Keith Gerein: Polls show Edmonton's council faces a rough re-election road, and a communication problem

Ultimately, it’s important to limit how much credence we give to any poll, as they are imperfect snapshots in time. In this case, there is a long 18 months before the next civic election, and much can change between then and now.

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Given the difficulties that have piled up in Edmonton — record homelessness, hyperinflation, population growth, tax hikes, intergovernmental hostility, etc. — it’s hardly a shock to see painful polling for Mayor Amarjeet Sohi.

Still, the latest numbers are perhaps uglier than expected. Short of hiring Connor McDavid as a personal brand ambassador after winning a Stanley Cup, there may not be much Sohi can do to stickhandle his way back into Edmontonians’ good graces.

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For reference, Sohi won the 2021 mayoral election comfortably with 45 per cent of the vote.

According to new poll results from Leger, just 16 per cent of respondents would support him now, while 43 per cent said they would vote for someone else. Close to a third of voters are undecided.

Similarly, two-thirds of respondents told Leger that the city is on the wrong track, compared with 22 per cent who think Edmonton is going in the right direction.

For what it’s worth, those results are even more cutting than another poll I’ve seen that was conducted some months back.

Shown to me on condition of anonymity, that earlier survey — conducted by a different company — found 38 per cent support for Sohi among decided voters against 62 per cent opposition. On the question of whether the city was going in the right direction, 49 per cent said no, 32 per cent yes and 19 per cent were unsure.

Sohi has yet to declare whether he will seek a second term, and I’ve seen no indication one way or the other that he has yet made a decision behind the scenes. Such poll results may make that choice easier for him, especially if his numbers really are weakening.

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Moreover, the mayor faces a potentially even bigger hurdle with new election rules, via Bill 20, that will allow political parties onto municipal ballots in 2025.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a reasonable possibility the major dividing line in the next election will be between parties and candidates that desire a more conservative city hall and those who position themselves as an adversary to the UCP.

Sohi doesn’t slot well into either camp.

Under that scenario, he might be forced to stake out some kind of independent middle ground, which will be tricky. And when you add in unflattering surveys that show him taking heat from both the left and the right, I think the mayor faces a tough re-election road.

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That said, it is interesting to dig into a handful of other results in the Leger poll, some of which show a big problem for the mayor — and city council generally — and some that may offer them a glimmer of hope. A few numbers are more confusing, or even contradictory.

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For example, when asked to name the most important issue facing Edmonton, the most popular answer from participants was housing prices.

(Obviously some respondents have not been checking out real estate in any other major city in Canada recently, because Edmonton home prices are still considerably lower).

Sohi did not fare well on this issue, as 64 per cent of respondents told Leger he was doing a bad job.

However, when asked about city council’s biggest intervention on this file — new zoning rules designed to improve housing flexibility and choice — more respondents agreed that the move was positive than disagreed (35 per cent to 27 per cent).

At the same time, 64 per cent of respondents said they were concerned — versus 16 per cent not concerned — about Edmonton’s rapid population growth, which is arguably the biggest factor influencing home prices, but not something council has much control over.

edmonton city council at district planning public hearing
Members of Edmonton City Council take part in a public hearing on district planning at City Hall, Tuesday May 28, 2024. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

On the issue of crime and policing, Sohi scored almost as poorly as he did on housing prices. And yet, when asked if increased police funding was making a noticeable impact on safety, 39 per cent of respondents answered no, against 26 per cent who answered yes.

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This council has increased police funding by around 20 per cent overall, so if that’s not perceived to be working, it’s unclear from this survey what else Edmontonians want the city to do.

Overall, Sohi received positive marks on three issues — bike lanes, climate change and ethical, honest government — at least two of which might come as a surprise to certain readers.

Reviews for the mayor were considerably harsher on other files, including jobs, the economy, drug poisonings, homelessness and poverty. But again, like population growth, these are issues over which city council arguably has minimal authority compared with other governments.

To me, that suggests that the biggest issue faced by Sohi and council may be a communication failure, and that they are losing the public relations battle against the UCP government and other critics. As we move toward 2025, it will be fascinating to see what happens if municipal incumbents choose to make that a more urgent focus of their messaging.

This communication disparity even applies to property taxes, which is of course an issue that clearly falls into council’s jurisdiction.

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In the poll, just 16 per cent of respondents said Sohi was performing well on property taxes, while a meagre 14 per cent agreed that the latest 8.9 per cent jump was justified.

That’s the second largest tax hike in at least three decades, so poor polling is unsurprising.

Nonetheless, there is relevant context that council probably needs to do a better job of explaining. Yes, some of the financial blame absolutely rests with municipal choices, but a lot of pain is also due to things beyond city control, including downloading and squeezing by the province.

Ultimately, it’s important to limit how much credence we give to any poll, as they are imperfect snapshots in time.

In this case, there is a long 18 months before the next civic election, and much can change between then and now.

While 43 per cent of respondents now say they like the idea of someone else other than Sohi, that can change dramatically when that someone else gets a name and face.

Still, if the latest survey numbers are in any way reflective of community sentiment, that indicates Sohi and much of council have a lot of work to do to improve the narrative.

If they struggle to do that, and more polls show worsening numbers, I think we’ll soon be nearing the point where some incumbents may find their political fortunes unrecoverable.

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