Pollsters relieved at getting it right in Alberta’s unlikely swing to the left

Voters gather early at Bishop Pinkham Junior High School in Calgary, Tuesday, May 5, 2015.
Voters gather early at Bishop Pinkham Junior High School in Calgary, Tuesday, May 5, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Ridewood

OTTAWA – Corporate Alberta may be wringing its hands, but Canada’s market research industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief following the NDP’s remarkable majority victory in Tuesday’s Alberta election.

Despite the fact a variety of polls consistently showed strong support for Rachel Notley’s New Democrats in the last weeks of the campaign, many pundits were reluctant to believe the public opinion surveys would prove out on election day.

“The industry as a whole needs to redeem itself, and I think they did here,” pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research said Wednesday.

A series of errant predictions on provincial votes over the past few years has bruised the polling profession; rock-ribbed Alberta’s counter-intuitive swing to the left was seen as a test of polling’s predictive powers.

READ MORE: What could an NDP government look like in Alberta?

Most pollsters misread B.C.’s election swing from the NDP to the Liberals in the final days of the 2013 provincial election. Alberta’s Tories rose from the dead to win a majority in 2012, and last year’s provincial Liberal majorities in Quebec and Ontario stunned many. Even the scale of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hefty Conservative majority in 2011 went undetected by many polling companies.

Story continues below advertisement

Graves said the perception of the industry was definitely hurt by those past election misses. Considering most media polling is done for free as a research company promotion, that stings.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

“If you’re going to weigh in and kind of subsidize this stuff, you want to make sure you actually get it right because you end up with egg on your face.”

Albertans themselves continued to believe there would be a Progressive Conservative victory late into the campaign, which further raised the polling stakes.

Bruce Cameron, the president of Calgary-based polling firm Return on Insight, was casting doubt on an NDP victory in a published op-ed as recently as Sunday even though he had survey results showing otherwise.

“A lot depended on the turnout rate,” Cameron said Wednesday.

The solid NDP trend line of support throughout the campaign made Tuesday night’s victory a certainty when 57 per cent of eligible voters – the highest in Alberta since 1993 – cast ballots, said Cameron.

READ MORE: Provincial election sees highest voter turnout in 22 years.

Darrell Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, noted all the different polling methodologies appeared to work well in this Alberta election, with virtually all getting the winner right and most getting the second and third place finishes correct – and within reasonable margins of their actual vote percentages.

Story continues below advertisement

“The trends started early and just persisted through the campaign,” Bricker said.

“So once the NDP took off and the momentum was building and the Tories started to decline, it was really just a question of how low they would go and how high the NDP would go.”

Even at that, Cameron said it took some interesting three-way splits in rural ridings to make Wildrose party the official Opposition and drive the incumbent Conservatives to third place.

New Democrats won 53 of the legislature’s 87 seats, having never won more than 16 ridings in any previous Alberta election.

Wildrose came second with 21 seats, while the incumbent Tories – holders of 70 seats when they called the election – were reduced to a 10-seat rump.

READ MORE: 44 years of PC reign over: What’s changed in Alberta since 1971?

If pollsters more or less agreed this time on the election outcome, they remain divided in the aftermath about whether Alberta has moved ideologically.

Graves and Bricker both said they believe there’s been a shift in the province.

Bricker pointed to the 2010 election of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi as a “precursor” to Notley’s NDP victory.

Story continues below advertisement

“The Alberta we keep talking about – which is an Alberta that’s 20 or 30 years in the rear-view mirror – isn’t Alberta anymore,” said Bricker, noting almost 40 per cent of the population was born outside Canada.

Cameron, however, isn’t so sure.

“I think it’s primarily a vote for Rachel,” he said of the new premier-in-waiting.

“It was a classic Jack-Layton-in-Quebec kind of scenario. She captivated people in a way I haven’t seen in polling in any election I can remember recently.”

Sponsored content