Why the Alberta NDP's vote might be more efficient than the UCP's
A contrarian take on the upcoming Alberta election
The conventional wisdom in Alberta’s upcoming provincial election is that the United Conservatives have an ingrained advantage over the New Democrats, in that they could win the most seats even if they don’t win the most votes.
That could certainly happen. But I think the conventional wisdom could be wrong. Instead, could it be the Alberta New Democrats who actually have the more efficient vote — and could win a majority government with less support than the UCP?
I’m not one to take issue with what is argued by my very brilliant friend Philippe J. Fournier (though if it happens in an over/under contest, that’s another thing entirely). As he often jokingly reminds me, I’m just a humanities major. I can’t begin to run the calculations that an astrophysicist can!
But keeping it simple has its merits, too.
The regional distribution of votes will matter a great deal in the 2023 Alberta election. Although the Alberta NDP is polling well above its 2019 results, it suffers from a vote efficiency disadvantage. Why? In rural and small-town Alberta, polling shows the UCP enjoys dominant support. It gives Smith’s Conservatives a much higher floor of safe seats.
Put another way, because the NDP vote remains highly concentrated in Edmonton and Calgary, Notley’s party could tie or even surpass the UCP by a handful of points and still lose the election to the UCP.
Philippe goes on to explain that the NDP becomes the favourite to win the election once it hits 47% support, while the UCP only needs to hit 45%. That means the UCP could win even with a two-point deficit in the province wide vote.
Again, I do agree that this is a possibility. As I’ll explain, my calculations suggest a two-point lead for the NDP is also when their odds of victory improve a lot. But my numbers also show that in a popular vote tie or even a UCP lead of two points the NDP should still, theoretically, be the favourite.
NDP growth, UCP slide isn’t uniform
The starting point for my exercise is the poll released by Abacus Data last week. That survey gave the United Conservatives 47% support against 45% for the New Democrats. While having the benefit of being the most recent survey (at least as of writing on Friday), I think it’s also a very plausible one as the regional results aligned with where my own estimates already stood.
After removing the undecideds, the poll suggests a roughly two-point lead for the NDP in Calgary, a 25-point NDP lead in Edmonton and a lead of 26 points for the UCP in the rest of the province.
That is not, however, a uniform shift in support since 2019. Instead, the NDP’s vote has grown more in Calgary than in either Edmonton or the rest of the province. The UCP’s vote has dropped a lot in Calgary and less in Edmonton.
This has a big impact on vote efficiency.
The NDP lost the 2019 election by such a big margin that its vote efficiency was hardly a factor. But its vote was nevertheless inefficient. If we applied a province wide swing to the 2019 results using Abacus’s poll, the UCP would win the most seats with this two-point lead. But if we swing the 2019 results according to the regional numbers, the NDP comes out ahead.
That’s because voting intentions have not moved across the province in the same way. Since 2019, the NDP’s vote is up nearly 15 points in Calgary, 13 points in Edmonton and 12 points in the rest of Alberta, using Abacus’s findings. The UCP has seen its vote drop by just five points in Edmonton, nine points in the rural areas and a problematic 12 points in Calgary.
While these are the results of just one poll, they are consistent with other surveys we’ve seen. The UCP has held more of its support where it doesn’t need it, while the NDP has gained more of its support where it does.
By my calculations, that has made the NDP’s vote more efficient because their vote has grown disproportionately in Calgary, improving their odds of winning both Edmonton and Calgary. In Alberta’s elections, you win two out of three regions and you’re golden.
Using these unequal regional shifts in support, the NDP still wins more seats (either 44 or 45, depending on whether you use a uniform or proportional swing model) even with a provincial lead of two points for the UCP. A popular vote tie produces 46 seats for the NDP. With a lead of two or four points, the NDP’s advantage moves into territory where it would take some serious local factors to drop the party below the threshold of 44 seats needed to form a majority government.
Now that I’ve laid out the basics, I’ll take a look at the numbers in more detail for subscribers.