Hitting the Ceiling: The Limits of Left and Right Party Support in Alberta

Alberta has long been known for the Progressive Conservative domination of its politics. This recent election, however, shows the potential for a change in the province. After 43 years of Progressive Conservative governments, several polls have the PCs not only behind the Wildrose Alliance, but in third place, with a surging NDP in second. This comes despite two of the three major opposition parties in Alberta undergoing significant leadership changes directly prior to the election. After the defection of leader Danielle Smith to the PCs in December (along with over half of the caucus) the Wildrose Alliance selected Brian Jean as their new leader less than two weeks before Premier Jim Prentice called the current election. The Alberta Liberals had their leader, Raj Sherman resign in January, and have yet to select a permanent replacement. David Swann is serving as the interim leader for the election. On the right of the political spectrum, neither the change in leadership nor the floor crossings appear to have hurt the Wildrose Alliance, they lead the polls. On the centre and left of the political spectrum it appears that the NDP and not the PCs have benefited from the decline of the Liberals. As with any mid-election polls these projections should be taken with a grain of salt. Campaigns matter, and a strong one from the PC party could see them catch both the NDP and the Wildrose Alliance to finish first in the election. Polls also have a history of under-predicting incumbent support, suggesting that the PCs may not be doing as poorly as they appear to be. This election can be separated into two different competitions over voters, one on the right of the political spectrum between the PCs and the Wildrose Alliance and one on the centre and left of the political spectrum between the Liberals and the NDP (as well as the Alberta Party and Greens as more peripheral parties). Past results suggest that there are enough voters on the right of the Alberta political spectrum to sustain competition between two parties while the Alberta NDP may be hitting in ceiling with respect to the number of votes that they can expect to win.

Not all parties in the Alberta election are competing directly with each other. Many voters can position themselves along a left-right scale. Voters may move slightly more to the left or to the right on that scale over the course of an election, but it is unlikely than many voters will jump from one side to the complete opposite end. Even if the NDP run a perfect campaign, they are unlikely to convince many Wildrose Alliance or PC voters to support them, nor are the NDP likely to win over many Wildrose Alliance supporters. Parties are not competing with all of the other parties for votes, for the most part they are competing with the parties that are closest to on the election’s major issues. The multi-party aspect to this election in Alberta exacerbates this. Voters in Alberta have multiple options of a similar ideology available to them. A small c conservative voter who has traditionally supported the PCs can switch their vote to the Wildrose Alliance without making too much of an ideological shift. The same might be said for a left-Liberal voter switching to the NDP.  Dissafection with one’s party under these conditions is unlikely to lead a voter to move to a party of a different ideology.  An election in which left-right issues are important (as is the case with most provincial elections outside of Quebec) and in which there are multiple parties, can be broken down into a couple of sub-sets of party competition. On the right, the PCs are competing with the Wildrose Alliance, in the centre the Liberals are competing with the PCs (though the NDP also appear to be encroaching on the centre in this election as well), and on the left/centre-left the NDP are competing with the Liberals.

The electoral history of Alberta, summarized in the table at the end of this post, can give some indication of how much of the vote each party is competing over. Unsurprisingly the popular vote in Alberta is consistently right party heavy. The combined share of major right parties’ vote including the PCs, the Wildrose Alliance, and the Social Credit party has been over 50% in every Alberta election after the Second World War with the exception of the 1989 and 1993 elections. Since 1993 the total share of the right party vote tends to fall in between 55% and 60% of the vote (in 2012 the combine PC and Wildrose Alliance vote hit 78%, but that may have been because Allison Redford was able to win over centrist and even left voters concerned about a Wildrose Alliance victory). On the other side of the political spectrum the left and centre (the NDP, Liberals, Greens, and Alberta Party) tend to have a vote share that falls in the 35% to 43% range (though their share was significantly lower between 1959 and 1982).

There are short term and long term implications of these ranges for both the left and the right. For the left in the short term, these ranges suggest that the numbers the NDP is polling at now are close to the ceiling for their support. Three Hundred Eight’s poll aggregation places the NDP vote share at around 28%. Combined with the Liberals 10% that is pretty close to what one would expect for the combined left and centre vote share in an Alberta election. This suggests that the NDP gains are coming at the expense of the Liberal party and not as a result of significant ideological shifts within Alberta politics. Assuming that there is a segment of Liberals that is willing to support the party through almost any circumstance (most parties have at least some hardcore followers) and that there are some Liberals who would prefer the PCs to the NDP, the NDP’s prospects for further growth in this election appear to be rather limited. The NDP may be able to capitalize on current Liberal weakness in order to win a substantial share of opposition seats, but there would have to be a substantial shift in Albertan’s political beliefs for the NDP (or for that matter for the Liberals) to have a serious chance at winning government.

Over the long-term the left/centre share of the vote in Alberta suggests that any merger of the Liberals and the NDP would have a limited likelihood of forming government. A merged party, even if it was able to hold all of its supporters (which is unlikely) would find itself of the 35%-40% range. While it certainly possible for a party to win a majority on 35%-40% of the vote in a first past the post system, the high concentration of left and centre voters in Edmonton and downtown Calgary (the NDP for example is polling at around 50% in Edmonton but only 23-24% in Calgary and the rest of the province), coupled with the over-representation of rural districts make such an outcome unlikely. Further if there is a merger of the right parties to counter a merged centre-left, or if one of the right parties simply becomes dominant, the right should be able to consistently out perform a combined left and centre party. Even a combined Liberal-NDP party would struggle to win government in most Alberta elections. A merger might make for a larger left/centre opposition, but the left/centre would still be significantly outnumbered by voters on the right of the political spectrum.

The right party poll numbers also look about where one would expect them to be given how Albertans have voted in previous elections. The combined Wildrose Alliance and PC vote share is at 55%, which if anything, is on the low side of where one would expect it to be given the results of the 2000s. This suggests that the Wildrose Alliance and PCs are largely in competition with each other over voters on the right of the political spectrum. Over the short term it likely makes most sense for both of these parties to concentrate their efforts on winning over each other’s supporters. The low Liberal vote share further suggests that the PCs may have less to gain by moving to the centre to try to take Liberal votes than they did in the 2012 election. Tacking to centre for the PCs at this point means trying to win over NDP voters who are backing a party much more ideologically distant to them than the 2012 Liberals.

Over the long-term, the large number of voters on the right of the political spectrum suggests that there is room for two electorally viable right parties. Even if they split the usual 55%-60% of the right vote down the middle, the PCs and Wildrose Alliance remain competitive with a centre or left party that is dominating its side of the ideological spectrum. The first past the post system does raise valid concerns for the right about vote splitting, but first past the post systems also tend to exaggerate the seat share of the largest party. Even with the right vote split down the middle, both right parties would have a reasonable shot at winning the largest vote share of any Alberta party. Vote splitting might force competing right parties into a minority situation, but only in the rarest of circumstances should a right party fail to form government in Alberta. This creates conditions in which two right parties could compete with each other for government of the course of a number of elections. It would not be surprising to see sustained competition between the PCs and Wildrose Alliance for government.

In order for right party competition to be sustained over the long-term, however, both parties must distinguish themselves from the other party. If the two party’s positions converge, it is likely that whichever party is stronger at the time of convergence will take the other’s supporters. There is little value in voting for a weaker right party if it is simply going to do the same things (and govern as competently) as the stronger right party. The challenge for whichever of the Wildrose Alliance or PCs finishes with fewer seats and votes than the other will be to remain relevant to Alberta voters. If it cannot establish a distinct position on the right of the Albertan political spectrum, it could see the defection of large numbers of its supporters over to the stronger of the right parties.

While the 2015 election in Alberta certainly contains some surprises, these appear to be more the function of multi-party competition on different parts of the political spectrum than the result of a changing Alberta electorate. On the left/centre of the spectrum, the NDP seem to be taking advantage of a weak Liberal vote share. On the right, the Wildrose Alliance and PCs appear to be in competition with each other, but their combined vote share (at least as current polls predict) suggest that they are not drawing voters from outside the traditional right of the political spectrum.

Vote Share (Percentages)
Year Green NDP Liberal Alberta Party Total Left-Centre PC Wildrose/Alberta Alliance Social Credit Total Right
2012 9.85 9.89 1.31 21.05 43.97 34.28 0.02 78.27
2008 4.55 8.48 26.43 0.00 39.46 52.72 6.78 0.21 59.71
2004 2.75 10.20 29.39 0.28 42.62 46.80 8.70 1.23 56.73
2001 0.28 8.03 27.33 35.64 61.91 0.53 62.44
1997 0.11 8.81 32.75 41.67 51.17 6.84 58.01
1993 0.20 11.01 39.73 50.94 44.49 2.41 46.90
1989 26.29 28.68 54.97 44.29 0.47 44.76
1986 29.22 12.22 41.44 51.40 5.15 56.55
1982 18.75 1.81 20.56 62.28 0.83 63.11
1979 15.75 6.16 21.91 57.40 19.87 77.27
1975 12.94 4.98 17.92 62.65 18.17 80.82
1971 11.42 1.01 12.43 46.40 41.10 87.50
1967 15.98 10.81 26.79 26.00 44.60 70.60
1963 9.45 19.76 29.21 12.71 54.81 67.52
1959 4.33 13.88 18.21 23.88 55.69 79.57
1955 8.24 31.13 39.37 9.19 46.42 55.61
1952 14.05 22.37 36.42 3.67 56.24 59.91
1948 19.13 17.86 36.99 55.63 55.63
Average 1990-2012 1.58 9.40 27.59 0.53 38.56 50.18 16.59 1.87 60.34
Average All Years 1.58 13.44 18.68 0.53 32.64 41.23 16.59 22.79 64.50
*Data from Elections Alberta (http://www.electionsalberta.ab.ca/Public%20Website/746.htm#2012)

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One thought on “Hitting the Ceiling: The Limits of Left and Right Party Support in Alberta

  1. Pingback: Undecideds Matter: Recent Polls in Alberta May Be Overstating NDP Support By Ignoring Undecideds and Voter Volatility | Somewhere Left of Ottawa

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