Growing up in Alberta I never thought I would see what happened in this provincial election. The NDP have won a majority government, 44 years of Progressive Conservative government. Rachel Notley and the NDP ran an incredibly strong campaign and deserve a lot of credit for winning a large amount of support in a province that, compared to most, is quite conservative. The success of the NDP, however, cannot be fully understood without an examination of the changes in party politics that have occurred over the last two elections. Changes in the party system over those two elections produced consolidated support for the NDP on the centre-left of the political spectrum and a split vote on the right. The first past the post system, which has long punished Alberta’s centre-left for vote splitting, this time hurt the right for doing the same. The NDP appear to have gained the support of a small but significant number of right party supporters in this election, but the major reason that they have won a majority government has to do with the rise of the Wildrose Alliance and decline of the Liberal Party.
The start point for an explanation of what happened in Alberta this election should be the previous election in 2012. What is notable in that election is the surge in support for the Wildrose Alliance, and that that surge in support did not translate into a decline in PC support. The popular vote for the Wildrose grew by 27 percentage points in that election, yet the PC vote only fell by 8.8 percentage points. It is unlikely that this was a result of Liberal and NDP voters moving to the Wildrose Alliance. The ideological distance between the Wildrose Alliance and the other opposition parties as well as the fact that Wildrose Alliance picked up rural seats that were former PC strongholds suggests that the Wildrose gains largely came at the expense of the PCs. The PCs were able to hang on to power by moving to the centre and casting themselves as the best chance centrist and left voters had of keeping the Wildrose Alliance out of power. This resulted in a jump in combined right party support in that election. The total right party share of the vote in the 2012 election was 78%. Alberta is a conservative province, but it is not that conservative. The total right party vote in most election hovers around 55%-60%. The only way the right gets to 78% is if one of the right party attracts a significant number of strategic voters from the centre-left. It is far more likely that those strategic votes went to the Allison Redford led PCs than the Wildrose Alliance. The PC party that emerged from the 2012 election was thus significantly weaker than it appeared. It had lost a large portion of its right wing base and was now reliant on strategic votes who were probably closer ideologically to the NDP and Liberal parties. These were not voters who could be expected to remain PC over the long term, and thus the shift in the vote on the right of political spectrum in 2012 left the PCs vulnerable to a surge in support for either the Wildrose Alliance or a strong Liberal or NDP party.
It is worth noting here that the surge in Wildrose Alliance support was in 2012, not 2015. The Wildrose Alliance vote share in 2015 actually dropped 10 percentage points compared to the 2012 election. Though some of these voters may have moved to the NDP as anti-PC voters, the larger proportion probably returned to their closest ideological competitor, the PCs. The PCs thus won some of their base right wing base back in 2015, but not enough to make up for the strategic voters that they had lost. The Wildrose Alliance picked up an additional 4 seats compared to the 2012 election, but not because they had convinced more voters to support them. The fact that they were facing a weakened PC party allowed them to win seats that they would have lost last election to PC candidates.
The problems in consolidating the right vote were exacerbated by how close the PCs and Wildrose Alliance were in the polls. The final 308 projections (based on aggregations of polling data) had the Wildrose Alliance and PCs separated by only about 2%. This is a problem for strategic voters on the right, because it made it unclear as to which party presented the best opportunity to beat the NDP. If one of the two parties had taken a clear lead in the polls, right voters could have consolidated around that party and kept a significant number of ridings from falling to the NDP. As it turned out, the combined vote for the right parties was substantially higher than the NDP’s share of the vote (52% to the NDP’s 40.6%), and split pretty evenly between the two right parties. The Wildrose Alliance took the greater number seats (21 with 24.2% of the vote) but the PCs took a greater number of votes (27.8%). The NDP won 19 of their 53 ridings with less than 40% of the vote. Those 19 ridings would have been difficult for the NDP to win without significant vote splitting on the right.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the demise of the Liberal party made an important contribution to success of the NDP. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s vote splitting was a problem for the left and the centre of Alberta politics. Rarely did the centre and left have a majority of voters, but prior to 2012 the NDP and Liberals would take between 35% and 40% of the popular vote. In 2015 the combined NDP/Liberal/Alberta Party vote share was 47%. This is substantially higher than past elections, suggesting that the NDP did take some PC votes, but it is also not the radical shift that the change in seats suggests. Indeed, the NDP/Liberal vote share has been higher than it was in 2015. In 1989 the combined vote share for these parties was 55% while in 1993 it was 51%. Over the past three decades vote splitting on the centre and left has made the Alberta centre-left look a lot smaller than it actually is. After taking most of the centre and left vote from the Liberals (who fell to 4% and 1 seat in 2015), the NDP did still need to take some right wing voters in order to win government, but they did not need that many. A shift of 7 to 10 percentage points from the right to left is not inconceivable when a right government is unpopular (as both Prentice was). The unpopularity of the PC government led by Don Getty in the late 1980s and early 1990s actually caused a greater shift from right to left than occurred in Alberta in this election. The difference between this election and the 1989 and 1993 elections was that this time, the centre-left was consolidated behind one party. Liberal voters moved in large numbers from the Liberals to the NDP, and the right vote that shifted to the left ended up shifting to the NDP instead of being split between the NDP and the Liberals.
As a final note, it is worth pointing out that the anti-incumbency bias in polling was once again present in this election (though it was not large enough to significantly affect the result). 308’s final projection for the PC vote was 24% with a predicted high of 26%. The actual PC vote of 27.8% fell only within 308’s most optimistic projections for the PCs. This suggests that whatever caused polls to under-predict incumbent vote share in past elections (in Alberta, BC, and federally) was again present in the 2015 Alberta election, though this bias was not as large as in the BC or previous Alberta election. The NDP vote share was also low compared to 308’s aggregation of polls. The NDP took 40.6% of the popular vote, just below the 40.9% that 308 had predicted as the low score for the NDP and well below the 44.5% in the middle of 308’s predicted NDP range (though, again, the NDP score was within the most pessimistic of 308’s projections). The lesson to take from this is that polls showing shifts from an incumbent party to a challenger should be taken with a grain of salt. These shifts are probably smaller than polls project, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not there at all. A significant gap in polls favouring a challenger may still be real, it just may not be as large as the polls predict.
There should be two major take-aways from this Alberta election. The first is that there was a shift away from the right to the left, but that shift was small. On its own, it was probably not enough to put the NDP in power or to end the hold that right parties have over Alberta’s politics. The second, is that a large part of the NDP victory was a result of changes to the party system and the way that those changes interacted with the electoral system. The demise of the Liberals and rise of the Wildrose Alliance meant that Alberta politics went from having a dominant right party competing with two much smaller centre and left parties to a dominant centre-left party competing with two mid-sized right parties. The first past the post electoral system then punished the mid-sized right parties for splitting their votes and rewarded the NDP for consolidating the centre and left vote. With respect to the party and electoral systems these were the perfect conditions for an NDP victory in Alberta. If the right parties and voters can coordinate to a greater degree in the next election, the NDP will face a much tougher challenge in the next election.