the party with province-wide support at 16.3 per cent. The latter is the only one that placed the NDP ahead of the Wildrose Party, which it located at 16.1 per cent.

If it’s true that the NDP and the Wildrose Party are at about the same level of support, this works better for the New Democrats because of the way the votes split in the regions where both parties are strong.

If Calgary-area voters are roughly divided 60-40 in favour of Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford’s PCs over Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party, with the NDP and the Liberals hardly registering in the region, the Conservatives can sweep most ridings thereabouts.

If Edmonton support shows big fissures on the right between the Tories and the Wildrose, the NDP led by Brian Mason can do well in several of the area’s ridings where it has strong support. But NDP success depends on a strong Wildrose showing.

Now, we also know that days before the second Conservative leadership poll in early October, Premier Redford’s campaign effectively used an unexpected Calgary Herald-Environics poll that put her in second-place behind front-runner Gary Mar. This in effect created a new reality that motivated her supporters and gave her sufficient momentum to push her over the top.

The Sept. 13 poll was controversial because it was based on a list of 22,000 card-carrying PC Party members that probably ought not to have been given to the polling company. The next day, Conservative Party President Bill Smith issued a stinging rebuke on the party’s website of whoever allowed the “unauthorized and inappropriate use” of the party membership list. That commentary has since been removed from the Tory website, but may still be viewed here.

No one knows who gave the list to the Calgary Herald to pass on to Environics. Since Redford became premier, the party’s concern about the leak seems to have evanesced.

We also know that back in the fall 2010, the come-from-behind campaign of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi gained sudden momentum and credibility from an unexpected September Calgary Herald poll that put Nenshi in third place.

And for what it’s worth, we know that Stephen Carter, who today is Premier Redford’s chief of staff, played pivotal roles in both campaigns.

Can we conclude from this that the two campaigns created their own futures through polling? Not really. But it would be fair to say that both campaigns made effective use of unexpected poll results to springboard their candidates from behind.

This time, even if New Democrat poll numbers have increased startlingly, it would be pretty difficult for Carter or anyone else to portray the Alberta NDP as riding the crest of an Orange Wave so big it could threaten to dislodge the mighty Tory behemoth.

Still, good NDP numbers could motivate Conservative campaign workers to take the election effort seriously in the Capital Region without giving credibility to the Wildrose Party, which one suspects the Conservatives still view as their Main Enemy. If so, this might parallel the situation in last May’s federal election in which the federal Conservatives focused on the Liberals and ignored the surging NDP.

I asked Carter about the private Tory poll rumour, and he chose a Delphic response: “Ahh, polling. Yes. No. Absolutely. Sometimes.” File that under “would neither confirm nor deny.”

Conclusions? It’s too soon to tell.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...