Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi looking serene a few weeks before he was supposed to lose his job to a conservative contender (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Yesterday, United Conservative Party MLAs were Tweeting around a graphic from a new poll that showed their party with a wide lead over the New Democratic Party in all regions of Alberta, including the Edmonton area, which lately has been seen as an NDP stronghold.

Mysteriously, the UCPers didn’t include any information in their Tweets about who did the poll.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

My guess is that was because the pollster in question – Mainstreet Research of Toronto – comes with a bit of a history.

Mainstreet is the polling company that was in effect fired last year by Postmedia’s Calgary news operation for what the pollster later conceded had been “a catastrophic polling failure.”

Controversial polls published by the company for Postmedia’s Calgary news outlets during the province-wide October 2017 municipal elections showed Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi far behind his strongest opponent, former Progressive Conservative Party president Bill Smith.

One Mainstreet poll placed Mayor Nenshi 17 points behind Mr. Smith – which, if true, would have been slam-dunk territory for his conservative challenger. Alberta conservatives badly wanted this outcome to advance their narrative progressive politics are kaput in Alberta, especially Calgary, and voters were swinging back to the right.

In the same time frame, though, opinion surveys by several other pollsters showed Mr. Nenshi in the lead, though by smaller margins.

On voting day, Mr. Nenshi was re-elected with a lead of eight percentage points.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This led to unverified accusations by Nenshi supporters that Mainstreet was producing “co-ordinated polls” designed to help Postmedia, as the CBC put it in a headline, “influence Calgary mayoral race.”

In late October 2017, shortly after the municipal election, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, a national standards association for public opinion researchers, said it would launch an inquiry “into underperforming and conflicting election polling results published during the recent municipal elections in Calgary.”

In January this year, MRIA announced the members of its panel. An MRIA spokesperson said at the time the panel would consider the work of all pollsters, even those like Mainstreet that were not affiliated with the association. MRIA didn’t respond yesterday to my queries about the inquiry, but I’ll get back to you if they do.

Meanwhile, Mainstreet vowed to fix the problems the bedevilled its October 2017 polling. It no longer appears to work for Postmedia, which publishes the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun and their websites out of the same newsroom, although the U.S.-owned corporation left the door open a crack to a renewed relationship with the pollster.

In December 2017, Mainstreet dropped a threat to sue a Calgary pollster who had worked for the Nenshi campaign over critical comments he made about Mainstreet’s polls.

Which brings us back to the present and the poll the UCP was crowing about yesterday. Mainstreet said the demon-dialler survey of 936 Albertans, which was collecting responses between July 15 and July 17, was not done for a third party.

“Among decided and leaning voters, the UCP led by Jason Kenney currently enjoy just over 52 per cent support while the NDP led by Rachel Notley have 32.5 per cent support,” Mainstreet’s report summarized its results. “The Alberta Party with Stephen Mandel at the helm have 5.4 per cent. The Liberals led by David Khan are at 4.8 per cent, and the Greens have 3.1 per cent support.”

At a quick glance, it’s interesting to note the poll shows undecided voters as only 7.8 per cent province wide, and only 6.7 per cent in the Edmonton area. It actually indicates the undecided vote is higher in rural areas, which are thought by most Alberta political observers to be solidly in the UCP camp.

This seems unlikely. Other polls being done in the same time frame for private clients place the level of undecided voters at between 22 and 24 per cent province-wide, and 24 and 30 per cent in Edmonton. But, again, nothing is impossible, as polls provide a snapshot of voter opinion at a moment in time.

Some parts of the poll are also heavily weighted to account for the low number of respondents between 18 and 34, who tend to be more progressive in their voting intentions, and the high number of respondents over 65, who tend to be more conservative.

Of the poll’s 936 respondents, 151 were in the 18-34 demographic. That number was adjusted to 317 by the pollster. Meanwhile, 297, nearly a third of the sample, were over 65, which the pollster adjusted downward as if it were 158. It certainly seems likely Mainstreet has analyzed the seniors’ vote with a high degree of precision.

None of these qualifications are meant to suggest the poll published yesterday by Mainstreet is outside the realm of possibility. NDP supporters who wish to be disheartened by the results are welcome to feel gloomy. UCP supporters enthusiastic about them are equally welcome to feel euphoric.

Others, however, may wish to await the results of more polls by several reputable pollsters before passing judgment on whether this is the best of times or the worst of times, the epoch of belief or the epoch of incredulity, etc.

This may explain why Mr. Kenney, who undoubtedly has some polling of his own, begged his supporters yesterday to “take nothing for granted.”

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  1. A quick trip down memory lane. In 2015 Premier Notley won the general election with 41% of the vote. The Wildrose had 24% and the PC’s 28%. The Wildrose and PC’s together is 52%, so the recent polls numbers are plausible although I have little faith in Mainstreet Research.

    For those that argue proportional representation, if we had proportional representation in the 2015 election over half of the mla’s would be from right of center parties. I look at B.C. And I see 3 Green Party mla’s holding the balance of power and I am not impressed with the result!

    One other thing, Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment cost her a lot of votes, I see supporters of the NDP in Alberta making the same mistakes! Enjoy your day

    1. Farmer Brian:

      As the CBC’s polls expert, Eric Grenier, is wont to point out, you can’t just take the votes of two pre-merger parties, add them up and suggest that would be the vote total of a merged party. There are undoubtedly long-time PC voters who would never vote for the Jason Kenney-led UCP, just as there are long-time Liberal voters who would never vote for a putative merged NDP-Liberal-AP new party, which was a common topic of political speculation before 2015. Some of those previous PC voters will probably shift to the Alberta Party, some to the Liberals, maybe even some to the NDP. Some former Wildrose voters will also shift, likely to one of the more fringy offerings.

      Remember, too, as we saw in 2015: campaigns matter.

      I am enjoying my day, thank you 🙂

  2. Certainly there was major weirdness going on with Mainstreet’s polling for the Calgary Municipal election. What is less clear is whether this was just bad methodology, incompetence, or something more sinister. Mainstreet’s polling in recent provincial elections, though, has been well within normal parameters. For example they predicted 39 % of decided or leaning voters would vote PC in Ontario in their last poll before the election, 34 % NDP, 20 % Libs, all values that were quite close the final result. During the election, they had the NDP slightly ahead at one point, the same as other pollsters. So I am not willing to condemn them for bias or push polling just yet.

    As for Brett’s point, the polls did not show Harper or Prentice winning their elections either, once the campaigns got going.

    Farmer Brian is of course correct that the combined WR/PC vote was more than 50 % last election, and indeed, the NDP would probably not have formed government with an element of proportionality introduced into the system. Of course we don’t know what effect changing the voting system would have had on a lot of things, like quality of candidates, voter participation, inclination to vote for parties unlikely to win (I would personally expect a lot of PC voters last election would have defected to Alberta Party, Libs or Greens in a PR system, and a lot fewer of them to NDP). There is no doubt that the NDP were very fortunate the way the vote broke for them in Calgary, allowing them to win a lot of ridings with very narrow margins. Plugging in the actual voting % in Calgary to various models (like, Eric Grenier, or TooCloseToCall, Brian Breguet), gave them quite a few fewer seats.

    In my opinion, the NDP need to do the following if they hope to win (And I sure hope they do win! )

    1. Convince green, Liberal and Alberta party voters to vote for them. This will take tact.
    2. Stop scare-mongering about Kenney and emphasizing the perils of social conservatives so much. History is largely on the side of progressives on most of these issues, but it probably affects the average voter’s choice a lot less than we think. See Michael Moore’s chapter on RINOs (Republicans in name only – people who vote Republican in spite of being diametrically opposed to the right wing of their party on all social issues).
    3. Run on their record – which is quite good. No major scandals, weathered the recession, economy doing OK and some diversification achieved. Significant progress on labour and women’s issues, no obvious fighting with municipalities. They have also been remarkably good at holding the line on public and quasi public sector salaries (to my cost!)
    4. Hope and pray the economy does not tank
    5. Roll out a plan that shows a path to a balanced budget and eventual decreased reliance on resource revenues. I see the fact that they were so critical of the PCs before them of squandering resource revenues, and subjecting us to roller coaster effects, as their Achilles heel, since they have continued to do almost exactly the same thing. For my money they have not done enough on the tax front (their income tax changes were not terribly different from those in Prentice’s last budget, and really only affect people who are very rich by most people’s definition).

  3. Mainstreet’s favourable results for certain Alberta candidates in the not too distant past has turned out to be a bit of a curse. Perhaps that is why even Mr. Kenney is being very cautious about their most recent favourable results. After all, parties have considerable resources to spend on their own extensive polling and not the sort of polls that yield questionable results that penny pinching mainstream media organizations sponsor or pay for. I suspect some times you get what you pay for.

    Polling has recently had a poor track record at best, for a long list of reasons. A big reason is society has changed a lot in recent years and the polling models don’t work so well now that most people don’t have land lines or so eagerly pick up the phone anymore. Sometimes polls still do get it right or close enough, like in Ontario, but one wonders if it is more coincidence than anything else. Ask Hillary Clinton about polls, or consider the ones that were forecasting a Conservative minority government in the last Federal election not too long before election day, the ones less than a year before the last Alberta Provincial election that had Jim Prentice’s PC’s winning by a landslide or the ones close to the election that had Wildrose winning the Alberta 2012 election. Now, some pollsters fail more spectacularly than others like Mainstreet in the Calgary election, I wonder if some are not as rigorous as others or do not fully appreciate or understand the bias being introduced into their models because society is changing. Sure Mainstreet says it has learned from its errors and refined its models, but it can be a bit like a dog chasing a car – society continues to change so the model that worked in 2012 or 2015 or even 2017 may not be as accurate now.

    I suppose another fundamental problem is polling is a business. It costs money to constantly refine and change models and even then there is no assurance you got it right. I suspect some pollsters just make a small effort and hope they got it close enough, while others who are more rigorous and reputable make more effort. I have a feeling that Mainstreet falls into the former category.

    As you noted, there are some things in the Mainstreet poll that do not appear quite right even at first glance, such as the strangely low number of undecideds and I wonder if there is a conservative bent to the youth they did contact. I almost wonder whether Mainstreet is phoning from the U of A or U of C Campus conservative clubs membership lists. This reminds me of one of the particular problems they had with the Calgary election poll.

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