Independent Alberta pollster Janet Brown in 2018.
Independent Alberta pollster Janet Brown in 2018. Credit: David Climenhaga / Alberta Politics

Janet Brown is an independent Alberta pollster with a solid track record for accurate polling, so when a couple of media reports appeared this week saying one of her recent polls showed the United Conservative Party leading the New Democratic Party, political observers paid attention. 

For one thing, other recent polls have put the Alberta NDP in the lead—and that has become a desperate problem for Premier Jason Kenney as he prepares to do battle to keep his job at his UCP leadership review on Apr. 9 in Red Deer. 

The premier’s predicament grew worse last Tuesday when former Wildrose Party leader and UCP leadership contender Brian Jean was elected as the UCP candidate in a by-election in Fort McMurray—Lac La Biche, vowing to unseat and replace the premier. 

In addition, most people who seriously follow politics in Alberta know much of Brown’s work is done for a syndicated report she prepares for subscribers from across the political spectrum, including political parties, corporations, lobbyists, and unions. The Wild Ride Update is not cheap, and to see it subscribers have to agree to keep the data Brown collects confidential as a term of their subscription. 

So when leaked details from her Wild Ride research showed up on the night of the by-election in a Postmedia political column and a couple of days later in a Toronto Star story, and were also circulated widely on social media by Kenney’s political staffers, a lot of political commentators, this blogger among them, wondered what was going on.

The results cited indicated that if an election were held immediately, the UCP would take 47 seats, the NDP 40. 

A sign something wasn’t right was that the balance for which Brown’s work is known was missing from both reports. The stories emphasized the UCP lead—a detail that could boost Kenney’s chances of keeping his job. 

Indeed, the Postmedia column by Lorne Gunter made this benefit to Kenney explicit, asserting “the UCP are beginning to recover under Kenney.” The columnist also implied the low turnout in the Fort Mac by-election weakened Jean’s case for seeking Kenney’s removal.

For his part, Jean rather boldly claimed the poll showed the UCP is doing better because members knew he was coming after Kenney. 

Probably both interpretations should be treated with a grain of salt.

Neither story mentioned other points from Brown’s report that didn’t play as well for Kenney. 

To wit:

  • 60 per cent of Albertans disapprove of the job Kenney is doing as premier
  • 55 per cent find the things he says about Alberta’s economy and future to be not very or not at all trustworthy

I know this is accurate because I got it directly from Brown yesterday, who after a few days of worrying about what do made up her mind to go public about what happened. 

“The United Conservative Party is a subscriber, and earlier this week, they asked me repeatedly if I would release some of the data,” she said. By the sound of it, the bullying got pretty intense. 

“They were desperate for some good news ahead of the leadership vote, and they thought they could spin these numbers in a positive light,” she said. “I explained to the UCP that a leak would cause issues for me with the other subscribers.”

“I repeatedly told them no,” she stated. “But they leaked them to the media anyway.”

How does she know it was the property-rights fundamentalists at the UCP who leaked her “stolen data,” you may wonder. After all, Wild Ride has numerous subscribers. 

Easy, as it turns out. She marks each subscriber’s copy with a unique footer on every page. 

When another Postmedia journalist called to ask questions about the survey that neither of the two who had written stories about the leaked report had bothered to call about and ask, Brown said, she asked him how many pages there were, and what it said at the bottom of each page. 

The footer said UCP and the date. And all the pages were there. That meant it was the UCP’s report that had been copied, and that both journalists had seen the entire report. 

“I’m an independent pollster and I’ve always prided myself of the quality and accuracy of my work,” Brown summed up. 

She has argued for years that pollsters—not just in Alberta, but in the rest of Canada and the United States as well—tend to consistently underestimate voter support for conservative parties. Progressive political parties and their supporters, like me, don’t like to hear this, but based on the results of numerous elections after optimistic polling for the more progressive side, her argument is persuasive. 

So there’s a lesson here for the NDP and its supporters, too, beyond just another confirmation that ethical conduct is not the Kenney Government’s long suit.

Even when the polls look good for the NDP, it’s foolish to think the opposition can coast to victory on a campaign without policy or substance, or that their lead is ever so large they don’t have to ensure every possible voter makes it to the polling stations.

NDP supporters also need to know this won’t be the last public opinion survey before the next election. And that election won’t be held today. Campaigns matter.

But results like these, if they persist, will make an early election more likely, no matter what happens on Apr. 9. 

So NDP supporters shouldn’t dismiss Brown’s conclusions with disdain, just because they wish for something else.

As she said yesterday, “I’ve been in fashion and out fashion with all the political parties and various media outlets at different times, depending on what my numbers say. That’s just a hazard of the game. But, being accurate has always been more important to me than being popular.”

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...