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Has the world turned, or are the polls just wrong again?

Duane Bratt

The Alberta punditocracy isn't very comfortable with polls that keep saying Albertans have had it up to here with Jim Prentice and the musty, threadbare Progressive Conservative dynasty he leads.

Professional journalists, the blogosphere, political scientists and even some of the pollsters themselves are wringing their hands a bit about the fact there have now been four -- count 'em, four -- polls suggesting the Prentice PCs are floundering, even if they're not yet foundering.

One of those polls, an online panel run by Alberta-based ThinkHQ that was published yesterday, puts the perpetually ruling Tories under Premier Jim Prentice in third place, at 25 per cent, after the Wildrose Party led by Brian Jean at 31 per cent and Rachel Notley's NDP at 26 per cent.

Almost as astonishing, this survey shows the Liberals polling at 12 per cent, despite basically being a dead party walking. As even the Edmonton Journal's normally sober-voiced political columnist assesses the imploding Libs, it'll take an actual Biblical-style miracle to save them now.

Then there was another poll, also published yesterday, a demon-dialler survey conducted Tuesday by Mainstreet Technologies -- the Toronto polling company we can hardly describe as "little known" any more at the rate it's doing one-day polls in this province.

It shows the Wildrose Party in the lead at 24 per cent, the government trailing it at 21 per cent and the NDP breathing down the PC neck at 20 per cent. The Liberals, it says, have the support of 9 per cent of voters -- still remarkable result if you ask me, which surely says something for the determination of die-hard Liberal supporters in this province.

These two come on top of the other two polls reported in this space a week ago -- Mainstreet's earlier survey, which showed the PCs and Wildrose tied at 24 per cent each, with the NDP at 15 per cent, and an on-line panel by Insights West that showed the PCs at 31 per cent, the Wildrose at 27 per cent and the NDP at 22 per cent.

Since NDP support is concentrated in the Capital Region around Edmonton, there's real hope bordering on elation among Dippers that, this time, such strong polls really will translate into enough seats in the Legislature to mount an opposition capable of someday spring-boarding into government.

And … you do have to wonder, with this many surveys saying much the same thing -- in spite of the obvious caveats about both the self-selecting member panels used by two of the pollsters and the demon-dialler machine used by Mainstreet.

Let's let Duane Bratt of Calgary's Mount Royal University act as the spokesperson for Big PoliSci’s hand-wringers on the question of methodology, since he pretty well sums up your blogger's feelings about this.

Bratt, chair of the university's Department of Policy Studies, is skeptical of the startling Mainstreet results because folks who stick around to answer the questions of automated polls tend to be angry, skewing the results in the direction opposition parties. "Any time you use demon dials which isn’t a live voice that the people who stay on the line are those that are angry, and those don't tend to be government supporters."

Of course, there's more to all this than just worries about methodology.

There's the fact it’s early days yet in the campaign called just Tuesday by Premier Jim Prentice, whose PCs have more than $5 million in their election war chest.

As pollster Marc Henry of ThinkHQ said of his own poll and others like it, quoted by Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid, "we need to be very careful about reading too much into the early horse-race numbers."

After all, if any party can't move public opinion with $5 million dollars in a province of four million people, the planet is probably no longer spinning on its axis. As Braid observed, if the Prentice PCs actually started to think because of polls like this that they could really lose, "this could get rough enough to make the Lake of Fire look like a bird bath."

People who pay attention to polls are also cautious because there's the reality pollsters were so spectacularly wrong the last time this happened, during the lead up to the 2012 Alberta election, and in other provinces too.

So almost everybody's cautious about putting too much faith in a forecasting tool that’s failed in public before.

Finally, there’s the fact that all of us -- Jim Prentice included by the sound of it -- are just too conditioned by the fact that the Tories always win, no matter what, no matter that they keep repeating the same mistakes afterward, and no matter how much Albertans complain about them.

Still, you’ve got to wonder. A Parkland Institute study of a series of opinion polls conducted by the University of Alberta’s Population Research Laboratory between 2012 and 2014 suggests the general public's attitudes about politics really are changing in Alberta.

The study, also published yesterday, indicates "that, among committed voters, the political preferences of Albertans were shifting substantially away from the governing Progressive Conservative party towards other parties."

Those might just be the kind of voters who are energized and motivated by the narrative suggested by the latest polls showing the Tories not nearly as beloved as we all assumed they were, even with Prentice at their helm.

We'll see soon enough, I guess.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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