Latest poll shows Alberta election battle in dead heat

Thursday's TV debate shapes up as key to victory, experts say

The provincial election race is tightening, according to a new poll that puts the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives in a statistical dead heat with the vote less than two weeks away.

Popular support among decided voters has the Wildrose at 36 per cent compared with 34 per cent for the Conservatives, setting up the possibility of a minority government, suggests the Leger Marketing poll conducted over the Easter weekend.

The NDP and Liberals are trailing at about 13 per cent each, followed by the Alberta party at three per cent and the EverGreen party at one per cent.

The poll, commissioned by the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, shows support for the Wildrose has dropped six percentage points in recent days in the wake of media reports on the party's position on so-called social conscience issues and several major Tory platform announcements.

"It's possible the people who told us they would vote Wildrose started to look at the platform more closely," Leger Marketing vice-president Ian Large said Monday.

"Maybe they are seeing things in there that they don't actually agree with or, more to the point, they are seeing things in the PC platform they do agree with."

He said it's too early to tell if the Wildrose has reached a plateau in its support base. Most of the party's decline has occurred outside of Calgary and Edmonton. Just last week, the Wildrose had a 24-point lead outside the two cities, while the PCs and Wildrose are now neck-and-neck.

Political science professor Chaldeans Mensah says the poll suggests the election could be decided on the basis of which leader, Tory Alison Redford, or Wildrose Danielle Smith, performs best in Thursday's televised debate and in the final days of the campaign.

Smith and Redford are virtually tied for who would make the best premier - well ahead of NDP Leader Brian Mason and Liberal Raj Sherman - although Smith has much stronger support in Calgary while Redford rules in Edmonton.

"This situation is really raising all kinds of scenarios, including the potential for a minority government," said Mensah, who teaches at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan University.

He said the prospect of a minority government could cause "a great deal of consternation and fear" among conservative voters because it could leave the NDP or Liberals holding the balance of power.

"It certainly looks like a very split electorate right now," he said. "I sense there is a desire for change in the electorate, but there is also an element of uncertainty about whether to endorse the offer of change from the Wildrose."

Mason told the Herald editorial board on Monday some voters are having second thoughts after the Wildrose surge. "People are angry with the Conservatives and they are looking at the Wildrose and have gone, parked their votes there - and as some of them drill down a bit more into the Wildrose policy . . . they become concerned and they withdraw their support," said Mason, who wasn't aware of the poll results at the time.

The poll suggests 57 per cent of Albertans want to change their government and less than three in 10 want to keep the Tories in power after the April 23 vote.

While 20 per cent of the electorate remains undecided, those who are leaning are split almost equally on whether to vote for the Tories or Wildrose.

The online poll of 902 eligible voters conducted April 5 to 8 suggests a majority of Albertans support the PC promise of 140 new health-care clinics (68 per cent) and $2.4 billion in school construction (67 per cent).

It also shows 63 per cent backing for pledges by the Wildrose, Liberals and NDP to eliminate school fees, something the Tories oppose.

But support was mixed for the Wildrose plan to pay out energy dividends to Albertans, if the province records a budget surplus.

The pledge drew slightly more opposition than support (46 per cent to 43 per cent) although about threequarters of Albertans who plan to vote Wildrose liked the idea.

A Liberal promise to eliminate university and college tuition fees sometime after 2025 was rejected by 57 per cent of voters and backed by 30 per cent.

"It's a nice idea, but for most people it's too far in the distant future to get their heads around," Large said.

Mensah said Tory promises from last week appear to be aimed at the coalition of blue and red PCs who elected her as leader, while the Wildrose has slid off track over the debate of social conservatism issues.

While they have some disaffected Tories who like their fiscal policies and will not switch back, they have to hang on to the Conservatives who have just recently become disenchanted with the Tories over perceptions of a culture of entitlement, he added.

"We're beginning to see, as the latest poll shows, they are having difficulty consolidating (their support) and they're in a deadlock with the Tory party, which could produce an outcome with which both parties are going to be unhappy," Mensah said.

A margin of error is not generally reported for non-random online surveys, but Large said a probability sample of 902 eligible voters would result in a maximum margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20, although the margin is higher for regional findings.





Calgary Herald, Tues Apr 10 2012
Byline: Darcy Henton, with files from James Wood

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