How “orphaned voters” will ultimately decide the next election in Alberta
(CBC) On TikTok there is a subgenre of conservative Albertans whose video postings on the social media platform contain strongly worded political insults that are spoken directly into the camera. These videos are often visceral, profane, and directed at Justin Trudeau. But lately they have been aiming for a different goal. “Jason Kenney, you are without a backbone,” said one man in an early April post, shortly after the Alberta Prime Minister announced the reintroduction of public health restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. “It is a sad day that we elected you as Conservative leader for this province because we thought you would be doing something good for us. You never did nothing.” Another man who describes himself as a “separatist Albertan” who is “fed up with dictatorship” repeated the sentiment. “Jason Kenney, your big, hard growl seems to have become a puppy’s whimper,” he says, his lips curling into a growl at the end of each sentence. “Your cops – t lockdowns are dividing this province and your caucus.” “By the way,” he adds and lifts a middle finger to the camera. “Lock that up. Because I can’t wait to vote your ass off.” These people are believed to be among the 27 percent of Albertans who, according to a recent poll by CBC News, would not vote for either the UCP or the NDP if an election were held immediately. Analysts say these voters could play an important role in determining the outcome of the next election based on how they ultimately choose to cast their ballots. However, exactly what role it plays is a complicated question as these voters are a diverse group. The angry guys who post videos on TikTok only highlight a part of this group that is more at the right end of the political spectrum. There is also a sizable segment of the more centrist voters and a smaller contingent leaning to the left. However, the largest group of these non-NDP and non-UCP voters did not specify a specific party they would support. They just knew they didn’t like either of the top two options. In political science terms, these people are sometimes referred to as “orphan voters”. The poll gives us some insight into who these people are. Respondents were asked about much more than their choice of votes, and a pattern emerges when you examine orphan voters’ responses to other questions. For the most part, they look like disaffected conservatives. This shows a serious – but not necessarily fatal – threat to the re-election hopes of Kenney and his United Conservative Party, one that looks more divided than ever, at least for the time being. What “orphaned voters” look like You can see how this all breaks down in the table below. Each point represents a respondent in the survey. They are grouped according to their voting decision and organized from left to right according to where they identify themselves in the political spectrum. (Graphic: John Santos & Robson Fletcher) The red dots above represent voters who said they supported either the Alberta Liberal Party, the Green Party of Alberta or another, smaller political party. Add them all up, and that group represented about six percent of the electorate. For the most part, they grouped around the center, leaning towards the political left. Another five percent of voters said they support the Alberta Party. These people also tend to be centrists, but lean a little more to the right. They are represented by the turquoise dots in the second row. The third row of green dots shows supporters of the Wildrose Independence Party and the Independence Party of Alberta. These people also made up about five percent of the electorate and tended to go further to the right. The fourth row of gray dots, which makes up about 11 percent of the electorate, indicates those who said they would not vote for the NDP or the UCP, but did not indicate a specific party that they would support. These are the “orphaned voters” and they could be one of the biggest wildcards in the upcoming election, according to data scientist John Santos, who helped shape the poll. When Santos looks at these gray dots, he sees a great resemblance to the row of blue dots directly below them, which indicate UCP supporters. This suggests that many of the orphaned voters “have been disappointed with the UCP but cannot bring themselves to vote for the NDP and either know nothing about any of the independence parties or are not being sold to them.” “” “They’re still sitting on their hands,” said Santos. Where do orphaned voters go? Santos says it is obviously bad news for Kenney and his party to have lost the support of these Albertans, many of whom likely voted for the UCP in the 2019 election. But with the next elections in 2023 there is still plenty of time to stop the bleeding and heal the wounds. “They could all or most of them go back to the UCP en masse,” said Santos. “Or they go to one of the right-wing independence parties. But I think there are few of these people who would go to the NDP, and that’s a big problem for Rachel Notley.” For now, the NDP leader has to be satisfied with the polls, which 40 percent support her party. That’s enough to likely win a majority government, but it’s far from a botched victory. And a lot can change before the next election. Melanee Thomas, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, believes the UCP has reason to be hopeful despite its poor polling numbers. “I don’t really think it’s that bleak for their future prospects,” she said. The risk of the UCP losing substantial support on its right to an upstart party is, in their view, not as bad as some members of the party might fear. Historically, she said, building new parties from the ground up when voters tire of those who have them may have been a “political pastime” in Alberta. But moving from an emerging political movement to a viable alternative is easier to dream than to do. Far more upstarts have done it than they have done, and the key to those rare achievements has usually been a strong leader. “This leadership factor is important,” said Thomas. “It’s one thing to have a party. It’s quite another thing to have a party that has a leader who is able to raise funds so they can actually come on stage to see themselves meaningful to claim. ” Jason Kenney celebrates his 2017 victory as the first official chairman of the Alberta United Conservative Party with his opponent Brian Jean at right. (Jeff McIntosh / Canadian Press) She said the lack of a competitive third party could leave some voters who find themselves angry with the UCP, which is barely considering alternatives: supporting the NDP, which may not ideologically align with its general beliefs , or withdrawal from the political process as a whole. This scenario could pose another type of threat to the UCP where the party simply cannot regain the confidence of voters who are currently dissatisfied and are making up enough ground on the NDP. If that level of anger against the ruling party continues until the next election, Thomas believes Kenney will only blame himself. “In 2018 and 2019, Kenney’s particular strategy of being ready to stir up anger was effective in the short term, but very dangerous in the long term because once people get angry they stay angry,” she said. “The anger doesn’t go away, but the target can move.” 3rd (and 4th and 5th) Party Voters That anger is palpable among the anti-Trudeau TikTok users who recently turned on Kenney. But many of these people also express their support for independence parties to the right of the UCP. If their words match their actions, they won’t be heading back to a party with Kenney anytime soon. The bigger question will be how the truly “orphaned voters” who supported the UCP in the last election will decide to break if (or if) they vote again in 2023. How many are angry enough to throw their support behind an upstart party in the right than they normally tend to vote, especially when that party is fully committed to Western separation? Conversely, how many are disaffected enough to support the Provincial New Democrats, a party that seeks to position itself closer to the political center but remains tied to the federal NDP and its decidedly leftist politics? Another complication of the political rationale is the small but potentially significant group of voters who currently support one of the smaller parties. Will Alberta Party supporters hold on to their guns or come to terms with a new two-party reality and choose one side over the other? Alberta Liberals continue to try to build their brand in the province after winning zero seats and less than one percent of the population’s vote in the last election? Alberta Liberal Party Leader David Khan, 2nd from left, and Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel, right, greet their opponents at the 2019 Alberta Leaders Debate in Edmonton. Both Khan and Mandel resigned from the rudders of their parties after failing to win seats in subsequent elections. (Codie McLachlan / Canadian Press) After decades of one-party rule, Alberta has become more of a two-party system. However, Thomas believes the current lack of enthusiasm for the UCP opens the doors to all sorts of political maneuvers and outcomes over the next two years. “When people don’t really identify with a party it creates more space for other issues to have a bigger impact,” she said. Santos believes there is a chance the tougher vote on a third-party alternative could grow together, but that would likely require that side of the spectrum, which is currently fragmented, see its own merger. Many conservatives fear that a reborn wild rose or a strong separatist party on the right could split the conservative vote and allow NDP candidates to get in the middle, but Santos says fear could also be a boon to the UCP when it counts. “When the Wildrose Party and the Independence Party merge and suddenly become a stronger electoral force, people’s preferences will change,” he said. “That could bleed more supporters of the UCP to death on their right flank … but that could have a second-order effect if centrists who weren’t so sold to the UCP now suddenly think, well, I have to go back to the UCP, the NDP from becoming government again. ”Play this game of hypothetical politics long enough and you can come up with all sorts of permutations for how things could play out. It’s enough to turn your head. The bottom line is that, one way or another, the voters who are currently looking at the UCP and NDP and saying “none of the above” may very well be the ones who will ultimately decide which party will take power two years from now wins.