The Weekly Writ for May 17: What to make of the Alberta polls
Plus, federal byelections are called; Chow increases her lead; and the fight over wokeness.
Welcome to the Weekly Writ, a round-up of the latest federal and provincial polls, election news and political history that lands in your inbox every Wednesday morning.
It’s probably one of my least favourite phrases I hear during every election.
“The polls are all over the place!”
And often it’s true! Take the example of Alberta: polls published over the last few days have run the gamut from a big NDP lead to a crushing UCP victory. The polls have, indeed, been all over the place.
But the phrase is usually meant to be dismissive — that you can’t trust the polls, so you might as well give up on trying (with the subliminal message that you should place your trust in the dismissive cynic instead).
Contradictory data doesn’t mean that it is all worthless, though. There’s plenty to learn from contradictory data even if we start from the premise that they are all getting at versions of the truth. And I’m sure that’s the case here in Alberta.
I’ll get into the numbers of the latest polls in further detail below. But after a dearth of polls in Alberta, the narrative flipped when Abacus Data published its survey on Saturday showing a 10-point lead for the NDP. Coming after days of bad press in which Danielle Smith had to explain her comparison of vaccinated Albertans to followers of the Nazis, among other assorted controversies, the poll just made sense. Suddenly, the UCP looked to be on the ropes.
Then on Monday, a poll conducted by Janet Brown Opinion Research was leaked to Postmedia. It showed a 10-point lead for the UCP, including an election-winning advantage in Calgary. A survey from JBOR, an Alberta-based pollster with a good reputation in the province, is not one that is easily dismissed.
But we have to understand a few things. The JBOR survey was leaked because of the Abacus Data poll. Normally, I treat leaked polls as if they don’t really exist (such as the quick riposte from the NDP that its internal polling has it ahead by double-digits), not because they are unreliable, but because they are being leaked for the sole reason that it is politically advantageous to the leaker. Leakers aren’t leaking unfavourable polls — it’s one-sided.
This is an exceptional case because Janet Brown spoke to Don Braid of the Calgary Herald, explaining her poll and defending its accuracy, giving it the legitimacy that a leaked poll normally doesn’t have.
But the order of the release of these polls — Abacus on Saturday, JBOR on Monday — gives the impression of one coming after the other, that JBOR trumps Abacus. In reality, the JBOR poll was conducted between May 1 and May 11. Abacus’s poll was in the field from May 9 to May 12. The comments Smith made about the vaccinated and Nazis were on May 8, so Abacus’s polling was conducted entirely after that event, which was followed by other controversies, whereas JBOR’s was conducted mostly before it. If time is linear, then Abacus should trump JBOR, at least in terms of narrative setting.
Certainly, there are big methodological differences between the Abacus and JBOR polls and that alone could explain much of the difference. They make different weighting choices. Abacus uses an online panel and JBOR uses the telephone. JBOR’s poll in 2019, conducted more than two weeks before election day, showed higher UCP and lower NDP numbers than most other polls did at the time. In the end, the UCP did beat its late-campaign polls by a significant margin, though even the online polls were showing movement in that direction by the end.
But differences between polls do not mean we do not know anything. Things can shift quickly in a campaign, so it is plausible that the UCP really did have a lead over the first week (perhaps not as big as JBOR found, remember that there’s always a margin of error) that the UCP subsequently lost (again, perhaps not to the same extent as Abacus found).
It’s also possible that both polls are just on the outer edges of where things really stand, and the race remains the deadlocked knife-fight that it was at the outset. If we really are in a 45-45 scenario, seeing 50-40 poll results wouldn’t be unusual.
We don’t know nothing — but maybe we don’t know much more than we did before Abacus’s poll came out on Saturday. As is always the case, overreacting to each individual poll result isn’t the right approach. Take a breath. We need patience and more data to reach some solid conclusions.
The few other recent polls we’ve seen (from Counsel Public Affairs and Mainstreet Research) do not suggest the same advantage for the UCP as in the JBOR poll and, if anything, point to a trend that is working against the UCP. But we could use a greater variety of pollsters and methodologies to really discern the trend lines.
So, that’s what we know. The polls might give us reason to believe the campaign is turning to the NDP’s advantage, but there is enough uncertainty that we can’t dismiss the possibility that the UCP is still in a strong position. To many, that might not seem like knowing all that much. To me, that’s knowing a lot more than nothing.
Now, to what is in this week’s instalment of the Weekly Writ:
News on four byelection calls and what impact the candidate slate could have on the Alberta election.
Polls in Alberta, Toronto and on the subject of ‘woke’.
Back to neck-and-neck in Alberta if the election were held today.
Week 3’s tipping point riding in Alberta.
The 2005 B.C. campaign in the #EveryElectionProject.
A milestone for two Quebec leaders.