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A Post-Mortem of Alberta’s “Fear & Loathing” Election and a Lesson for Pollsters

Posted April 25th, 2012 in Alberta Election, News and tagged by Marc Henry

Monday April 23rd was the most exciting election Albertans have ever seen. Indeed, it marks one of the greatest political “comebacks” in Canadian history. And in 850 words we’ll cover what happened and why.


First, let me begin with a mea culpa.  The polling industry did a poor job calling this election – not a single firm, including ours, predicted Monday’s outcome.


Some will question methodologies, but the fact is public polls showed remarkable consistency despite being conducted by competing firms utilizing a variety of survey methods.  The single biggest contributing factor to the inconsistency between the polls and the election results was timing.


But more on that later; first a recap the two most pivotal issues in the campaign.


1st Half of the Campaign “The Loathing”


The governing PCs stumbled into the election plagued by a series of issues arising during the February-March session of the Legislature.  The public wasn’t just unhappy; they were angry.


No issue more acutely demonstrated this anger than the infamous “Money for Nothing Committee”.  At first, PC MLAs weren’t going to give any of the money back. Then they would give back some of it.  Finally, with poll numbers plummeting, the Premier announced they would be giving it all back, and further, that MLA transition allowances would be suspended.


Alison’s Redford’s action on the file “stop the bleeding” as far as the PC polling results were concerned, but it didn’t reverse the trend.




2nd Half of the Campaign “The Fear”


Then something happened.  The issue of “conscience rights” emerged.  Can doctors, nurses, teachers and marriage commissioners deny service to individuals based on issues like sexual orientation, race or religion?  It was an issue that came a bit out of left field, but it damaged the Wildrose because they struggled to respond.


It’s a “wedge issue” separating many fiscal conservatives from their more socially conservative counterparts. For the PCs, it was a winning wedge, because having raised the specter of Wildrose intolerance with conscience rights, the bombshell dropped.


Two words describe why the Wildrose failed to capitalize on their early campaign advantage – Hunsperger and Leech.  These two Wildrose candidates became the “posterchildren of intolerance” for many voters, and for just as many Albertans, Danielle Smith seemed incapable or unwilling to address it.


In many respects, the Hunsperger and Leech candidacies were to the Wildrose what the No-pay Committee was to the PCs, and both were handled in similar fashion.  In Smith’s case, the initial reaction did not satisfy most voters, so she was forced to address it through incremental escalations for the remainder of the campaign.


It didn’t work.  By Election Day, there were some subtle shifts from the Liberals and NDs due to “strategic voting”, but the biggest shift came from people who had flirted with the notion of voting Wildrose during the campaign, but swung to the PCs by voting day.


A Lesson for Pollsters


Timing is everything.  Whether due to a growing societal trend where voters make their final decisions later or just the volatility of this campaign, there was a significant and growing shift in voter intentions in the week before the vote.


While predicting the precise magnitude of change may have been difficult, the industry should have done a better job of identifying the trend because the tremors were there.


By late last week, the Wildrose lead over the Tories was drifting down.  It went from 13 points to only 8 in the matter of 4-5 days, and the drop was even more exaggerated in Calgary.  Danielle Smith’s personal negativity numbers were climbing, and for the second week running, the Wildrose was experiencing negative campaign momentum (and the negative momentum of the final week was substantial).


These were the signs that something significant was happening.  For most of us, it suggested a likely Wildrose minority government, with an outside chance that the PCs could pull off a minority government if their numbers in Calgary continued on the previous week’s trajectory.  But it didn’t continue on that trajectory; it actually intensified over the weekend.


The challenge for pollsters: polls are only accurate at the time they are taken, and confirming or adjusting campaign trends requires more data.  With the election timing, there was little or no additional new data to work with.


Typically for media polling there’s a 3-4 day “dead-zone” right before E-day.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Media have broadcast and publication deadlines; firms require a day or two to turn-around properly conducted polling; there is a publication ban on polling results the day of the vote, etc.


Lesson learned: I will be strongly encouraging media clients to use rolling daily samples right up to and including E-day in the next election.  Its expensive, but worth it.


Even if you can’t report it – its better to be right than it is to be read.


Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., an Alberta-based government and public relations and public opinion research firm.