EDITOR’S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in mid-October, starting six days after Danielle Smith won the leadership of the United Conservative Party.
As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time.
This analysis is one in a series of articles to come out of this research. More stories will follow.
Between political jobs, Danielle Smith hosted a talk radio show. For nearly six years, she supposedly had her finger on the pulse of public mood.
So it may surprise Albertans that Smith’s political messaging as United Conservative leadership candidate and now premier seems so disconnected from what’s troubling Alberta voters most these days.
Four in ten Albertans, according to a new CBC News poll, identified health care as one of the most important issues facing the Prairie province. And with interest rates rising and many people feeling the pinch of rising costs, more than a third of Albertans mentioned inflation as one of their top concerns.
Yet, Smith’s leadership race was dominated by talk of her proposed sovereignty act. And her “bumpy” first week as premier began with her jarring claim that unvaccinated people were the “most discriminated against group.”
“I think one of the reasons that Danielle Smith’s impression scores are so low is because her rhetoric has been overwrought,” said Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the survey for CBC News.
Instead of introducing herself as the new steady hand of the provincial government, Smith made headlines – and sparked considerable controversy – in her first news conference after being sworn in as premier, stresses Brown.
Days later, Smith had to walk back controversial social media posts from her past where she seemingly repeated Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
“I think the overwrought narrative that plays so well on talk radio is not playing so well in the premier’s office,” added Brown.
Smith’s critics, in fact, worried she’d bring her “radio shock-jock approach to government.”
What’s most important to Albertans
Inflation was the most cited issue this summer according to Brown’s June polling, but health care has since overtaken it. Other issues, including the direction of the Alberta government, economy, education and oil and gas, round out the top six most important issues for Albertans. Concerns about the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rank eighth, just behind environment and climate change.
Concerns about health care are particularly pronounced among females, with 48 per cent saying it was among one of the most important issue facing Alberta, compared to only 34 per cent of males.
“I think the reason we’re seeing a rise in health care is because there has been so much focus on what Danielle Smith plans to do with Alberta Health Services,” said Brown. “We’re also getting a lot of stories lately about wait times in health care.”
Smith has vowed to replace Alberta Health Services’ board of directors for the organization’s response to the global pandemic that has killed more than 5,000 Albertans.
Longtime Alberta political watcher Duane Bratt said a number of factors could underlie why health has become such an important issue for many Albertans.
“Is it just that’s the traditional big issue in provincial politics? Or is it because of Danielle Smith wanting to re-litigate [the handling of] COVID and talking about dismantling AHS,” said Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University.
No matter the reason, the disconnect between what Alberta voters care about and what Smith and the UCP talk about could torpedo the governing party’s hope for reelection in next May’s expected general election.
Issues have political consequences
The CBC News poll suggests the UCP trails the NDP in popular opinion.
Decades of polling experience in Alberta taught Janet Brown to believe in the importance of issues guiding vote intention.
“I really do believe that the party that best speaks to the issues of concern is the party that’s going to get elected,” Brown said in an interview.
Brown stresses that when health and education dominated Albertans’ minds in 2015, the province elected its first NDP government.
In 2019, and after years of a sluggish economy, Albertans turned to a United Conservative Party and its promise to deliver on jobs, pipelines and the economy.
“Going into this next election, and it is a few months away, but right now people have a mix of both social and economic concerns,” said Brown.
So, it’s not clear right now, said Brown, which issues will dominate voters’ decision-making next May, giving both the UCP and NDP an opportunity to sway minds.
NDP’s best message
Traditionally, the NDP owns both health care and education in voters’ minds.
Brown suggests New Democrats should continue their focus on health care, while also playing up affordability and economic diversification .
“There is this sense that the NDP is not so good with economic issues and inflation is an important economic issue,” said Brown.
With Calgary expected to be the battleground in the election, Brown suggests the NDP target their message at reassuring voters in the province’s biggest city that “the economy is going to be properly looked after” if the NDP returns to power.
UCP’s best message
Both Brown and Bratt think the UCP needs to change tactics, and talk up inflation more.
Bratt suggests Smith mirror federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre’s messaging about rising costs.
“I think she should take a page at a Pollievre’s book and just pound on inflation.”
After rarely discussing inflation during her leadership campaign, Smith did make it a bigger part of her speeches at her Oct. 6 leadership victory and party convention two weeks later. But the premier has yet to bring any policy changes that would ease the pressure.
“She hasn’t really been able to make the pivot and make that the focus of her premiership or her government,” Brown said.
“That’s what the public wants. The public wants the government to be addressing inflation to provide some relief from inflation.”
The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between October 12 and 30, 2022, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.
The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, consisting of half landlines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialed up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 16.3 per cent.