Sunday, October 19, 2014

TC Norris quoted on New Ekos poll on iPoltics

I was quoted in this new iPolitics post regarding a new Ekos poll, which has very unfavourable numbers for Stephen Harper:

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are well out in front with 38.5 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives are at 26.4 per cent, with Thomas Mulcair’s NDP in a close third at 25 per cent. However, the NDP leader has the highest approval rating and the New Democrats have the most potential to grow, leading EKOS President Frank Graves to conclude the NDP could form the opposition, despite its current third place standing.
“The next Parliament, if it were to be created based on the poll that we have, would see a strong minority Liberal government with a sizeable NDP opposition with Mr. Harper reduced to a third party, rump status,” said Graves.
That assessment was backed up by veteran poll analyst Paul Barber, who blogs under the name TC Norris. He said if these numbers were to hold up through a campaign, and based on the regional breakdowns, the Conservatives would finish a distant third, 70 behind the Liberals and 27 behind the NDP.
Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 1.24.27 PM

Friday, October 17, 2014

Forum polls and the Toronto Mayoralty

There has been a fair bit of skepticism voiced on social media this week about Forum polling in the Toronto mayoralty race.  Forum uses interactive voice recognition (IVR) polling as its method. Essentially a computer calls you and a recorded voice leads you through choices you enter on the telephone keypad - I have been polled by Forum a number of times over the years including during the current civic contest (When being quizzed by Forum I am reminded of the Woody Allen joke in Annie Hall: "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.")

Forum's results are clearly different from others. Other polling companies including Ipsos-Reid, Nanos and Mainstreet Technologies have polled in recent weeks. Here is a table with results comparing the average of Forum's numbers with the others taken since mid-September.

Olivia Chow
Doug Ford
John Tory
Forum Polls
Other Pollsters

As one can see clearly Forum reports results that are clearly more favourable to Doug Ford than the others and less favourable for both John Tory and Olivia Chow.

What to make of this? One way would be to examine Forum's recent efforts in other elections. Most recently it conducted a poll during the New Brunswick election held September 22, 2014. Forum reported a tie in the popular vote but predicted that the PCs would win the most seats. By comparison, Corporate Research Associates, a Halifax based polling firm that uses conventional live telephone interviewer polling predicted that the Liberals would win the election by nine percentage points. The actual result produced a Liberal majority based on an eight point lead in the popular vote.

In Ontario there were many more polls. Out of seven pollsters who conducted a poll towards the end of the campaign Forum had a total error greater than all but one other pollster. Here is a table displaying the total error comparison:

One comment on Twitter suggested taking another Forum poll result with a truckload of salt.  As Sarah Palin would say: "You betcha".

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scottish Referendum: NO side likely win

The trend recently has been for the YES side to stop growing and for the NO side to maintain a consistent lead.  Two excellent analysts that I follow both conclude the NO side is likely to win. However, there has never been a Scottish referendum on independence so there remains some uncertainty.

Claire Durand in a post published today(and she may update once more) estimates the NO side lead at seven points. She has been following the youth vote closely and the most interesting part of her analysis is a chart that reports support for the YES among youth peaked about two weeks ago and started to decline.

Peter Kellner of the UK polling firm YouGov has an interesting analysis published two days ago. YouGov is the firm that reported the YES side ahead in a poll done for the September 7 Sunday Times. However, Kellner argues things changed during the week following when the NO campaigned counter-attacked:
Last week, following our shock poll, the No campaign fought back strongly, with Gordon Brown appealing to Labour voters flirting with independence. Better together was aided by retailers warning of higher prices and Scottish banks warning of moving their headquarters to London, should Yes win on Thursday. Our midweek poll caught a marked change of mood. Not only did we report a 3% swing back to No, which returned to the lead, albeit only narrowly. More significant was the six point rise in the number of Scots thinking Yes would be bad for their economy – and an eight point rise in the number fearing that their own finances would suffer.
It should not be surprising that a campaign that effectively raised the prospect of bad economic consequences if the YES were to win should be effective. The use of Gordon Brown as a communicator also helped.  For example, see this excerpt from a Brown speech just uploaded to Youtube today:

Polls close tomorrow night at 10 pm Scottish time, 5 pm Eastern time in Canada.  If there are good exit polls and the margin is more than a couple of points we will know the outcome early.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Scottish Referendum

The Scottish referendum, scheduled for September 18, is getting a great deal of attention with a recent YouGov poll showing a one point 'Yes' lead, which in real terms is a statistical tie.

TC recommends reading Claire Durand's blog Ah les sondages on the referendum. She is one of Canada's best experts on polling in Quebec meaning that an independence referendum in Scotland is a natural topic for her and she has been writing about it.  Her latest was today. Here is the key excerpt:
If I use only the polls conducted since the beginning of August, here is what I get. .... The Yes side is at about 47% and the No side at 53%.
You should read the whole post to understand her conclusion.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is Harper Sliding into Third Place?

The following is also posted at iPolitics:

A new Ekos poll released on the weekend delivered some bad news for the Harper government. With just 25.6% of preferences the Conservatives badly trailed the the Liberals, leading with 38.7 %. When I apply the Ekos numbers to my seat projection model the Conservatives are pushed into third place in terms seats won - behind the NDP. Thomas Mulcair's party had 23.4 % of preferences - but the New Democrat's vote efficiency boosted them past the Conservatives into second place in seats.

Here are the poll and seat numbers together:

At first glance it might seem incredible that the Harper government could fall so far, so quickly - from a majority government to third party status. In part its seat total is a product of the remorseless logic of a first-past-the-post electoral system.

And don't forget - we have seen this movie before. On October 25, 1993 the Kim Campbell PC government fell to just two seats, with 16% of the vote. The Reform Party got just two percentage points more of the votes cast that day - enough to give it 52 seats.

It isn't just Tory weakness that matters here. Part of the NDP's extra strength in this poll is a product of the weakness of the Bloc Québecois.

The Bloc's new leader, Mario Beaulieu, is from the party's strongly pro-independence wing. He campaigned on a pledge to put sovereignty above all else, despite evidence from the recent Quebec election that this might not be the most successful of strategies. Ekos reports the Bloc at just 16% in Quebec, a level of support that suggests the Bloc risks losing all its seats in the House of Commons in the next election, losses that would largely benefit the NDP.

Other aspects of the Ekos poll suggest little potential upside for the Conservatives. The poll places Stephen Harper's approval rating at just 29% and reports that just 29.9% of Canadians think the government is heading in the right direction. This latter data point simply the continues a negative trend for Harper that first became evident as early as 2012.

Often, incumbent governments benefit from an assumption among many voters that if they won the last election they're likely to win the next. That may no longer apply to the Harper Conservatives.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Quebec independence - Decline, and Fall?

A couple of weeks ago Maclean's political editor Paul Wells, taking note of the decline in pro-independence sentiment in Quebec, gave some of the credit to Prime Minister Harper. This struck me as silly at the time. But if Harper does not deserve credit for the decline in Quebec's sovereignty movement (and he does not despite his claims), what does explain the phenomenon?

The Quebec sovereignty movement and its key political force, the Parti Québecois have fallen on hard times. Yes, they did win a plurality of the seats in a provincial election in 2012, but that was in a close three way race where they won less than 32% of the popular vote. They then proceeded to lose the recent April 7, 2014 general election garnering just 25.4% of the vote. In a poll conducted by Léger Marketing in June 2014 their support had dropped further to just 20% of preferences placing them behind the Coalition Avenir Québec or CAQ.  The same poll placed support for sovereignty at 31% (and just 37% among francophones). The PQ has been the key political institution for the promotion of Quebec independence. The declining support for both the party and sovereignty means that the movement confronts a serious existential crisis.

And what about the actual support for sovereignty over time? Here are some charts. The first is from the blog of Jean-François Lisée, former PQ cabinet minister, in a post that acknowledges the overall slump in support for sovereignty. The chart begins in 1980, jumps to 1989 and captures the spike in support in 1990 following the death of Meech.  It combines CROP polls in blue with Léger in red with the 1980 and 1995 referendum results in black. It is the overall pattern that matters. Except for bumps just after the 1995 referendum and around the time of the sponsorship scandal what we see is steady decline since 1990 (somewhat before Stephen Harper assumed office).

In his blog Lisée argues that fear of a referendum, after Pierre Karl Peladeau raised the prospect of one when he entered the campaign, is what drove votes to the Liberals. He said in his post:
Pierre Karl’s arrival had a major effect. Until then, Quebecers perceived the Marois team as capable of governing as a sovereigntist government, but undoubtedly incapable of acting on its intention of holding a referendum.
When a business titan such as Pierre Karl announced that he was joining the PQ, that changed everything. Sovereigntists (and who can blame them?) enthusiastically greeted his arrival as providential, saying that it would calm people’s fears. Amplified by this chorus of applause, the PQ + PKP combination gave new credibility to the hypothesis of sovereignty.
And for half a million francophone Quebecers, this credibility reawakened a strong aversion to embarking once again on the adventure of a referendum.
The translation above comes from the journal Inroads, which has long provided excellent coverage and insights into Quebec politics.

Aversion to a referendum of course is rooted in opposition to sovereignty itself. As well, I have little doubt that the memories of the divisiveness of the 1995 referendum for Quebec francophone families add to feelings about this in Quebec. The PQ in office had avoided the issue of sovereignty but waved the nationalist flag with its "Charter of Values", a ploy that never garnered the political efficacy they hoped it might. The "Charter of Values" ended up being a symbol of the weakness of Quebec sovereignty sentiment, not a sign of its strength.

There is a detailed look at this loss of support for both the PQ and sovereignty in the blog of Université de Montréal sociologist Claire Durand.  Her blog on polling is titled Ah les sondages. She is one of the leading analysts of polling in Quebec and presents data in the chart below that report that support for sovereignty among younger Quebecers peaked around the year 2000 and has been steadily declining since, to the point where age differences among the Quebec francophones are significantly diminishing. By 2014 as one can see by the converging lines (blue is 18-34, green is 35-54 and red is 55 plus), age differences have all but disappeared.

Her research using CROP polls concludes there were two generations (by her definition) that supported the PQ and sovereignty, the baby boom born from 1945 to 1962, and those born between 1962 and 1977. She remains agnostic on whether younger voters who have abandoned support for sovereignty and the PQ can be persuaded to return to the fold, but there is no doubt at all about the current situation. The loss of support for the Parti Québecois among younger and middle-aged voters is particularly pronounced as the chart below illustrates.

Sovereignty is a critically important existential issue in Quebec. One should see it as fundamentally apart from day to day political debate. Why it has declined most likely revolves around matters of fundamental importance to French Quebeckers, particularly the status of the French language.

A key reason for the decline of pro-sovereignty sentiment is likely rooted in one of the greatest accomplishments of the first PQ government - Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.  Political scientist Reg Whitaker wrote about this in 1991 on page 304 of his book, Sovereign Idea: Essays on Canada as a Democratic Community.  His words bear repeating:
... language is a sovereignty issue in Quebec in that it revolves around the sovereign right of the Quebec community through those political institutions under its control, to legislate the priority of the French language within the boundaries of the community. The historical irony is that the PQ's very success in framing and implementing a clear, effective and relatively liberal language law - arguably its major achievement in two terms in office - was also the single act which did the most to undermine the PQ's own option of sovereignty-association. If Quebec could exercise sovereignty in legislating language within the framework of the Canadian federation, perhaps it did not require sovereignty in the full political sense.  
I would argue that, in addition to Bill 101, federal bilingualism and the promotion of the French fact in Ottawa and across the country over time played an important role in undermining the case in Quebec for sovereignty. Earlier generations of Quebeckers experienced significant discrimination against them and their language, but now we have generations who have come to maturity in a different context. It is having an impact.

Given the steadiness of the decline it seems unlikely that with the exception of the Sponsorship scandal (and its effect has passed) the numerous developments of the late nineties and early aughts had any significant impact one way or the other on overall support levels for sovereignty. This would include the federal secession reference, the federal clarity law, devolution of labour market training, the Social Union Framework Agreement, cuts to federal transfers, and so on.

We see a parallel to the decline of the PQ in provincial politics in the decline of the Bloc Québecois federally. Recently, the Bloc selected a new leader from the 'pur et dur' hardline separatist wing of the party, Mario Beaulieu.  In a sense the weakness of sovereignty so clear today was foreshadowed by the big NDP win in Quebec in 2011 when the Bloc was reduced to four seats and 23.4% of the vote, a number very close to the PQ result on April 7. Bryan Breguet of Too Close to Call suggests that we are likely to see ongoing weakness of the BQ, although the selection of Beaulieu might be able to keep a hard core of party support that could elect a few MPs to the House of Commons. But he also calculates that if the BQ falls to less than 20% of the vote in the next election in 2015 it could wind up with zero seats. I think over the longer term it is the federal NDP that will benefit from the decline in pro-independence sentiment in Quebec.

In the day to day back and forth of politics we often overlook or forget about the fundamentals.  We should not. The evolution of Quebec with respect to the independence debate is extremely important.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Some observations about the Ontario 2014 election

There had been a sufficient number of close polls during the election that the result, a Liberal majority, came as a greater surprise than perhaps it should have. In my final blog post I uncharacteristically did not offer a seat forecast. This reflected my own lack confidence in the outcome of an election where polls consistently suggested high levels of dissatisfaction with the state of the province and the incumbent government.

Nevertheless I did make a prediction in an email to my brother-in-law that turned out to be prescient.  I averaged the last Ekos and Forum Polls (ignoring the Ekos likely voter model), entered the data in my electoral model, and turned up a seat count of Liberal-59, PC-33 and NDP-15. When the actual vote shares are entered in my model the seat totals are identical to the actual results, albeit with 10 individual errors that offset to give the accurate total. More confidence in what I produced would have been the order of the day.

What determined the Outcome
The outcome actually was determined early. It is clear that Hudak made an enormous strategic miscalculation to promise to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs - a fact unequivocally confirmed by PC candidates post-election who said the pledge came as a complete surprise to them. Paul Wells in commenting on the results offered this contrast to how Stephen Harper dealt with prospect of federal layoffs likely to come from his spending cuts.
Hudak ... decided his target audience was people who think eliminating public sector jobs is always excellent. Compare and contrast: During the 2011 federal election, I worked hard to get a succession of federal Conservatives — Jim Flaherty, John Baird — to give me any indication of the scale of public sector job cuts the Harper government had in mind. Baird pledged, with a straight face, to protect the National Capital Region’s bureaucrats from the kind of ravages the Chrétien-Martin Liberals had inflicted in the 1990s.
The outcome of this ideologically polarized election will no doubt reinforce the federal Tories' penchant for circumspection and secrecy. But they are likely feeling chills down their spine. This election made clear that voters rejected the Hudak PC program, which was identical in its essentials, if not how it was communicated, to the Harper Conservatives.

In mid-campaign economist Paul Boothe, a former senior federal finance official and Saskatchewan finance deputy offered the following summary of the three parties fiscal platforms (the whole thing is worth reading).
The Liberals and NDP propose to maintain Ontario’s already relatively low program spending at approximately the current level.  In contrast, the Conservatives propose to lower program spending substantially to finance a large corporate tax cut now and lower personal taxes once the budget is balanced. 
Overall voters preferred a Liberal program based on a relatively austere budget offering slightly slower deficit reduction, which nevertheless included a variety of progressive measures such as a wage increase for home care workers, and an income tax increase for those receiving higher incomes. The NDP offered a partially similar, if somewhat incoherent, program that appears to have been based on identifying popular bits and pieces from polls and focus groups. In terms of their major fiscal/economic positioning, they embraced the Liberal timetable on deficit reduction, implying that they would have required their own austerity program.

Numerically, what gave the Liberals a majority was the 7.4% gap between them and the second place PCs, up from a 0.8% advantage in 2011 that left the Liberals just short of a majority at the time. The NDP performed relatively well, particularly in southwestern Ontario where the economy has particularly suffered during the recession following the 2008 financial crisis. However, they did lose three seats in Toronto largely, I would argue, due to the relatively small 'c' conservative character of their platform and its accompanying campaign and rhetoric. An "exit poll" conducted by the Globe and Mail confirmed that the NDP had some appeal this time for PC voters:
Jarring though it may be with long-time followers of Ontario politics, the NDP seems in particular to have made headway with PC supporters. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents who voted for the Tories said their view of the NDP had become more favourable during the campaign, next to 20 per cent who said it had become less favourable. The NDP also split with the Liberals for second-choice support among PCs. 
Remember these are voters who embraced Hudak and his extreme program of austerity and tax-cutting who are saying this. The conservative nature of the NDP's pitch appears to have had political benefits in the southwest and costs in Toronto.

The Polls 
A polling experiment conducted by the Toronto Star during this campaign explains well the polling issues generated by the campaign (I think the print and broadcast media have overstated the degree of polling inaccuracy). The most striking aspect of the campaign polls was the wide variation in reported support for the NDP.  The experiment found that IVR (Interactive Voice Response, essentially a talking computer that makes phone calls) tends to understate NDP support while online polls overstate it. This is certainly consistent with the results of the polls released during the campaign.

I measured polling accuracy in two ways: I compared the election vote shares to the reported poll shares for the three major parties only and then a second calculation that includes the Greens and Other. I convert the errors to absolute values and sum them.The justification for doing two calculations is that it is the strongest parties that determine outcomes in a first past the post system. The errors on Greens and Other are interesting from a polling perspective but matter little in determining seat outcomes.

I have ignored the likely voter reports, which were estimates that were not as accurate as the basic eligible voter polls. I think it likely that if someone is willing and patient enough to answer a poll on politics, it is likely that individual is a voter and no further effort should be necessary. The performance is worth noting. (Note negative values indicate the poll underestimated the actual vote, positive that the performance was over-estimated.)

The online pollsters Angus Reid and Abacus performed well as did IVR pollster Ekos and phone pollster Oraclepoll.  Phone pollster Nanos had a poll that concluded on May 26 that could be deemed the most accurate, but it finished up two and a half weeks before voting day so I have excluded it here. Ekos was closest on the Liberals and PCs and Oraclepoll closest on the NDP.  All pollsters had at least one error outside their reported margin of error and most had two.

The polls despite the errors did perform better than the impressions left by the media (and I certainly agree with Paul Adams' assessment of the value of the polls during elections). The media convinced themselves that a Liberal majority was impossible. While most of the predictions ahead of time were for a minority the major prognosticators had the Liberals in the high 40s or above. At those levels just a slight shift in the polls is all that is necessary to produce a majority.

TV Debates
Part of the explanation for all the surprise was that Kathleen Wynne was perceived to have lost the TV debates. Most commentary I think misses the point about a TV debate. It can affect public assessment of the capacity of the participants. This matters more in the U.S. where voters are asked to make a direct choice between individuals. In Canada, however, debates are mainly about issues. Where they can matter is raising the importance or salience of a given issue. In this case the key moments were about the gas plants scandal, which already had a very high profile and no new information about it came out. As a vote consideration it had already been largely factored into how voters felt about what mattered, which turned out to be not gas plants, but rather the Hudak plan for governance. The Liberals had the most money for this campaign, and no doubt bombarded the airways in the final week with ads like this one, effectively overcoming what they might have lost during the debate.

As a more general observation I would say that while scandals matter to newspapers and the electronic media for sales, they matter a great deal less to the public when it comes to casting a vote. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is a cynicism that reflects a generalized "they all do it" belief. But the other is that most scandals simply don't matter in material ways to the average voter. Thus we have had two Liberal governments in Quebec and Ontario recently re-elected in spite of the various scandals laid at their door, and one in BC a year ago.

Strategic or Tactical Voting
There are two questions one can pose about tactical voting. First, did it occur, and, if so, did it matter. The point of those who engaged in this kind of voting was to defeat Hudak. At a macro level it is clear that strategic/ tactical voting did not matter simply because the PCs were so decisively beaten. When you finish seven points behind your opponent you are always going to lose.

Was there identifiable strategic/tactical voting? I have not crunched the numbers for all the ridings but took a close look at several that changed hands using both the raw numbers and my projections to see how well parties performed in an individual constituency compared to the overall trend.  I examined Burlington, Cambridge, Durham, Halton, Newmarket-Aurora, which all switched from the PCs to the Liberals and Oshawa, which went NDP. Tactical voting appears to have added to the winner's margin in all cases except Durham but all would have been won on the overall trend regardless. Nominally it appears that it may have been decisive in Oshawa, but the numbers are close enough in the calculation that one can't be sure. Assessing this kind of voting behaviour is a difficult exercise in my view (we cannot read voters' minds after all) and simple calculations should be viewed with caution.

Looking Ahead
I doubt that either tactical voting or scandals will be decisive in the 2015 federal election. I would add that whether or not Stephen Harper wins next year will likely have little to do with the scandals such as the Senate expenses affair (for which he is properly being blamed). It will more likely be issues that matter - especially the role of government. The more the federal opposition parties can identify damage done to public services and jobs by Stephen Harper, and there has been plenty, for example, the damage to the federal government's core public administration I wrote about in February, the stronger will be their case for replacing Harper in 2015. Mike Duffy is likely to be a footnote when we look back on the 2015 federal election.

Ontario's greatest challenge is restarting its slow-growing economy (not repairing its finances as is commonly assumed). Average growth has been very slow over the past decade because of the financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn. Ontario has been 10th out of 10 in Canada because it is not resource rich,  and manufacturing has suffered because of the downturn and the overvalued Canadian dollar.
Slow economic growth in Canada's industrial and financial heartland should be seen primarily as a federal government failure. However, if the Bank of Canada encourages a lower Canadian dollar (we'll see), and the American economy continues to gain strength albeit slowly, the fiscal challenges facing the Wynne regime will be diminished. It was the "Roaring Nineties" in the United States, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz dubbed them, that allowed the federal Liberals to balance their budget quickly while economic growth continued. And average voters care more about jobs than balance sheets.