Thursday, December 09, 2010

Political Uncertainty in Alberta - Anything Could Happen

In response to the recent Environics poll on Alberta voter intentions omitted the Alberta Party as a voting option.  My friend and fellow blogger Daveberta has run his own "poll" on his blog that included the Alberta Party as an option. His analysis and commentary is worth a read but with all your critical thought faculties fully engaged.  

This information and so many other indications promise the next Alberta election will be the most interesting.  There has not been this much volatility since Klein got elected in 1993 and it may be as dramatic as Lougheed in 1971.  This excitement is assured if the Alberta Party becomes a viable governance option for Alberta voters.  Its politics people so anything can happen.

Now back to the reality of today.  I have a hard time relying even on professional scientific polls about political fortunes because they are so unreliable in predicting actual voter behaviour.  My attitude is summed up in one of my favourite bumper stickers of all time: "Save Democracy, Lie to a Pollster."  So you can imagine how difficult it is for me to give any credence to the kind of unscientific opinion "polls" we see in newspapers and blogs - yes including this one.  I run unscientific blog-based polls too. My latest one is on royalty rates beside this post.

There is some value in these blog-based "polls" however as they gauge (but do not measure) some sense of public sentiment, at least in a segment.  While participants are sort of random we don't know the distribution and they are prone to being hi-jacked by special interests. In fact it appears the PC Party tried to do just that by sending out a notice to PC party members to go and vote PC on the Daveberta poll.  Details of that effort is in is post. Given the results you can judge for yourself if that effort was effective. 

In that context these blog-based polls are more like exercises in stimulating conversation, raising consciousness and focusing attention - not evidence of general public opinion. So the results should looked at with a critical eye and taken with a large grain of salt.  I still findings the results interesting and useful for several reasons.  

Bloggers have regular readers through links to and from other sites as well as RSS subscribers, Facebook Friends, LinkedIn contacts and Twitter Followers, even through videos and podcasts on occasion.  Then there is the impact bloggers have by participation and mentions of them in mainstream media.  The impact of search engines is important too.  They track and trigger readers based on key words that people are using to find information on-line that connects people to various blogs.  Bloggers have both a core and a casual readership as a result of this connectivity and their content.  This kind of audience makes the blog polls interesting as anecdotal collection of citizen comments - but not as reliable (sic) science based professional opinion polling.  

Bloggers have points of view, personalities and influence.  They create conversation spaces that attract readers who agree and disagree with them.  While it is possible to find an issue that creates an echo effect where like minds congregate to validate each other's opinions, group think is not likely the net result of blog readers.  Just read the range of comments on a popular blog post to see group think is not the norm.  

So what are we to make of the reader blog poll results that Dave Cournoyer has done relative to the Environics professional random poll?  First you can't compare them for obvious reasons already stated.  However when you consider Davberta is one of the most popular and respected political bloggers in Alberta, you can't just dismiss those results either.  Here is why.  

Almost 600 people participated in the poll so it represents the opinions of a significant group of people who took the time to participate. Anyone trying to measure the mood of Alberta ignores this kind of information at their political peril.  When you consider the popular but seriously misplaced faith governments and political groups put in focus groups I would tend to rely on a large participation blog poll like Davberta's so much more.  Focus groups are closed and controlled events where the reactions of a very small and minimally representative group of folks get paid to comment on a subject.  What they say get expanded and extrapolated to mysteriously assume and presume they reflect the larger population.  

The real value of such blog-based polls, according to my educated guess, is the influence of the blogger and the influence that is inherent in the people who took Daveberta's poll. Daveberta readers are much like mine.  I know this because we share many readers in common.  What I know of my readers is they are cultural creatives, progressive thinking and highly influential.  They are informed, active and very engaged in communication within their personal and professional networks.  They are respected opinion leaders, thought leaders, trend setters and trend spotters. 

They are what have come to be known as "Influentials." I expect Dave and I share a large readership of Influentials all over Alberta. I have a permission based email list of almost 5000 Alberta based Influentials I send political and policy information to on a regular basis.  Research shows that what Influentials are thinking and talking about today is what the general public will be thinking and talking about in 12-18 months.  The impact of Influentials happens sooner if the topic is hot and of major the future of their jobs, the stability of their family, their self-identity issues like who will I vote for and why!  The alleged political conspiracy to discredit Dr. Raj Sherman over speaking out on health care shortcomings is a perfect case in point.  It is a hot issue and lots of Influentials are talking about how inappropriate that is and how misaligned it is to their values.  That incident will be remembered and influence the choices in the next election.

There are lots of Albertans looking for an option or alternative to vote for these days.  Some are just trying to send the existing government a message to "smarten them up" while others have just given up on them.  Still others are reawakening that something significant is happening in Alberta politics and it may be time to reaffirm their roles and responsibilities as citizens and be an informed voter.  As a result of this uncertainty, doubt and linger fears, what the Influentials say now about who to vote for and why to vote for them will have a significant impact on voter turnout and the results of the next election.

The new voting option with the most buzz since the last election has been the Wildrose Alliance but they are seen as extreme by Influentials and that makes people very nervous about giving them political power. The other option, the Alberta Party, is just getting organized and is moving into a leadership campaign in the new year. Many Influentials are becoming aware of the Alberta Party and many are joining up to help formulate a new way of doing politics and reaffirming democracy in Alberta.  It will be interesting to watch this influence unfold.  The early signs of the impact of Influentials on voting possibilities are right in the Daveberta poll results.  The PCs firmly in #1 but not in majority government territory.  The Alberta Party #2 and the WAP #3 but essentially tied.  As for the Liberals and the NDP, not much interest.

The components of the merged parties that became the Wildrose Alliance had been active politically for many years.  They, won a by-election participated fully in the last election, chose a new leader and have very active ever since.  The revived and reconstituted Alberta Party has been working quietly for only a year to get the foundation of a new party set, with a new constitution and an expanded board and that is all ironed out.  It engaged in face to face home based conversations with Albertans finding out how people were doing, uncertain about and grateful for as Albertans.  They showed off a new policy document last month and they are setting up a leadership process in early 2011.  

With that backdrop, and if I am right that the Influentials are paying some serious attention to the Alberta Party, they are about to become a competitive force in the forthcoming political culture of the province.  Will it be in time for the next election?  That is their major organizational challenge right now but so be it.  Life is not fair.  Tying this back to the Daveberta blog poll results we find there may be at least three viable voting options for Albertans next election.  The rapidly shifting to the right PCs, the centrist progressive Alberta Party and the extreme right wing Wildrose Alliance are the mostly likely options.  The Liberals and NDP risk being seen as lacking relevance as moderate, progressive Albertans see a reason to believe they can impact the future direction, destination and narrative of the Next Alberta through the Alberta Party option.  

It is guaranteed to be a fascinating election whenever it happens.  With the Environics results showing the strength of the Wildrose and if I am right about the Alberta Party, I would not rule out an early election in 2011.  That would most likely happen to stave off an internal caucus revolt against Ed Stelmach like has just happened to BC Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell and BC NDP Leader Carol James.  Remember its politics and anything can happen.