The NDP’s 2015 Alberta election win surprised many. The Social Credit and then the Progressive Conservatives had ensured that right wing parties had governed Alberta since 1935. Alberta’s politics have been complicated by vote splitting on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Through most of the 1990s and 2000s the Alberta Liberals and NDP split the non-conservative vote, making the left look weaker than it actually was. In 2015 the opposite was the case. The Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance split the right wing vote making the NDP look stronger than it was. With the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance uniting to form the United Conservative Party, and a Liberal resurgence looking unlikely, it is probable that just two parties will dominate the 2019 Alberta election. This makes understanding exactly how many centre-right and non-conservative voters there are in Alberta particularly important. A break down of the vote for centre-right and centre-left parties going back to 1982 shows that Edmonton tends to lean towards non-conservative parties while the rest of the province votes for centre-right parties. This being said, centre-left parties have consistently won substantial shares of the vote outside of Edmonton.
To look at the break down of the non-conservative and right wing vote in Alberta I compared average vote shares across ridings for centre-left and centre-right parties in 5 regions of the province: Calgary, Edmonton, Northern Rural Alberta, Central Rural Alberta, and Southern Rural Alberta. A list of which ridings fit into which regions can be found here (Ridings and Regions). The Alberta Party, the Liberals, and the NDP vote shares were combined to create a left (or non-conservative) vote share for each riding. I take an inclusive approach to categorizing parties as left parties because of the extent to which Alberta politics has often pitted centrist and leftist non-conservative parties against dominant right parties. The Progressive Conservative, Wildrose Alliance, Alberta Alliance, Social Credit, and Western Canadian Concept parties were combined to calculate the centre-right votes (each of these parties won a significant vote share in at least one election between 1982 and 2015 though several have since become defunct).
The two graphs below show the average riding vote share of left and right parties in the five regions from 1982 to 2015 (the graph for right parties is essentially a mirror image of the graph for left parties). The most striking feature of the graphs is the strength of non-conservative parties in Edmonton. Non-conservative parties take an average of at least 50% of the vote in the city in every election except for 1982 and 2012 (and it is notable that in 2012 Allison Redford positioned the Progressive Conservatives as a centrist alternative to the more right wing Wildrose Alliance). When the Progressive Conservatives have been particularly unpopular, in elections in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the early 2000s, and 2015, the non-conservative vote share in Edmonton has broken 60%.
In contrast to Edmonton, the rest of the province has consistently voted for right wing parties. Only in 1989 in Calgary and 1993 in Northern Alberta do non-conservative parties average over 50% of the vote outside of Edmonton. The success of the conservative parties outside of the capital city fits with most people’s perceptions of Alberta politics as being particularly conservative.
The strength of the conservative vote outside of Edmonton should not be overstated, however. There are a substantial minority of non-conservative voters in every region outside of Edmonton (as there are a substantial number of conservative voters in Edmonton). With the exception of 1982 and 2012 the left vote outside of Edmonton tends to be either higher than or around 30%. In other words, in most elections in Alberta slightly fewer than 1/3 Albertans outside of Edmonton vote for a non-conservative party. Even though left parties have struggled to win seats in many of these regions, they are far from homogenously conservative.
These vote shares have important implications for the future of Albertan politics. They show that both the Progressive Conservative/Wildrose Alliance dominance outside of Edmonton and the NDP gains there in 2015 are, in part, artefacts of the way that first past the post electoral treats parties when they split the vote with a similar party. When the NDP and Liberals were splitting the non-conservative vote there was not enough non-conservative support to elect MPs outside of the centre of Calgary and the odd seat in Lethbridge. However, when the non-conservative vote unified behind the NDP and the conservative vote split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance, there was enough support to elect a substantial number of MPs. Though the left vote share outside of Edmonton went up in 2015, it was not any higher than it had been in the early 1990s. The NDP made historic gains outside of Edmonton because they were able to unify left voters and because conservative voters were divided, not because the NDP was able to dramatically increase the left vote share outside of Edmonton.*
The implications for this for 2019 are that the NDP will struggle to hold in to many of its seats outside of Edmonton. A united Conservative party will end the vote splitting that handed the NDP a substantial number of rural and Calgary seats in 2015. This being said, the fact that the left vote (barring a sudden resurgence of the Liberals) is likely to remain unified behind the NDP should offer the party some protection. 30-40% of the vote outside of Edmonton, if it is distributed correctly, should allow the party to hold on to at least some seats outside of the capital. Conversely, even with the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance unified, the strength of left support in Edmonton should allow the party to hold on to many of its seats there. Though the United Conservatives are well placed to challenge the NDP for government, the absence of a vote split on the left should prevent the party from dominating the province the way the Progressive Conservatives did through much of the 1990s and 2000s.
* It should be noted that one of the reasons there is a spike in the non-conservative vote in 2015 is because it was very low in 2012. It is important not to look just at the increase in the vote between 2012 and 2015 but also at where the non-conservative vote was in 2015 relative to elections prior to 2012.