If someone had predicted two months ago that a week before Alberta’s May 5th election multiple polls would give the NDP a 8-10 point lead they would have have gotten some strange looks. It was reasonable to suggest that in the wake of the Progressive Conservative unpopularity that Alberta might finally see a change in government, but few would have predicted that that change would be to an NDP government. Indeed, the last time the NDP won more than 4 seats was in 1989. The likelihood that the NDP forms a government may be overstated in a number of recent articles on the election. Polls that have included a measure of undecided voters or voters willing to switch votes show the potential for substantial volatility. This volatility is likely to hurt the NDP in three ways. Polls showing large numbers of undecided voters are likely to be understating the strength of both the PCs and the Wildrose Alliance, while polls showing a high level of uncertain voters could see the NDP hurt if either the right vote coalesces behind a single party or if voters move away from the NDP towards the incumbent PCs.
A couple of polls suggest that there may be a substantial number of undecided voters who simply are being counted in the numbers being reported in most polls. In a poll conducted immediately after the debate, Mainstreet Technology reported that 21% of those surveyed were undecided. Including undecideds brought the NDP down to 24% from the 31% of decided voters only. On April 30th, CBC reported on a poll they had commissioned with Return On Insight that had the number of unsure/non-voters at 26%. Including these respondents in the sample brought the NDP down to 28% from a 38% share of decided voters. CTV reported on a Think HQ poll that has the NDP at 39% but has an undecided percent at 13%. The Return on Insight and Think HQ polls probably do not have enough undecideds for either the PCs or the Wildrose Alliance to catch the NDP if the undecided voters break disproportionately towards the right parties. The election would however be a lot closer if that happens. A 10 point lead for the NDP could be reduced to a 4 or 5 point lead if undecideds break disproportionately towards a single right party. That is a lot closer to the margin of error, and a lead that it is not inconceivable to see the PCs or the Wildrose close over the last few days of the campaign.
A scenario where undecideds move towards one of the right parties is fairly likely. Partisan competition on the right of the political spectrum is much closer than on the centre/left. The PCs and the Wildrose Alliance have maintained base levels of support above 20%, suggesting that they both stand a reasonable chance of winning seats in the election. Because of this, it has been unclear as to which of the right parties strategic right wing voters should support. For right voters casting a vote on principle the Wildrose Alliance and the PCs both have significant advantages but also significant drawbacks. The Wildrose Alliance offer an alternative on the right to conservative voters who are frustrated by a combination of PC mismanagement of the economy and scandals within a PC-led government that has been in power for too long. That the Wildrose Alliance is further to the right of the PCs may, however, make more moderate PC voters nervous about switching their votes over to the Wildrose Alliance.
On the centre and left of the Alberta political spectrum the choice is clearer. The Liberal party has had a poor election. They have run a weak campaign compared to a very strong one for the NDP. That in and of itself may be enough to convince many on the centre and left to move their support to the NDP. On top of that, the high NDP poll numbers and low Liberal numbers mean that the NDP are the best choice for any strategic voters looking to support whichever party offers the best chance at defeating one of Alberta’s right parties. The decision over who to support is more difficult voters on the right of the political spectrum than it is for voters on the right. There should thus be more undecided voters on that side of the spectrum. As they make up their minds between the Wildrose Alliance and the PCs, the percentages for both those parties should increase while the percentages of support for the NDP and Liberals should drop. The Liberals and NDP do not need to lose any of their existing supporters for this to happen, they only need to win over fewer undecideds than the Wildrose Alliance and PCs do.
Not all polls have large numbers of undecided voters. Global news reported on a poll conducted by Ipsos that had only 8% of respondents undecided. This poll, however, showed a great deal of volatility in the opinions of decided voters. In this poll, 48% of respondents who gave a vote choice also said that they could change their mind and vote for a different party. This presents two concerns for the NDP. The first is that right wing voters could coalesce behind the right wing party they see most likely to defeat the NDP. The ideological distance between both the PCs and the Wildrose Alliance and the NDP means that most right party voters are likely to prefer one of those parties to the NDP. If either the PCs or the Wildrose Alliance emerge as the clear challenger to the NDP, defections from the weaker right party to the stronger could easily cause the stronger right party to catch the NDP. Three Hundred Eight’s aggregate poll numbers have consistently shown support for right parties that are consistent with the past elections resultes I noted in my previous post. Even though the NDP is leading the polls, a substantial majority of voters in Alberta are still supporting right wing parties. The Ipsos poll shows that many of these supporters, 36% of Wildrose Alliance supporters and 46% of PC voters, are willing to change their votes. The fact that right party support remains high and substantial numbers of right party supporters report a willingness to change their votes make a shift towards the strongest right party reasonably likely. Such a shift could lead the strongest right party to surpass the NDP in support.
The other concern for the NDP regarding voter volatility lies in their ability to hold on to their own supporters. Polls in Canadian elections have consistently under-predicted incumbent vote shares (see the BC provincial election, the previous Alberta election, and the 2011 federal election). This may be a result of individuals who are unwilling to tell pollsters they are voting for an unpopular incumbent, voters who are persuaded to switch their support back to the incumbent as opposition parties leading polls receive increased media scrutiny, voters who get cold feet over voting out a government at the last minute, or some other factor not apparent to pollsters. The Ipsos poll notes that 49% of respondents who said that they supported the NDP said that they were willing to change their mind. To the extent that the NDP has won over PC voters, and it is not clear that they have won many consistent PC voters (a significant number of the individuals who voted for the PCs in the last election but are voting NDP now are likely to have been voters the strategically voted PC in 2012 to keep the Wildrose Alliance out of power), they are at significant risk of losing those voters in the days leading up to the election.
To this point the NDP have had a very good campaign. They are likely to take a large number of seats, far exceeding the number of seats and votes that they have won in any of the elections in the past two decades. The number of undecideds and the volatility should make one skeptical of any predictions of an NDP government. At this point in the campaign the number of undecideds and voter volatility are both working against the NDP. The election should still see a large NDP vote share and should make a major breakthrough in Alberta politics. The NDP vote share in this election looks like it is going to big (at least by Albertan standards), but it may not be as big as polls are predicting.