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Polls Matter in Alberta -- But Ideas Matter More in Alberta Campaign

05/01/2015 11:16 EDT | Updated 05/01/2016 05:12 EDT
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What is happening in Alberta? Conservatives, after all, are a constant in the prairie province. As certain as the Bow River swells every spring, Albertans habitually re-elect Progressive Conservatives.

But recent polling suggests black is white, up is down - and in Bizarro Alberta World, Ralph Klein's daughter even endorses the New Democrats!

Surely the polls must be wrong.

After all, in Alberta, you can excuse people for being a little once-bitten-twice-shy after what happened in 2012. The headlines, remember, continuously screamed 'Tories in Trouble' throughout that campaign. Yet, on election night, pollsters were forced to offer many a mea culpa when Alison Redford's PC's cruised to an easy majority.

Indeed, gauging public opinion is a tricky business these days with some even suggesting "The. Polls. Have. Stopped. Making. Any. Sense."

For sure, traditional ways of gauging public sentiment are, well, quaint in our increasingly digital world. The chance of actually getting people to respond to poll questions continues to dwindle.

From their inception, polls have sparked controversy. In 1948, sociologist Herbert Blumer condemned the science of surveys, suggesting they don't really reflect what the public thinks - but instead shape and mould attitudes.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas also objects to words being reduced to numbers, arguing polls are no proxy for democratic expression.

Other critics contend polls, like the media, only reflect elite values, amplifying and echoing the one per cent crowds' way of seeing the world.

Polls notoriously underestimate the progressive views of most voters. Questions about helping poor people, for instance, get responses 30 to 40 per cent higher than questions about welfare benefits.

French philosopher Michel Foucault, of note, argued that polls aren't so much a way to understand what the public thinks but instead a means to control and discipline the public.

Dialing up that line of criticism, German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann offered compelling evidence that polls create a "spiral of silence" that mutes discontent because people are afraid to contradict prevailing views.

Still, polls are a fact of modern political life. The media breathlessly report the horse race at every turn.

And even if they're junk science, elitist constructions and manufacturers of consent, they matter. They matter even if they are wrong.

Some voters make decisions based on polls. They vote strategically or they bet on a winner.

Polls also influence the ebb and flow of the campaign.

With many polls showing a dead heat right now in the UK general election, speculation about another coalition government seems endless.

And in Alberta, with the NDP supposedly surging, Premier Jim Prentice and the PCs have launched what one commentator aptly call the "ooga-booga campaign" against the party.

Last week, Prentice even threw cold water on the incredulous idea of actually changing governments, declaring that Alberta is "not an NDP province."

A curious statement, indeed.

Because even more than polls, campaigns matter! Ideas matter!

Some have, of course, argued that ideology doesn't matter anymore in politics. Daniel Bell even dismissed the entire concept in his book "The End of Ideology" in 1960.

For sure, the grand ideological debates that marked much of the last century are gone. Big ideas have declined, replaced with celebrity politicians, judged not so much on what they think - but how funny they are on talk shows. And political parties have tended to group around the centre of the political spectrum, making ideological and policy differences less pronounced.

But ideas, it appears, matter a lot in this unusual Alberta election campaign. In addition to suggesting the NDP is poised for a historic breakthrough, polls also show that many Albertans are open to Rachel Notley's campaign promises about health, education, increased corporate taxes and a review of natural resource royalties.

Peter Lougheed, Don Getty, Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford didn't just win all those elections because they were the best looking or most likeable politician (but that does have something to do with electability). Likeability, though, only goes so far.

Successful politicians articulate a common sense that appeals and resonates with voters. The Tory dynasty has survived for so long because it perpetuates -- even reinvigorates -- a distinct way of looking at the world that voters accept as both natural and legitimate.

But as this campaign shows, that consensus is in flux -- and the PC's 43-year grip on it has been, arguably, displaced by a much more skilled communicator and campaigner whose expressing a new common sense that voters appear to like and want now.

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