How ‘orphaned voters’ may end up deciding the next Alberta election

There’s a subgenre on TikTok of conservative Albertans whose video posts on the social media platform involve strongly worded political rants spoken directly into the camera.

These videos are often visceral, profanity-laced and directed at Justin Trudeau.

But lately, they’ve taken aim at a different target.

“Jason Kenney, you’re spineless,” one man says in a post from early April, shortly after the Alberta premier announced a re-introduction of public-health restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s a sad day that we voted you in as a conservative leader for this province because we thought you were going to do something good for us. You never did nothin’.”

Another man, who describes himself as a “separatist Albertan” who has “had enough of dictatorship,” echoed the sentiment.

“Jason Kenney, your big, tough growl seems to have become a puppy’s whimper,” he says, his lips curling into a snarl at the end of each sentence. “Your bulls–t lockdowns are splitting this province and your caucus.” 

“And by the way,” he adds, lifting a middle finger to the camera. “Lock this down. Because I can’t wait to vote your ass out.”

These guys are presumably among the 27 per cent of Albertans who, according to a recent CBC News poll, would vote for neither the UCP nor the NDP if an election were held immediately.

Analysts say these voters could play a significant role in determining the outcome of the next election, depending on how they ultimately decide to cast their ballots. Exactly what role, however, is a complicated question, because these voters are a diverse group.

The angry guys posting videos on TikTok highlight just one segment of that group, who fall more at the right end of the political spectrum. There’s also a sizable chunk of more centrist voters, and a smaller contingent who lean to the left.

But the largest group of these non-NDP, non-UCP voters didn’t specify a particular party they would support; they just knew they didn’t like either of the top two choices. In political-science terms, these folks are sometimes referred to as “orphaned voters.”

The poll gives us some insight into who these people are. Respondents were asked about much more than just their vote choice, and a pattern emerges when you examine the orphaned voters’ answers to other questions. For the most part, they look like disaffected conservatives.

That highlights a serious  — but not necessarily fatal  — threat for the re-election hopes of Kenney and his United Conservative Party which, for now at least, looks more divided than ever.

What ‘orphaned voters’ look like

You can see how this all breaks down in the following chart.

Each dot represents a respondent in the poll. They are grouped by their vote choice and organized, left to right, by where they self-identify on the political spectrum.

The red dots at top represent voters who said they support either the Alberta Liberal Party, the Green Party of Alberta or another, smaller political party. Add them all up, and this group represented about six per cent of voters. For the most part, they clustered around the centre with a lean to the political left.

Another five per cent 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 folks made up about five per cent of voters as well, and tended to veer further right.

The fourth row of grey dots — accounting for about 11 per cent of the electorate — indicates those who said they wouldn’t vote NDP or UCP, but did not specify a particular 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 design the poll.

When Santos looks at those grey dots, he sees a lot of similarity with the row of blue dots right below them, which indicate UCP supporters. This, he says, suggests that many of the orphaned voters “have been disenchanted with the UCP but can’t bring themselves to vote for the NDP, and either don’t know about or aren’t sold on one of the independence parties.”

“They’re still sitting on their hands,” Santos said.

Where do ‘orphaned voters’ go?

Santos says it’s 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 election set for 2023, there’s still plenty of time to staunch the bleeding and heal the wounds.

“They might all or mostly go back to the UCP en masse,” Santos said. “Or they might go to one of the right-leaning independence parties. But I think there’s few of these folks who would go to the NDP, and that’s a big problem for Rachel Notley.”

For now, the NDP leader must be pleased with the poll numbers, which put her party at 40-per-cent support. That’s enough to likely win a majority government, but it’s far from a shoo-in victory. And plenty can change between now and the next election.

Melanee Thomas, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, believes the UCP has reason for hope, despite its poor polling numbers.

“I actually don’t think it’s all that grim for their future prospects,” she said.

The threat of the UCP losing significant support on its right flank to an upstart party, she believes, is not as dire as some within the party might worry.

Historically, she said, it may have been a “political pastime” in Alberta to build new parties from the ground up when voters tire of the ones they have. But going from a nascent political movement to a viable alternative is easier dreamed than done. Far more upstart parties have fizzled than have succeeded, and the key for those rare successes has typically been a strong leader.

“That leadership factor matters,” Thomas said.

“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 get fundraising done in such a way that they can actually then get onto the stage to compete meaningfully.”

Jason Kenney celebrates his 2017 victory as the first official leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party with his opponent, Brian Jean, at right. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press )

She said the absence of a competitive third party may leave some voters who find themselves angry with the UCP considering scant alternatives: supporting the NDP, which may not be ideologically aligned with their general beliefs, or exiting the political process altogether.

That scenario could present a different kind of threat to the UCP, one in which the party simply can’t regain the trust of the voters who are currently disaffected and make up enough ground on the NDP. If that degree of anger against the governing party persists until the next election, Thomas believes Kenney will only have himself to blame.

“In 2018 and 2019, I think Kenney’s particular strategy of being willing to stoke anger was effective in the short term, but really 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.”

The 3rd (and 4th and 5th) party voters

That anger is palpable in the anti-Trudeau TikTok users who have recently turned on Kenney. But many of these folks also express support for independence parties to the UCP’s right. If their words match their actions, they’re not coming back to a party with Kenney at the helm anytime soon.

The bigger question will be which way the genuinely “orphaned voters” who supported the UCP in the last election decide to break when (or if) they vote again in 2023.

How many are angry enough to throw their support behind an upstart party further to the right than they are normally inclined to vote, especially if that party espouses full on Western separation? Conversely, how many are disillusioned enough to back the provincial New Democrats, a party that tries to position itself closer to the political centre but remains tied at the hip to the federal NDP and its staunchly left-wing politics?

Further complicating the political calculus are the small but potentially meaningful group of voters who currently support one of the minor parties. Will Alberta Party supporters stick to their guns or resign themselves to a new, two-party reality and pick one side over the other? Do the Alberta Liberals continue to try to build their brand in the province, after winning zero seats and less than one per cent of the popular vote in the last election?

Alberta Liberal Party leader David Khan, 2nd from left, and Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel, at right, greet their opponents at the 2019 Alberta Leaders Debate in Edmonton. Both Khan and Mandel stepped down from their parties’ helms after failing to win any seats in the ensuing election. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

After decades of one-party rule, Alberta has morphed into more of a two-party political system. But Thomas believes the current lack of enthusiasm for the UCP throws the doors open for all sorts of political manoeuvres and outcomes over the next two years.

“When people don’t identify really forcefully with a party, it makes more space for other issues to have more of an effect,” she said.

Santos believes there is the possibility of the harder-right vote coalescing around a third-party alternative, but that would likely require that side of the spectrum, which is currently splintered, to see a merger of its own.

Many conservatives fear a reborn Wildrose or strong separtist party on the right could split the conservative vote and allow NDP candidates to come up the middle, but Santos says that fear could also be a blessing in disguise for the UCP if push comes to shove.

“If the Wildrose Party and the Independence Party merge and suddenly become a more potent electoral force, people’s preferences will change,” he said.

“That could bleed away more supporters from the UCP on their right flank … but that could have a second-order effect of making centrists who weren’t so sold on the UCP now suddenly think, well, I need to go back to the UCP to block the NDP from becoming government again.”

Play this game of hypothetical politics long enough, and you can come up with all sorts of different permutations of how things might unfold. It’s enough to make your head spin.

The bottom line is that — one way or another — the voters who currently look at the UCP and the NDP and say “none of the above” could very well be the ones who ultimately end up deciding which party wins power in two years’ time.

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