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Alberta's Dogmatic Election
On The Certainty Of Zealots
“Holy shit, the PCs won?”
I distinctly remember where I was when I found out the PCAA won the 2012 Alberta election – I looked up the results the morning after on an iPod, before running into the shower and going to a day of fundamentally boring Grade 9 classes (where I spent all day refreshing 308 to see if Grenier had written about it yet). It was a shock, a Danielle Smith party having a huge projected lead and then blowing it. And there’s a part of me that can’t stop thinking about it.
Mainstreet has dropped 7 seat polls in Calgary today, and while I won’t violate their paywall, they do point to an environment where the NDP would win the election. In aggregate, the pro-NDP swings across Calgary are sufficient to lock in a large enough amount of seats to win the election unless the NDP run colder than the sun in rural Alberta and the Edmonton donut. So, if you’re a New Democrat looking for hope, that’s the source for it, plus the history.
On the other hand you have the conventional polls – Leger, Mainstreet’s normal sample, Janet Brown, EKOS, and Research Co all have UCP leads in the Calgary CMA, which are game over results. So, we enter election weekend with everything but our final Abacus poll and possibly a Forum, waiting for an answer – is the public polling consensus for real, or is it full of shit?
“All the world's stupidest people are either zealots or atheists. If you want to truly deduce how intelligent someone is, just ask this person how they feel about any issue that doesn't have an answer; the more certainty they express, the less sense they have. This is because certainty only comes from dogma.”
I have not always lived up to this idea, but these words, written by Chuck Klosterman, first read by me 8 years ago this summer after buying Klosterman’s book in a Philadelphia bookstore, but it was one of the formative ideas that sticks with me. I used to think they didn’t apply to forecasting elections, but as I get less willing to take increasingly isolated and risky stands these days, the truth seems more apparent.
None of this is to say I don’t have an opinion, because I do – I think the UCP are still sizable favourites to win this election. I thought they were yesterday, I think they are today, and unless Abacus sees something wild tomorrow I will do so again. There is nothing in the public data except those Mainstreet seat polls that suggest that Monday will be good enough for the NDP to win this election. And yet, here we are.
Could the public polls be wrong? They were in 2019, and that has been used for me to suggest that the NDP doesn’t have the upside I’d say they have if a polling miss was equally as likely, but it’s also possible the pollsters are overcorrecting for the last miss. Would I bet any money on it being the case? No, but it’s worth keeping in mind as we think through the consequences.
Let’s work through the math one more time, with the appropriate apologies for tediousness for those who have heard me work through this a million times. The NDP won 24 seats last time – 19/20 in Edmonton, 3/26 in Calgary, St Albert (Edmonton suburbs, or the “donut”), and Lethbridge West. The NDP will win all 24 of them again. In terms of gains, they need 20.
In Edmonton and the donut, Edmonton South West and Sherwood Park are need to have seats – they need to win them if they’re going to win 34 seats, let alone 44. Morinville St. Albert is close to a need to have, but there’s paths without it. Not great ones, but they exist. Strathcona Sherwood Park is the last competitive donut seat, and it’s firmly in the nice to have range. (Spoiler: they’re not likely to get it, either.)
In the rurals, the pickups are slim – Lethbridge East and Banff are in the Morinville tier of close seats that the NDP needs to do well in, and then there’s Lesser Slave Lake, which isn’t likely to flip but could if the NDP’s Indigenous get out the vote operation is strong. Give the NDP all 20 in Edmonton, 2 seats in the donut, and Lethbridge West, and they have 23 seats without anything in Calgary. If the NDP win all three of Lethbridge East, Morinville, and Banff, they need 18 in Calgary. For every loss of that trio they sustain, they need to make it up in Calgary.
Can they sweep? Maybe, but the problem is every time they get one part of the jigsaw puzzle they need to go their way, the same poll has bad news on the other end. For every crosstab having the NDP doing well in rural Alberta, that same poll has the UCP holding on comparatively well in Edmonton. But even if the NDP do run the table, they also need to essentially run the table in Calgary. (The good news, in a sense, is that if the NDP get swept in those three seats, they’re probably not sweeping Calgary, so a calamitous “20 seats in Calgary but we lose government” outcome seems unlikely.)
Can they get to 18 in Calgary? Maybe. I project the NDP down 4.5% in seat 18 (Foothills) right now, but that gets us to the question of whether these Mainstreet seat polls are right or not. If they are, then the NDP is gonna win 20 seats in Calgary and they’re going to look like heroes and the vast majority of my readers are going to celebrate wildly even as I look like a fool. But if they’re wrong, the NDP will be looking at 12 in Calgary, 1 of the 3 non-urban competitive seats, and 36 seats.
So, what’s more likely? I wish the answer was simple, but it’s not. There’s reporting floating out there that the UCP think they’re gaining a seat in Edmonton, which would also imply they’re not losing Edmonton South West and Sherwood Park, but that isn’t being met with a triumphalist tone about their prospects everywhere. On the other hand, it’s not hard to find an NDPer who thinks they’re in a better spot than the public polls, even in private. Does it mean anything? Look south and you’ll find a Democratic House majority lost at the altar of delusion from the people who supposedly knew the most, and as Erin O’Toole up here shows, campaigns can be easily deluded.
The answer is we can’t know anything, but the absence of certainly should not result in the absence of clarity about the state of this election. The UCP are clear favourites, they’re the likely winners, but we cannot know for sure, because there are enough inklings of doubt that suggest this could still be more interesting. None of this is to avoid responsibility or to give me a back door from which to escape the clutches of pundit accountability, but it is to be honest. It’s not over, but it’s close.
Monday we’ll either have one of three outcomes either the public polls are right, all this Mainstreet-induced panic is wrong, and the UCP has won again, the public polls and Mainstreet were both kind of wrong and they converge on a very narrow UCP majority, or Mainstreet looks brilliant and the NDP win. Do I really think the last one’s happening? No, but to pretend it can’t happen is something previous (and let’s be honest, worse) iterations of yours truly would do.
At the end of the day, I believe the public polls in part because they make sense. The NDP campaign has been mediocre, but not spectacular, and the idea that this campaign without any positive vision or reason for being except stopping Danielle Smith from winning would be enough goes against everything I think about politics. If the NDP really can run such a meandering, floundering campaign that resorted to the language of secret agendas for the last two week and still win in Alberta, then clearly I know less about politics than I think I do.
Maybe I’m wrong. We should all do better to listen to Klosterman and have less dogma in our analysis, and keeping an open mind to uncertain outcomes. That said, an NDP win would still be fairly shocking, and while it might happen, it’s very much an edge case.