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If small-town Alberta is wary of Danielle Smith, nothing is a given any more

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.

if small town alberta is wary of danielle smith nothing is a given any more

The main reason that Alberta election followers have triple-underlined “Battleground Calgary” is that the other two main hunks of the political map seemed to have been spoken for.

Rachel Notley’s NDP had all but sewn up Fortress Edmonton, while the United Conservative Party held a long-term lease on the rest of Alberta — Otherland, let’s call it, because Canmore, Fort McMurray and 100,000-person cities Lethbridge and Red Deer can’t sensibly be lumped into “rural” Alberta.

But what if there is no Fortress Otherland for Premier Danielle Smith’s new party? That’s the alarming signal from the latest survey by Alberta polling maven Janet Brown for CBC News, one that shows the NDP ahead by nine percentage points overall.

Outside the major cities, UCP leads the NDP by 44 per cent to 36.

Sure, a lead is a lead, but that’s not how a Jason Kenney-led party won all but three seats in Otherland. In 2019’s election, UCP won 67 per cent of Otherland votes and NDP got 21 per cent.

A 46-percentage-point margin shrinking to eight points will turn conservative heads from Peace River to Medicine Hat — which are, let’s note, two districts that Notley’s side won in 2015, when the NDP also won government.

Put it a different way: Brown’s numbers would make Otherland as much of a battleground as Calgary, where the NDP enjoy a six-point lead (46 per cent to UCP’s 40).

Based on Brown’s projections, this poll tips the ridings in Banff, Lethbridge and Red Deer into the NDP’s orange column, in addition to most of Calgary. Outside of Edmonton — the NDP retain a fortressy-like 26-point lead in the capital city — several bedroom-community ridings would also leave the UCP fold.

It may be unfair to draw a straight line between Thursday’s poll reporting and UCP member Brad Rutherford’s announcement that evening that he won’t seek a second term as Leduc–Beaumont MLA. But perhaps a squiggly line? It’s no fun, the spectre of having to scrape by for a seat you won by 30 percentage points last time.

Know what is fun? Team-building paintball afternoons, like the one Smith organized for her UCP caucus days after becoming premier. But team cohesion is trickier when so few MLAs feel politically secure under the new leader’s banner, and the word from Smith’s teammates after this poll came out was … gulp.

The Prairie chill on Smith’s neck

A deeper dive into the survey data suggests that Otherland isn’t buying what Smith is selling much more than urban Albertans are.

Voters outside the big cities are just as preoccupied by inflation and health care, and not much more fussed by the federal squabbles that Smith made the centrepiece of her leadership campaign.

Otherland isn’t sold on Smith, either. While only 29 per cent of small-city and rural residents said they’re highly impressed with Notley, that’s better than the 24 per cent for her rival.

if small town alberta is wary of danielle smith nothing is a given any more 1
Rachel Notley, on the night she lost her premiership in April 2019. New polling shows her NDP in position to return to government. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This certainly isn’t what Smith and her inner circle expected when she won leadership last month. She donned her former pundit’s hat in a Calgary Sun interview last month, and more or less took as a given that she’d hang on to the 39 of 41 Otherland seats her party won in 2019, meaning that “we just need to win 10 to 15 seats in Calgary and Edmonton” to get the minimum 44 seats required for an Alberta legislative majority. 

Two things about this thinking, aside from the oddity of a premier doing this sort of public punditry. First: Political wisdom holds that the team that tries to win 49 seats will win only 30. 

Second: In Danielle Smith’s political world, there are no more givens.

The Calgary suburbs aren’t safe; large swaths of Otherland are vulnerable; caucus and party cohesion remain tenuous, especially when a coalition built almost solely for winning isn’t. (Well, maybe one remaining given is Edmonton’s political tilt.)

Waiting for action

Keep in mind, however, that all this early tumult from Smith comes before she’s actually made any policy changes or spending decisions as premier.

It’s been an oddly quiet first four weeks on the job, with action on inflation, health care and other files teased as coming soon — and this inaction has given more room for the conversation about her premiership to be filled with the surfacing of self-damaging things like her Putin-friendly comments on Ukraine and her take on the epic discrimination of vaccine skeptics. 

But again, what can she take as a given? The public has likely come to expect their government, of any stripe, must act on crises like the cost of living. Was Kenney feted as a political hero for giving breaks on fuel taxes and utility bills?

A woman stands behind a podium.
Expect Smith to use policy and spending to shore up her United Conservatives’ dwindling support. But not everything she announces, like the Alberta Sovereignty Act, will be widely popular. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

When or if Smith fills the rest of 2022’s calendar with reforms and actions, not all will be broadly popular. The still-promised Alberta Sovereignty Act will remain divisive, and as will her plans to deem businesses as human rights violators if they require agency staff to have COVID vaccinations.

As for Smith’s latest bid to put the provincial shoulder into reviving plans for a new Calgary Flames arena, it’s not safe to assume that’s an easy vote-getter. She should know: Naheed Nenshi won re-election as mayor after being publicly skeptical of a subsidy-heavy arena proposal in 2017, back when she was a radio host and surely had to make some on-air sense of that development.

Smith’s UCP has time to regroup and get the ground settled beneath its feet before May’s election. But her political history and her short tenure thus far as premier signals a tendency toward volatility, and in the last couple decades Alberta has become a political earthquake zone.

The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between Oct. 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.

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