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Master of survey spinning takes potshot at poll showing Jim Prentice far ahead in Tory leadership race

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Stephen Carter

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What would happen if a new poll put Thomas Lukaszuk in third place in the Tory leadership race?

Oh, wait! The former labour minister is in third place. But then, there are only three candidates.

According to a public opinion poll published yesterday by the Calgary Herald, frontrunner Jim Prentice is running so far ahead it's all likely to be meaningless anyway, notwithstanding the apparent flaws of the survey.

The Herald reported that the poll by the Alberta-based pollster ThinkHQ Public Affairs shows Prentice -- a banker, lobbyist and former federal Conservative cabinet minister -- has almost half the voters likely to cast a ballot all tied up, 49 per cent of them.

That leaves candidate Ric McIver, the former infrastructure minister, in a distant second place, with a paltry 18 per cent. According to the survey, Lukaszuk, the former labour minister, is basically irrelevant at 4 per cent.

Back in the day in Alberta, it was said that third place was the place to be if you wanted to vault into the lead -- especially if political strategist Stephen Carter had anything to do with your campaign.

But, uh, they didn't mean quite as far in third place as Lukaszuk seems to be. And, anyway, the Tories have changed the rules since then to ensure a candidate as catastrophic as Alison Redford can never again jump to the front in a final runoff vote just because she managed to enlist a the services of a smart strategist.

Speaking of Carter, a couple of whose prominent candidates happened to benefit just that way from the publication of a well-timed poll showing them unexpectedly in contention, he had some sharpish things to say yesterday about the Think HQ poll and other surveys that use the same methodology.

Indeed, in a blog posted on the Calgary Herald's website, Carter argued they're about as accurate as a 14-day weather forecast.

Among the serious flaws he identified in the ThinkHQ effort were a potential for selection bias in the online panel (just who were these 1,470 people? he rightly asked), the misleading publication of a margin of error implying more statistical validity than the poll can actually claim, and the lack of information about how many of the poll respondents were in fact PC Party members.

Fair enough, much the same has been said here in similar circumstances. But since the past prominent candidates noted above happened to be Redford, late of the Alberta Premier's Office, and Naheed Nenshi, who continues to occupy the office of the mayor of Calgary, it would surely be fair to call Carter's complaints at the least mildly ironic, if not hilarious.

Carter managed Redford's leadership campaign in 2011. He was a strategist in Mayor Nenshi's 2010 campaign, in which the frontrunner who lost, by the way, was the same McIver who is now campaigning for Redford's old job.

Days before the second Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership vote in early October 2011, Redford's campaign effectively used an unexpected Calgary Herald-Environics poll of Tory Party members that showed her in second place behind frontrunner Gary Mar. This created a new reality that motivated her supporters and gave her sufficient momentum to push her narrowly over the top.

Carter, it is important to note, has long insisted he had nothing to do with that mid-September poll, which was controversial because it was based on a list of 22,000 card-carrying PC Party members passed on to Environics by a Calgary Herald columnist, whose mysterious possession of the list has never been explained.

Using it for an opinion poll may have violated Alberta's privacy legislation, and a furious PC Party President Bill Smith immediately issued a stinging rebuke on the party's website of whoever allowed the "unauthorized and inappropriate use" of the party membership list. He vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery.

For some reason, though, the party lost interest in pulling on that particular thread the instant Redford became the leader. "It's the miracle on the prairies,” Smith later said of Redford's victory. "Nobody would have picked her." After that, he quietly moved on.

Back in the fall 2010, Nenshi's campaign gained sudden momentum and credibility from an unexpected Calgary Herald poll that put the mayoral candidate in third place. This gave Carter, who was a strategist for Nenshi, the opportunity, as one observer put it, "to beat reporters over the head to ensure they positioned Nenshi as the third-place candidate and always got a quote from him."

For his part, Carter Tweeted yesterday that "in my career I've only released one poll for a candidate. It was @nenshi. And it was right." It was likely correct, at any rate, in saying Nenshi was at that moment in third place, whence he quickly moved to first.

Nowadays, Carter works for the Hill & Knowlton PR firm as "national director of campaign strategy." That said, other than commentating he doesn't seem to have anything to do with the current Alberta Tory leadership campaign -- which saw the three challengers debating one another in Edmonton at a dull-sounding event yesterday evening billed the official start of the campaign.

Notwithstanding the imperfect methodology of the ThinkHQ poll identified by Carter, it was probably a pretty accurate reflection of the state of the great minds of the Tory Party when it was taken two weeks ago, not to mention what's left of the party's long-suffering rank and file.

And if those are the only people who come out to vote this year, as pollster Janet Brown pointed out in another Herald blog in the same series, "then a Jim Prentice victory is pretty much a certainty."

Brown went on: "If a sizable number of people who don't want the 'Tory Establishment' to get their way show up to vote, then Ric McIver or Thomas Lukaszuk stands a chance of winning."

The trouble is, for that to happen, someone would have to care, which Albertans may not if they've all made up their minds to vote for someone else come the general election.

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

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