Partisan Liberals in Alberta have been trying hard -- trying very hard -- to spin the results of the June 30 byelections as evidence of a Liberal surge in the province.
It's a bizarre and counter-intuitive argument. After all, the Conservatives won both ridings, in one case with far above 50% (70% in MacLeod) and nearly 50% for David Yurdiga in Fort McMurray (46%).
University of Alberta political scientist Ian Urquhart told the media that despite Yurdiga's victory, Liberals were the real winners in Fort McMurray-Athabasca. “In a way, the Liberals are arguably the winners in the sense that they tripled their vote percentage, and I think that will have an important, positive effect, an important boost for party workers, for fundraisers,” Urquhart declared.
But here's the thing: while it may be true that the Liberals tripled their vote percentage, that doesn't mean that they've tripled their support. Especially in an election with a very low voter turnout (just 15%).
Now, there is a theory that holds that conservatives rely on low voter turnout in order to win. The theory -- which conveniently ignores that the voter turnout in the 2006 election, which first resulted in the sitting Conservative government, had a much higher turnout than previous elections -- essentially rests on the following idea: when voter turnout declines the voter turnout for conservative parties does not because their voters are highly motivated. Once you eliminate what you can demonstrate is not true, you're left with the following: when voter turnout declines, parties with highly motivated voters have an advantage.
So let's take a look at some numbers. 4,491: the number of votes for Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha in 2014. 3,190: the number of votes for Liberal candidate Karen Young in the 2011 general election. The demonstrated support for Liberal canadidates in Fort Mac has increased by perhaps as much as 25%.
Here's another number: 75,749. That was the voter turnout in the 2011 election. Just as an experiment, let's see how well Kyle Harrietha would have done in the 2011 election with his 2014 vote total: less than 15%.
Clearly comparing the 2014 Liberal vote to the 2011 voter turnout doesn't garner definitive results. After all, not only can we see that Liberal support in the riding has increased at least a little since 2011, but with a voter turnout of only 15% we don't have a very good indication of just how much his support has grown, right?
As it turns out, that's not true.
The most recent poll of federal voting intentions, by Angus Reid Global, has the Conservatives and Liberals in a statistical tie nationally. But in Alberta, the Liberals have the support of 20% of voters (who are presumably unaware of Justin Trudeau's anti-Alberta views).
Right now across Canada Liberal leaders are very motivated. They have a chance to win the next election and they know it. So I'd argue that as the overall voter turnout in Fort McMurray-Athabasca declined, motivated Liberal voters beat a path to the polls and voted. The Liberals even managed to poach about 1000 NDP voters.
Based on Angus Reid Global's results, it doesn't look like Liberal support in Fort McMurray-Athabasca has very much room to grow. It would be unreasonable to assume that the Liberal vote wouldn't grow in the 2015 election, but by how much? Perhaps 20% of the remaining voters. As a share of the overall vote, perhaps he can grow the Liberal vote to 25% or 30%. Which would still exceed expectations based on the totality of Liberal support across the province.
But regardless of how you slice it, matters really are as simple as this: the so-called Liberal surge in Alberta? It doesn't seem to exist. At all.