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Two paths to victory, but the UCP's is wider
The UCP will win today's election in Alberta if the NDP can't thread the needle
There are two scenarios that seem the most likely to play out in today’s Alberta election.
The first sees the count go down to the wire, with a contest that’s been billed as one of the closest in the province’s history living up to the hype. A few seats in the Calgary suburbs decide the outcome and either Danielle Smith’s incumbent United Conservatives or Rachel Notley’s opposition New Democrats come out just ahead and form the slimmest of majority governments.
The second sees all the coin flips that appear weighted in the UCP’s favour indeed landing to Smith’s advantage and the United Conservatives prevailing by a relatively comfortable seat margin.
On balance, the second seems more probable than the first. It means the UCP enters this election day as the favourites to win — not the heavy favourites, but the favourites nonetheless.
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The final polls of the campaign point to a narrow UCP win. All but one of the 10 pollsters who published numbers over the final days gave the edge to the United Conservatives, though only four put the lead at more than three points. Nearly all have put the UCP ahead in the all-important battleground of Calgary, a place where the New Democrats probably need to lead by at least a couple of points to have a chance at coming out with enough seats to form a government.
The UCP’s seat floor is simply too high, with at least 38 or 39 rock-solid seats in the outer suburbs of Calgary and Edmonton and in rural Alberta. Only a few tosses, perhaps five or six, need to fall their way for the UCP to scrape by with at least 44 seats. The NDP needs to win about three times as many marginal seats to have a shot.
The electoral math was always going to be difficult for the New Democrats. Their best shot at making the equation work was Danielle Smith.
But the polls suggest that the New Democrats have failed to make the case, at least to enough Albertans, that Smith poses a greater risk to the province than the return of an NDP government.
On average, Notley has slightly better personal approval ratings than Smith. In polls by Janet Brown Opinion Research, Abacus Data, Research Co. and Mainstreet Research, the NDP leader averages a net +6 while Smith is a net -4.
But when it comes down to a choice, both Ipsos/Global News and Research Co. show Smith ahead of Notley on who Albertans prefer to be premier by between two and five points. More significantly, Abacus found that Albertans see both Smith and Notley as equally the “most risky” and the “safer choice”. If the NDP had to make this a referendum on Smith, the result isn’t decisive enough to carry the day for the New Democrats.
Not that an opportunity wasn’t always there. While Abacus gave the UCP a lead of just one percentage point among decided voters across the province, it also found that the UCP would win by a margin of 17 points if someone other than Danielle Smith was leader of that party. While this is a hypothetical scenario in which Albertans can substitute their ideal (non-existent) UCP leader in the place of Smith, it still suggests that the conservative brand of the UCP is far stronger than Smith’s brand.
Smith’s leadership of the UCP has given the New Democrats a shot. The NDP has put itself in contention, which is an impressive feat. Polls suggest more Albertans would vote for the NDP today than when the party last formed government in 2015. But they also suggest that the NDP’s ceiling is at about the same level as the UCP’s floor.
It’s why the result tonight could be so close. But if the NDP falls short of peak performance, it’s also why the UCP could come out of this with a solid win.
It’s all about that UCP base
When Danielle Smith took over the United Conservatives, she publicly mused about her electoral strategy: hold the rural areas, and if the UCP can retain just enough of its seats in Calgary that’ll put the party over the 44-seat mark needed to stay in office.
It looks like that strategy has a good shot of working.
Outside of the greater Calgary and Edmonton regions, there are 26 seats in which the UCP can virtually guarantee a victory. In the southern suburbs of Calgary and just outside the city limits of both Calgary and Edmonton, there are another 11 seats the UCP can still win by 15 points or more even in the current climate.
That puts the UCP just seven short of 44, and it isn’t too hard to find those seven seats. They have options: strength outside the two big cities could win them Lesser Slave Lake, Lethbridge-East and Banff-Kananaskis. A good performance in the so-called Edmonton donut could net the UCP Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, Morinville-St. Albert and Strathcona-Sherwood Park. At that point, the UCP just needs one of the marginals in Calgary to get to 44.
Don’t like that path? Then the UCP can instead over-perform in Calgary and win seats like Fish Creek, Peigan, Foothills, Glenmore, Bow, North and North West. Without winning any of the marginals outside of Calgary that would put the UCP at 44.
The UCP doesn’t need either strategy to play out perfectly, as a reduced combination of these two paths puts them well over 44 — and potentially over 50 seats if both play out. Simply put, the UCP has options.
Polling Consensus: With few exceptions, the UCP has polled between 49% and 52% across the province, with around 47% to 51% in Calgary, 35% to 41% in Edmonton and between 57% and 66% in the rest of the province. Don’t be surprised if the UCP significantly over-performs in the rural areas, boosting their overall vote share without necessarily netting them many more seats.
Seat Estimate: 40 to 56 seats, with somewhere around to 44-51 being the most likely. It comes down to Calgary, with very few swing seats in the rest of the province. Anywhere from 11 to 22 UCP seats in and around Calgary is plausible, and that means the difference between government and opposition.
The hope for a best case scenario
Let’s take a step back for a moment. That the NDP could win this election is remarkable.
This is Alberta, after all. While pockets of progressivism have grown, the province remains a conservative one. Its history is littered with the ruins of past political empires that, once collapsed, have never risen from the ashes. Yet, here we are with a serious chance that a former governing party could return to power.
The only time that a party that once governed had even a sniff of governing again was when the Liberals made the PCs sweat in 1993 — but even in that example no more than a handful of Albertans might have had hazy memories of when the Liberals were last in office in 1921.
Against a fractured conservative movement, the NDP still managed to cobble together nearly 41% of the vote in 2015 and win the election. It was a very low vote share for a winning party in Alberta, but it was enough.
Now, the NDP is garnering the support of at least 44% of voters. It means people who have never voted for the New Democrats before will vote for them today. The Alberta NDP is a party that can contend for government — and not just in unusual circumstances.
Ten years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Today, the New Democrats could win again. And, if they don’t pull it off now, there’s no reason to believe they can’t pull it off in the future.
But the party is reaching its limits. In a two-horse race with a vote that isn’t likely to be any more efficient than the UCP’s, the NDP needs to be approaching 50% to have a good shot at government. The New Democrats have only rarely hit that mark during the last few years, even at the height of the UCP’s unpopularity under Jason Kenney.
If the UCP has many paths, the NDP doesn’t.
In a best case scenario, the NDP could win four seats outside the two big cities: both Lethbridges, Banff-Kananaskis and Lesser Slave Lake. The party would need to win all 20 seats in Edmonton (not unreasonable as it went 19-for-20 in 2019) and make gains in the donut: Sherwood Park, Morinville-St. Albert and Strathcona-Sherwood Park, in addition to the St. Albert seat the party won in 2019.
With this playing out as the NDP would hope, the party still needs to win at least 16 seats in Calgary. They currently hold three: Buffalo, McCall and Mountain View.
A few seem like easy pick-ups: Currie, Falconridge, Klein and Varsity. That puts the NDP up to seven. To find nine others, the NDP can look to seats like Acadia, Beddington, Cross, East, Edgemont, Elbow and North East.
That’s a plausible path, but still difficult. The NDP lost Calgary-Acadia by 20 points in 2019. But if the NDP is unable to make gains elsewhere — Lesser Slave Lake, Morinville-St. Albert and Strathcona-Sherwood Park won’t be easy — then the NDP needs to find other seats in Calgary to flip. That would be seats like Bow, Foothills and Glenmore that the UCP won by more than 20 points four years ago.
The path is there. It’s just narrow. Polls have suggested the NDP is doing very well in central Calgary as well as in the northwestern and northeastern suburbs. The southern suburbs, however, have proven more resilient for Smith and the UCP.
If everything goes right, the NDP can win. But a lot of these seats in the NDP’s best case scenario would likely be won by a handful of points. If, instead, the NDP comes up just short, the result could look a lot worse for the New Democrats in the seat count than the party might otherwise deserve.
Polling Consensus: The polls have been very consistent for the NDP at between 44% and 48%, with half of pollsters giving it exactly 46% of the vote. The party is scoring around 45% to 49% in Calgary, 55% to 60% in Edmonton and 29% to 40% in the rest of the province. Poor results in the rural areas and/or strong results in Edmonton could distort the NDP’s overall vote share compared to its seat results.
Seat Estimate: 31 to 47 seats, with 36 to 43 being the most likely. If the UCP beats its polls, the NDP could easily find itself in the low 30s.
Small parties likely to be very small
A quick note on the other parties in the running. While they could have some limited impact in specific ridings, the inability of any other party to run candidates across the province means their overall scores are going to be very low.
The Greens are running 41 candidates, with all but eight of them in and around the two biggest cities. Nearly half of their candidates will be in Edmonton where the NDP is likely to win by big margins, but they are also running 15 candidates in Calgary. The New Democrats could resent that if they come up just short.
The right-wing Solidarity Movement of Alberta could play the same spoiler role for the UCP in Calgary, where 23 of their 38 candidates are running.
The Alberta Party has just 19 candidates on the ballot, nearly half of them outside of Calgary and Edmonton where their impact will be limited. Their scores in Calgary-Elbow and Brooks-Medicine Hat, where leader Barry Morishita is running, will be worth watching.
Other parties include the Wildrose Loyalty Coalition and Independence Party (16 and 14 candidates, respectively, mostly in rural areas), while the Liberals have 13 candidates on the ballot, 10 of them in the two big urban areas.
If it’s really close, we might be parsing some of these parties’ results in a handful of ridings. But, we have to remember that not everyone casting a ballot for these parties would otherwise vote for the UCP or NDP if they had no other choice.
Polling Consensus: Pollsters are likely over-stating the support of these small parties as none of them are running even a half-slate of candidates. Total support for third parties is generally between 3% and 5%, with no single party registering much more than 1% when included as an option.
Seat Estimate: Barring a local campaign that has evaded everyone’s attention (i.e. Haldimand–Norfolk in the 2022 Ontario election), there will be no third-party or Independent candidates even close to being elected.
Turnout and enthusiasm
The ace in the hole for the United Conservatives is their likely turnout advantage. Polls routinely give the UCP a lead of between 10 and 20 points among older Albertans. As they tend to vote in much bigger numbers than the young people who are supporting the NDP by similar margins, that should boost the UCP’s results compared to their polls.
If that happens, and especially if it happens across the province, then the UCP is assured of victory. If it doesn’t happen, or if it doesn’t happen in Calgary in particular, then it’ll come down to each party’s ability to get out their vote.
That’s where the NDP’s hope lies. While it is by no means uniform across the board, polls generally show a little more enthusiasm among the NDP’s supporters than among the UCP’s supporters. If that means more New Democrats come out while proportionately more of the UCP’s backers stay home, the NDP could mitigate the UCP’s lead among older voters. Then the election becomes a seat-by-seat, polling district-by-polling district contest.
So, there’s plenty of uncertainty going into today’s election. The UCP has the advantages. It’s leading in the polls in the places it needs to win. But the lead is narrow and both parties have a plausible path to victory — who will take it?
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