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Alberta's Wildrose on a roll? The auguries may be in the flakes

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Dave Cournoyer Photo, used with permission

A string of flaky polls augmented by some flaky behaviour by Premier Alison Redford and her political brain trust suggest that the Wildrose Party may be experiencing a genuine breakout -- at a singularly inauspicious moment for the Progressive Conservative government.

Polls in the past few days by Forum Research, ThinkHQ and Abingdon Research have suggested the Tories under Redford are flagging, sinking into the mid-30s in terms of percentage of committed voters, and moreover that the Wildrose Party under Danielle Smith is moving upward, closing in on 30-per-cent support.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have my doubts about the methodology used by each of these three pollsters.

Yesterday, another poll by Abacus Data published for the Sun newspaper chain, which is increasingly committed to the Wildrose Party, came to an almost identical conclusion, putting the Conservatives at 34 per cent of decided voters and the Wildrose Party at 29 per cent.

Each of these polls on its own is not terribly persuasive. Taken together, however, they do seem to suggest a trend -- though it's only the "surge" the Calgary Sun propagandized about if you compare these results to polls that other Wildrose supporters have always disputed.

If this represents an emerging pattern, it's not one that is particularly good news for Redford, with an election call expected within a few days and the vote likely to be held in May or even late April.

This is because while the numbers suggested by the four recent polls still leave the Redford Conservatives in majority territory, it wouldn't necessarily take much of a shift in public opinion to change that. As any political junkie knows, the late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had it exactly right when he observed that a week is a long time in politics.

Now, readers can count on it that the parties with the money to afford it -- and that would certainly include Redford's Conservatives and Smith's Wildrosers -- are polling like crazy right now and are basing their next moves on numbers that are more solid than those produced by any of the suspects mentioned above.

That is why the recent actions of the Conservatives are so evocative, suggesting a party that is looking at worse polling results than it had expected to face when it started the electoral juggernaut rolling downhill toward an election.

Resorting to attack ads that name the Wildrose party directly, hitherto unheard of among Alberta Conservative strategists, pillorying of Gary Mar for what in the great scheme of things is a minor and routinely tolerated offense, and the sudden decision in effect to cut MLAs' pay in the face of criticism they were being paid for doing nothing on a committee that never meets were all uncharacteristic responses by Alberta Tories and suggest a whiff of panic among the general staff.

Or not. Remember that in the lead-up to the 2008 election some polls suggested voters were tired of the Conservatives under then-Premier Ed Stelmach, prompting plenty of speculation about minority governments or even a Liberal breakthrough.

In the event, it was all a pipedream. When it began to look as if the Alberta Tories actually might face a serious challenge, Alberta's die-hard Conservative voting base bestirred itself sufficiently to troop through the March snowflakes to the polls -- ensuring another mighty Conservative victory at the price, no doubt, of a broken hip or two.

Before you bet your antique Rolex or junior’s education fund on a Wildrose victory, remember that change comes hard to Alberta voters and in that regard 2012 may not be all that different from 2008.

Still, these auguries, flaky as they may seem, together suggest that something might be happening out there that will turn this election into a horserace yet.

If there's another poll by a reputable pollster in the next few days that says the same thing, or if more Conservative attack advertisements are soon aimed at the Wildrose Party, readers have Alberta Diary's permission to contact their bookies and inquire about the odds.

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

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