Wednesday, July 01, 2020

On this blog I normally write about politics but today is Canada Day

On July 1, 1945 - 75 years ago today - an event took place in Ottawa that was of critical importance to my family. Both my mother and father moved to Ottawa in the spring of 1945, unbeknownst to each other.

Clarence Barber
Barbara Patchet
That spring my mother graduated from the University of Toronto at a ceremony where, as she puts it, "At our June graduation George Drew, the Conservative premier of Ontario spoke and all our class booed. We felt so superior."

Almost right away she headed for Ottawa expecting a job to be waiting for her. Many of the details that follow come from the life writing stories my mother wrote in during her retirement. She completed some 250 of them between ages of 79 and 89. She was born in Toronto in 1923 and named Barbara Patchet at birth. She picks up the story:
"In June, l945 having just graduated in sociology from the University of Toronto I headed to Ottawa by train having been recommended by my professor for a job in the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (DBS). I traveled with a university acquaintance named Betty who was going to work in the new National Incomes Branch.
I headed down to DBS, found my prospective employer out of town, and ended up as a clerical assistant to a Civil Service Commissioner. While I cannot remember precisely what my duties were as assistant to the Civil Service Commissioner I do remember being very impressed with the curriculum vitae of the man who was to be my future husband.  He had all A’s and such extravagant praise.
Canoeing 1946
Then I met him briefly in the hallway of DBS when I went to visit Betty. A few days later on July 1st, a national holiday, I went for lunch in a restaurant near my room (Bank and Fifth). It was quite empty but there in a corner I spotted Clarence and had no hesitation in saying, “ Do you mind if I eat with you? I hate to eat alone”
After lunch we decided to go canoeing out at Hog’s Back on the Ottawa River.  He too lived in a room and we ended up eating our dinners together. At our wedding two years later he ended up in responding to the toast to the bride that he did not have to eat alone anymore. 
Because Clarence and I both lived in rooms, we fell into the habit of eating dinner together. We went bicycling or walking and to celebrate in any way we went to a better restaurant, a movie or dancing at the Chateau grill. I loved Ottawa because it was small, picturesque and there was a French joie de vivre compared to Toronto. Moreover, I was in love.

Rideau Street Ottawa in the 40s

Our backgrounds were very different. My father was a business man, secretary treasurer of Saturday Night magazine. Clarence came from a Saskatchewan farm, growing up during the depression, worked on the farm following high school, while taking his first university year extramurally. After a B.A. from the University of Saskatchean, scholarships took him to American universities for his M.A. and PhD (in economics). In l943 he returned to Canada to join the RCAF." (I wrote a longer description of my father's biography in 2017 here:

He received an early release from the military having been recruited to work for DBS as part of a team developing Canada's national income accounts. That was why he found himself in Ottawa that spring renting a room and eating many of his meals in simple cafeteria style restaurants, quite common in the era. While he was happy to work at DBS in postwar Ottawa, his career aspirations were to teach economics at a university.

My parents enjoyed their three years in Ottawa - taking time out to get married in Toronto in May 1947 - as the photos below illustrate, taking advantage of what it had to offer including the nearby lakes and hills of Quebec.

Babs & Clarence 1946
Babs at Lac Blue Sea, Quebec

Babs & Clarence Winter 1945-46
My mother picks up the story again:
When Clarence turned down an offer to teach at the University of Pittsburgh in l946,  I asked him what he wanted to do and his answer amazed me “I think I have an original contribution to make to Canadian economics” This confidence in self was staggering to me.

After a small wedding in Toronto we spent our savings on a honeymoon, a week in Boston, a week in Cape Cod, and ended up in Quebec City. There, we saw some of our colleagues who were attending the Learned Societies . 
After a seemingly idyllic three years, they moved to Hamilton, shortly after my birth, where my father taught economics for a year. In 1949 they moved on to Winnipeg.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

As Yogi said it ain't over 'til its over but...

For four years Donald Trump has maintained a level of support that, beyond being greater than someone so incompetent deserves, actually had left him competitive for re-election despite trailing. However, the last few months featuring COVID-19, the economic collapse and Black Lives Matter protests have now so reduced his support in both national and state polls such that his re-election prospects are, for the moment, dead.

He is not just behind, he is way behind. As recently as mid-May Trump was just over 4 points behind in the Real Clear Politics National Average. Now he is 8.5 points back. If I project the results of a four point victory compared to eight and a half points using the model that I normally only deploy to analyze Canadian politics, it is the difference between Biden winning with about 308 electoral votes including several close states (it takes 270 to win), and 356 electoral college votes, a landslide, where the swing states from 2016 vote decisively Democratic. This estimate is matched by the other key politics and polling website: the FiveThirtyEight blog of Nate Silver, which has Biden ahead of Trump by nine points and he says Biden is ahead in states worth 368 electoral college votes.

There is a weekly podcast featuring key Obama advisor David Axelrod and Republican consultant Mike Murphy (he ran Jeb Bush's campaign). In their podcast released on June 17 Murphy commented on the current polls (about the 23 minute mark):
Trump was in trouble in the swing states before coronavirus. I thought he was heading toward losing, but he was in the race. Then the wrong track when people say in polling 'things have gone to hell' has skyrocketed, and the economic argument has evaporated at least right now, so now he's in trouble in the states he ought to get pretty much for free like Iowa. Now my guess is that in the end he'll be able to crawl to a victory or two but it's (Iowa) in play no doubt about it. Over at campaign headquarters right now - memo to staff -  'we put this guy in ads with the current message and it gets worse'.... so this is the total nightmare.
Here is approximately what I think an 8.5 or 9 point Biden victory would look like:

Click the map to create your own at

Anyone know what this thing is?
In addition to the factors cited above Trump's own efforts have backfired. The Bible waving photo op that involved forcibly clearing out protestors has significantly harmed him. I thought it looked both foolish and seriously weird. It suggested just by the way he held the book up that he didn't take the Bible seriously at all. The public noticed. In Michigan it caused a "sharp dive in the polls". Trump went from a 12 point deficit to a 16 point deficit in a state that was crucial to his victory in 2016 precisely because of this authoritarian but ham-fisted manoeuvre.

To recover would require a combination of both strong economic growth plus a decreasing incidence of the coronavirus. Trump's reputation as a good economic manager, which he doesn't deserve, has held up  relatively strongly. However, for the economy to recover the U.S. has to get the virus under control. If the economy doesn't recover strongly there will come a time when his reputation suffers. The situation is better than it was but as the New York Times puts it:
As states move to partly reopen their economies, thousands of new cases are still being identified each day and true normalcy remains a distant vision.
If true normalcy is a distant vision both economically and in terms of the nation's and the world's health, it is extremely difficult to see what might help Trump stage a comeback. The protests led by Black Lives Matter might have been thought to allow Trump to make a law and order appeal as Nixon did in 1968 but it hasn't worked out that way. As Robert Gibbs (at one time Obama's press secretary) put it on another podcast (12:32 mark), "I think its important for that 1968 analogy, he's (Trump) not playing the Nixon character in 1968, he is playing very clearly George Wallace and quite frankly Nixon had the ability to do what he needed to do in that election by playing off of both candidates - at this point David Axerod jumps in - Yeah he triangulated. Wallace did the heavy lifting and scare mongering and Nixon was able to present Wallace as another face of disorder."

This time the candidate who offers a vision of renewed stability, calm and order is Joe Biden. Yes, it is true that a week is a long time, perhaps an eternity, in politics. However, sometimes the outcome of an election becomes a certainty well ahead of the actual date. It certainly looks like that is the way we are headed now.

Monday, May 04, 2020

The 1950 Red River Flood: 70th Anniversary

Seventy years ago this week the Red River flood started. It had a huge impact on our family. Later my father was a part of the process that led to the building of the floodway

The 1950 Flood: My Family's Experience

My parents, Clarence Barber and wife Babs, moved into a new house in Wildwood Park in the fall of 1949. My father came to Winnipeg take up a teaching post in economics at the University of Manitoba (neither parent had ever lived in Winnipeg before moving) only to be flooded out in the spring of 1950. My mother had two small children including me, six weeks shy of being two and my brother Steve then a five-month old baby. For my mother, the experience of the flood (as for many others) was truly horrific.

In her eighties she took a life-writing class in Oak Bay B.C. eventually penning over 250 essays about her life. This (slightly edited) essay conveys how for many residents caught up in those events of 70 years ago, it was a dark and stressful time.

My father, around the time the family left Wildwood Park for a house on Kingsway in Crescentwood, was hired to conduct economic studies for the Manitoba Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit. This was the commission that recommended the construction of the Red River Floodway. The floodway is now hailed as an unmitigated success, the saviour of lives and property in Manitoba, an outstanding example of the importance of the right infrastructure investments. I will discuss this more below but first my family's personal story of the flood written by my mother who passed away three years ago in May 2017. She wrote it in 2011 when another flood threatened.


I see on TV that once again the Red River threatens to overflow its banks and flood the land. Memories of May 1950, rush back to haunt me.

On May 5, 1950, the day before we evacuated our new home (in Wildwood Park) it was my husband’s 33rd birthday. I had made him a chocolate cake.

After a tense dinner Clarence went back to continue help filling sandbags and hauling them to the dike in a futile attempt to hold back the Red River. The remainder of the cake went out to feed the neighbours, all working on the dike.

With 2 babies in diapers I had been busy with the laundry since I had to dry them on a wooden rack in the basement.  I was also busy with the myriad tasks of a housewife and mother. The last thing in the world I wanted was to leave my little house and money was scarce.

Seeing the large puddle on South Drive which bordered the river I commented on it to Clarence who told me it was not a puddle but the river. We even had close neighbours, both architects who were living nearby in one story houses of their own design.

The day of departure was an appalling nightmare. Leaden skies, rain pouring down, children confined to house and crying. What could we do?

One of Clarence’s colleagues who had agreed to shelter us in the event of a flood phoned the morning of May 6 to say the whole family had come down with the flu and it was no place to bring a baby. Another colleague phoned and offered us shelter.

A wailing siren warned us all to leave. An Ottawa friend phoned volunteering to come and drive us to the colleague’s house. She had heard about the evacuation. Anna had been a senior person in Health and Welfare where I had worked before marriage.

My first thought was what the children would need. Formula was made, food for Paul, diapers both dry and damp, clothes for the children and oh yes, a few clothes for me. I resembled a poor immigrant, scarf over hair, laden with bags and babies as I went out in the rain. But I did evacuate in style in a Cadillac.

Sirens wailing, headlights on at the shopping centre and trucks laden with sand roaring through the streets and a crying baby in my arms.

Anna quickly sized up my refuge and knew there was not enough room for us there. That night I cannot recall at all.

The next day Anna phoned and told me I was going to her sister’s house which had more room. I was very grateful but my heart sank when I saw the lovely carpet and elegant surroundings. Her sister had cooked us a wonderful roast beef dinner with a remarkably good apple pie. The baby still cried although he had been such a happy baby.

I called the doctor and realizing my state, she told me to turn the baby over to my husband and take a walk around the block. When I returned there was a sedative for me to take.

This I did, but I also phoned my parents in Toronto to ask for refuge. Instead my father offered us money not to come.

Because there were forecasts of more rain, which could put much of the city under water, residents were being asked to leave. I had to flee Winnipeg, leaving my husband behind to save our furniture. I flew home to Toronto on May 10th, my third wedding anniversary, wearing my “going away suit and coat”. I was accompanied by a 5-year old girl, daughter of the head of the economics department, my 5-month old baby and the 23-month-old son.
323 Wildwood Park during 1950 Flood
Photo taken by Clarence Barber

Trans Canada Airlines added an extra stewardess to take care of the baby (the plane was a North Star) and shortly after take-off she came to me because he was crying and she did not know what to do. Neither did I.

My mother’s first words were “Aren’t you glad it was not fire!” That thought had never occurred to me.

How happy I was to return 6 weeks later and live in 2 rooms upstairs while the house repairs went on for the next few months. Paul slept in the crib while the baby was in his carriage downstairs.

Before the house flooded Clarence and a neighbour had helped each other by building a ramp on the stairs and slid each other’s furniture up to the second floor. The fridge was on the landing, the bathroom was fortunately on the second floor and I cooked on a 2-burner stove in our bedroom.

The houses in our subdivision were repaired by the builder with several teams. The first came and cleaned out the mud followed by others who created new walls and floors. Shortly before Christmas we were back downstairs. A nightmare, never to be forgotten.

My husband, not knowing what repairs would cost had painstakingly taken up each of the oak floor boards. They eventually got moved to our second home – a big, old house in a higher part of the city. My architect son Steve, that crying 5 month old baby fashioned the boards into a dining room table which is still being used.

323 Wildwood Park in 2009
So, it seemed only just that in l956 Clarence was appointed to conduct economic research for a Provincial Royal Commission to investigate flood prevention on the Red River. The eventual result was the building of the Winnipeg Floodway. Clarence liked to boast later that it was the only commission on which he served that had every recommendation carried out.



The Commission's Innovative Work

As noted in my mother's essay my father was on the staff of the Manitoba Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit.  It was appointed in December 1956 following engineering studies that were clear that the only effective way in the long run was to build a floodway, a 26 mile (42 km) ditch around the east side of Winnipeg that then returned the diverted flood waters to the lower Red River near where it flows into Lake Winnipeg.

Appointed in December 1956 the commission was historically significant and was the subject of a published study by historian J.M. Bumsted who noted:
The Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit made recommendations that determined Manitoba’s basic policy on flood mitigation to the present day. In many respects, of course, Manitoba has gone farther in terms of structural protection against flooding than any other jurisdiction in the world. The commission’s report also represented, moreover, the first large-scale cost-benefit analysis ever done in Canada, and pioneered in introducing a new approach and methodology into planning and public policy.
He later notes that the key innovation in the study (that came from my father) was the concept of taking loss of income into account in assessing the benefits that would accrue from flood protection:
Two innovative aspects of the damages calculations were the categories of loss of income and extra costs.... they were typically neglected by many cost-benefit studies of the time. The Manitoba economists estimated the level of income produced and then evaluated the proportion of that lost at different stages of flooding.... As for extra costs, the commission estimated for four kinds of extra costs, ranging from evacuation expenses to extra food costs because of displacement to extra labor costs in flooded homes and additional transportation costs.... The commission's report argued that most of the cost estimates were on the conservative side, which was almost certainly correct.
Bumsted  concludes:
Almost unique among royal commissions either federal or provincial, all of its major recommendations were eventually implemented in virtually the form in which it had presented them. Moreover, its analysis shaped the flood mitigation agenda of Manitoba for more than a generation; in 1997, the province still had not drawn free of the conclusions and opinions of this 1958 report. Perhaps equally important, the pioneering work of Clarence Barber represented a real breakthrough for Canadian social science in the 1950s... the 1958 Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit was a pioneering effort at applied cost benefit analysis, which had enormous impact upon the province of Manitoba.
Getting the Floodway Built

Although the technical studies were clear in terms of their conclusion that there ought to be a floodway (and some smaller flood control projects), because the proposed projects were so expensive it wasn't necessarily a given that the floodway would get built and when. The government of Douglas Campbell was extremely fiscally cautious and conservative and only appointed the commission under considerable pressure. In fact as Bumsted notes:
Some observers thought him the tightest penny-pincher in the history of a relatively poor province. ... His response to the Manitoba Flood of 1950 was cautious and heavily criticized at the time for its failure to act in advance of federal assistance and its unwillingness to insist on more support from Ottawa.
Duff Roblin
The commission was appointed in 1956 following upon a near flood that spring, plus sustained pressure from Winnipeg business and the daily newspapers. In early May says Bumsted, "the Winnipeg Tribune published a front-page editorial on flooding. The government had begun warning of flooding in late February, but it would have been better if “proper long term precautions” had been taken. The newspaper began leading a chorus of demands for a cost-benefit analysis of the flood protection measures...."

Campbell's slowness to act meant that the report would be delivered to a new government in 1958, the minority administration of Duff Roblin, a more progressive and activist administration that championed the floodway.

As a 2001 article on "Duff''s Ditch" put it:
The project was championed by Dufferin (Duff) Roblin, the Leader of the Opposition and head of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party, but it was vehemently denounced by opponents as a monumental, and potentially ruinous, waste of money. Indeed, the projected Red River Floodway was derisively referred to as “Duff”s Folly” and “Duff’s Ditch”, and decried as “approximating the building of the pyramids of Egypt in terms of usefulness.” The construction of the floodway and Assiniboine River works, would entail a capital cost of over $72 million, amortized over fifty years at 4% interest, at a time when the province had a population of only 900,000 and an annual net provincial revenue of about $74 million.
Roblin's vital role in getting the floodway built is a matter of record. What is not known is something my father related to me about the proceedings within the commission. There was one strong dissenter within the commission named Jack McDowell (who did file a formal dissent from the commission's conclusions). In the end although the other commissioners endorsed the report and its conclusions McDowell kept up a vociferous opposition to the floodway at all the meetings of the commission arguing absurdly that the floodway was unnecessary; all one had to do was clean up the river south of the city of junk that had been tossed in - I remember my father mentioning old rubber boots and junked cars. However, another commissioner, Culver Riley, a leading Winnipeg businessman, would then refocus the discussion on the basic facts, among them that the engineers had clearly recommended that only the floodway would provide reliable flood protection.

PM John Diefenbaker and Premier Duff Roblin
Even with Roblin's strong commitment to the floodway and getting it done as quickly as possible, Manitoba could not possibly finance such a large project on its own. Roblin launched negotiations with the then government of John Diefenbaker on a cost sharing agreement to finance the floodway construction. The negotiations were tough and protracted. I once had the opportunity to view some of the correspondence on the issue the Manitoba and federal governments exchanged during this period.

The federal government supported the floodway in principle, but wanted to go over the project budget in absolutely minute detail. The letters (and notes from phone calls) conveyed the flavour of one order of government pushing the other to assume as great a share of the costs as possible and vice versa. Worried about precedent, and knowing they were going to pay more than half, the federal government looked extremely carefully at every item, trying to minimize their exposure. They agreed, for example, they would pay 59.1% for item X but only 51.3% for item Y. 

The federal government had everything to gain from a floodway as they were on the hook for a significant percentage of compensation to flood victims and for damaged infrastructure. The 1950 flood cost $22 million in aid to victims and another $126 million in physical damages. (Note: my parents did not know when they were carrying out repairs to their house whether there would be any compensation; that came later).

The federal government agreed in principle to pay for a significant percentage of the floodway costs but were slow to come to a final agreement (in the end they paid 58.5% of the cost). In 1962 the Roblin government felt it could wait no longer and brought in legislation so that construction could commence, which it did in October of that year. It was among the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Canada. For example, "At the time, excavation of the floodway channel was the second largest earth moving project in the world (second only to the Panama Canal and larger than the Suez Canal project).   The floodway was completed in 1968 and went into operation.
Floodway where water is diverted from Red River
No sooner was the Red River Floodway completed than it proved of even greater benefit  than anticipated. The decade after 1968 saw a trend toward an increased frequency and severity of flooding with the mean annual discharge of both the Red and Assiniboine rivers exceeding, by 80% and 60% respectively, that of the period between 1915 and 1968. In 1969, 1970, 1974, and 1979, substantial flooding was experienced in the upper Red River Valley south of Winnipeg, costing millions of dollars in damage; yet Winnipeg escaped virtually unscathed with the Red River Floodway in operation. the spring of 1979, the Red River Floodway proved beyond dispute its critical value in protecting the city from potentially severe inundations. In both years (1974 &1979) the volume of floodwaters approximated the 1950 flood, and would have devastated Winnipeg if not diverted by the flood control systems... Moreover, as of 1987 it was reported that the floodway had been put in operation 14 times in the first 19 years of its existence to control threatening flood waters, and had saved a cumulative total of $1 billion in flood damage costs within Winnipeg.
In 1997 came the largest flood seen on the Red River since the 19th century. It taxed the capacity of the floodway almost to its limit. Subsequently, a new project was initiated to expand the original floodway to a handle a much larger inundation, defined as a "once in 700-year flood".

The Importance of Infrastructure

The immense costs avoided by building the floodway illustrate that having the right infrastructure is of immense value to a community and a regional economy. This is not true of every project; Montreal's Olympic Stadium is an example of extraordinarily wasteful spending on infrastructure and there are numerous others. However, for essential purposes such as flood control or public transportation the right infrastructure spending is essential. It can also provide needed stimulus to a sagging national economy.  The deep downturn occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to address the looming climate crisis may once again highlight of the importance of capital expenditure on infrastructure.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Rachel the political forecasting revolutionary

A commonly held belief on ideology in politics is that it can be distinguished by its placement on a spectrum. This spectrum came originally from a seating arrangement in the French National Assembly at the time of the French Revolution when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. It evolved over time becoming firmly established as a convention by early in the 20th century, with multiple gradations from right to left.

Flowing from that, an often unstated assumption of much political analysis is that movement takes places in the centre of the spectrum. To achieve political gains it follows one must persuade centre-right or centre-left voters to move a little in the opposite direction in order to make gains. This view of politics is central to much analysis of American politics, especially inside the Washington D.C. beltway, but it is being contested by an outsider.

Rachel Bitecofer
Little known until recently, Rachel Bitecofer, a Virginia based political scientist, has challenged this perspective on how American politics works.  As a profile of her in Politico put it: "Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place."

What made her reputation as a forecaster is that early on she accurately predicted the outcome of the 2018 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. As the Politico item put it:
Bitecofer, a 42-year-old professor at Christopher Newport University in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, was little known in the extremely online, extremely male-dominated world of political forecasting until November 2018. That’s when she nailed almost to the number the nature and size of the Democrats’ win in the House, even as other forecasters went wobbly in the race’s final days. Not only that, but she put out her forecast back in July, and then stuck by it while polling shifted throughout the summer and fall.
Here is an example of conventional analysis from the period from the New York Times public opinion writer Nate Cohn about ten days before voting day:
Dozens of House races remain extremely close in the closing days of the midterms, according to New York Times Upshot/Siena College polls, making it easy to envision a Democratic blowout or a district-by-district battle for control that lasts for weeks of counting beyond the election.
The difference between the two outcomes will depend on whether enough Democratic candidates get over the top in the long list of Republican-leaning areas they’ve put into play. The Democratic gains in predominantly white, well-educated suburbs have stretched the Republican majority exceedingly thin. Fighting against this is partisan polarization, which could allow Republican incumbents to narrowly hold on to districts carried by the president.
The uncertainty isn’t just about hedging. It’s a reflection of the sheer number of highly competitive districts, and the limited data available about each one. 
Cohn was uncertain and could not decide where things were headed months after she made her accurate prediction. Bitecofer argues that her success is rooted in an appropriate appreciation of the phenomenon of "negative partisanship". In an article for the for the New Republic she begins by first articulating the perspective of Nancy Pelosi on the 2018 success.
On election night 2018, newly re-gaveled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided over a celebratory press conference after the Democratic Party’s recapture of a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the center of the party’s success, Pelosi explained, was its “For the People”agenda—and particularly the party’s laser-focus on health care access and the protection of preexisting conditions in Obamacare. Adding a new spin on Tip O’Neill’s timeworn political adage “all politics is local,” Pelosi triumphantly declared “all politics is personal.” This pragmatic emphasis on basic economic safeguards, Pelosi argued, had powered a historic blue wave. Ultimately, Democrats managed to flip 40 Republican-held House seats, ousting 31 Republican incumbents in the process.
By contrast argued Bitecofer:
...there was something very different about the 2018 cycle—and it’s something that the health care thesis fails to address. That something was voter turnout. After waning to historic lows in 2014, voter turnout in 2018 reached historic highs, smashing even the very high expectations set for the cycle in my own forecast. The 53.4 percent turnout in 2018 was closer to what we typically see in a presidential election than a midterm cycle. It dwarfed the 2014 cycle’s midterm turnout of 36.7 percent by nearly 17 points. And for all the talk of how central health care was that year, it was certainly not any more salient than it had been in the other elections since Obamacare was first enacted in 2010...
Indeed, if the health care policy debate should have been driving turnout in any major recent cycle, it was in the 2016 election, not 2018. The 2018 congressional battle over health care only came to pass, after all, because Trump ran hard on the pledge to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” and won....
So what, then, really drove the dramatic surge in voter turnout in 2018? It happened for one simple reason—or, rather, because of one simple man: Donald J. Trump. Trump’s surprise victory on election night 2016 set into motion conditions that all but guaranteed Democrats would take back control of the House of Representatives two years later, even as the GOP managed to hang on to a narrow majority in the Senate.
My forecasting model for the 2018 midterms predicted an enormous Democratic wave in the House, mostly by focusing on a dynamic known in political-science circles as negative partisanship. The idea behind negative partisanship is simple, harking back to Henry Adams’s definition of politics as the “organization of hatreds.” The determination to vote out the opposition—and the broader trend of acute polarization within the American political system—has altered virtually every facet of our political life. Negative partisanship is affecting the behavior of voters and reshaping the voting coalitions aligned behind each major party. 
Negative partisanship is also the reason why the pending 2020 presidential and congressional cycle doesn’t call to mind charged modern ideological battles such as 1964 and 1972 so much as the fateful election of 1860, which ended up kicking off the Civil War....
The U.S. Civil War that followed on the 1860 election (the last time the U.S. was so divided) is echoed in the distribution of political support among states today. The Republicans own most of the states of the old confederacy because they made a deliberate turn to the racist right in 1968 in a deal cut between Richard Nixon and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. Trump explicitly caters to the extreme right and the racial divide is a key force underpinning the partisan gap. The hyperpartisanship also explains the tenacity of Trump's support. Bitecofer in New Republic again:
We see this play out daily in the static polling on Trump’s approval numbers. These figures are virtually unresponsive to events, even to dramatic shifts in the political landscape such as Trump’s impeachment. We can also see this bedrock level of partisan attachment in election outcomes such as the special Senate election in Alabama in late 2017. In that contest, Roy Moore, the Republican nominee, faced credible accusations of child sexual abuse but still managed to accrue 48.3 percent of the state’s vote share. That outcome furnished a prime case study in polarization, with fully 91 percent of the state’s Republican electorate voting for Moore.
Her overall approach makes sense to me and I think it has broad application. In the 2018 election there were two races that illustrate what happened. In the Tennessee Senate election that year the Democrats nominated a traditional southern 'moderate', Phil Bredesen, but in trying to straddle the middle of the road he did not win over Republicans and actually alienated some liberal voters. He ended up losing by eleven points. By contrast in Georgia the Democrats nominated Stacey Abrams for Governor, a black woman progressive, the first such candidate in the state's history. She lost by less than two points and likely would have won save for the cheating and vote suppression by the Republicans.

A mentor of Bitecofer, political scientist Alan Abramowits sees the current polarization like "a bitter sports rivalry, in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose. Republicans might not love the president, but they absolutely loathe his Democratic adversaries. And it’s also true of Democrats, who might be consumed by their internal feuds over foreign policy and the proper role of government were it not for Trump."

Essentially Bitecofer took this insight and using voter files, polling, other demographic data and most importantly, data on voter turnout, mapped it across the United States, arguing "there are Democratic and Republican coalitions, the first made of people of color, college-educated whites and people in metropolitan areas; the second, mostly noncollege whites, with a smattering of religious-minded voters, financiers and people in business, largely in rural and exurban counties." It is who shows up on voting day that matters. Once you can figure that out, you can calculate the outcome.

Bitecofer does believe that the Democrats need strategies to drive turnout this year to assure success. One such is Biden's choice for Vice-President. Hilary Clinton chose Tim Kaine, a moderate designed to appeal to centrist Republicans, exactly the wrong choice. Bitecofer thinks Biden should choose a VP to drive turnout. He has already partly done that by saying he will select a woman. As the Politico article noted she believes:
For Democrats to win, they need to fire up Democratic-minded voters. The Blue Dogs (TC's note: moderate or right leaning Democrats) who tried to narrow the difference between themselves and Trump did worse, overall, than the Stacey Abramses and Beto O’Rourkes, whose progressive ideas and inspirational campaigns drove turnout in their own parties and brought them to the cusp of victory.
She also thinks having a VP candidate that can appeal to the progressive wing of the party matters because "strategy, candidate quality, and especially candidate demographics can still matter on the margins and Democrats will roll into the fall general election with one clearly exploitable weakness: disaffection within the progressive base. The GOP will seek to exploit that weakness and Democrats would be wise to shore up every weak spot..."

On this year's Presidential election Bitecofer is the only analyst who has offered a firm prediction that Trump will lose. Here is her forecast map of the election, which predicts a Democratic majority in the Electoral College (Note that brown is colour of toss-up states):

Click the map to create your own at

But wait I hear you say, isn't Trump gaining ground with his daily press conferences on TV. Well, not so much anymore. Here are the results of a tracking poll asking respondents about his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic is hurting Trump not helping him. Thus we see desperation initiatives like suspending all immigration - although that might end up like other Trump moves as no more than a tweet.

I expect Trump to lose.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Polling Errors in the 2019 Canadian Election - Leger Marketing Achieved the Best Results


Most analysts who made calculations on the accuracy of polling in the 2019 election published their data soon after the result was made known. All the tables I saw compared polling only to the national results. I made a similar calculation that can be seen in the first table below, but I went further comparing the regional/ provincial poll numbers to election results (in a table further down).

First the national polls and how they fared. The polls are ranked by total absolute error. The red numbers indicate polling that fell below the actual results while the numbers in black indicate polling above the actual results.

A couple of observations: every pollster underestimated Conservative support and over-estimated the NDP. It is likely that the latter is an indication of a significant degree of tactical voting for the Liberals on the part of NDP supporters who, despite how they actually voted, had no hesitation expressing their true feelings to pollsters. One region where Conservative strength was under-estimated was Alberta (see below).  In most cases the polls over-estimated the People's Party of Canada (PPC), a party I suspect may now disappear. On the whole the national polls were were fairly accurate.

It is not indicated in the table, but the national polling in this election from companies that rely on online polling was more accurate than the telephone based pollsters, including those that used the computerized Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technique. However, some of the phone/IVR pollsters did better with their regional polling numbers.


It is a given that the errors in regional polling are much higher as the sub-sample sizes in provinces and regions are smaller (in some cases quite small). Despite the errors and what look like high totals of absolute error I found the performance of the polls regionally was relatively good with the exception of the Conservatives (see the line at the bottom of the table labelled 'Average error all regions'). In the table below I grouped the polls using shading ranging from white to darker gray to distinguish three groupings: those that attained the best regional/provincial results, a middle group and those that were weaker. They are ranked by Total Error.

A few observations (partly based on data not shown here). It is notable that Leger (on online pollster) performed best in both national and regional polling accuracy.

One region where polling error was high was Alberta.  The polls significantly underestimated Conservative popular support. However, the error was of no importance with respect to seats. The CPC won all but one seat and would have done just as well in seats with many fewer votes. The error appears to have been rooted in turnout, which increased in all the constituencies in Alberta outside Calgary and Edmonton (it dropped in some ridings in the two cities). The most conservative region of Canada where the net outcome in all ridings was all a foregone conclusion turned out in greater numbers than in 2015. This is the region of maximum anti-Trudeau feeling, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

I wrote previously of how different the outcome would have been if votes were distributed by proportional representation. Even with a pure PR system the Conservatives would still have won 25 of 34 Alberta constituencies rather than their actual 33 (the party won nearly sixty-nine percent of the province-wide vote). Rural Alberta Conservative support was a classic example of a wasted vote in a first-past-the-post system.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

In praise of the Saskatchewan CCF... the roots of Medicare

On the March 21 edition of CBC radio's The House Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said, "This is a moment when all Canadians should get down on their knees and thank the people who gave us our universal health care system...."
Tommy Douglas

Sixty years ago in the spring of 1960 Saskatchewan's Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government led by Tommy Douglas was about to enter a successful re-election campaign promising "a province-wide medical care program". Today medicare is considered a given in Canada but that wasn’t always the case. A series of politically risky moves on the part of Douglas and his government made it happen. These events deserve to be remembered.

In the midst of a pandemic the importance of having a government-run health care system will instantly be recognized by most Canadians, who have come to depend on it for over fifty years. While the United States continues as the world's leading private sector based health care system (although it spends large amounts of public dollars through programs such as Medicaid), in the current situation the leading U.S. public voice, Dr Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged recently: "The system is not really geared to what we need right now... let's admit it..."

The failures of the U.S. health system go well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. If we look back at some the historic developments that led to the establishment of Medicare by the Saskatchewan CCF, we can recognize there are elements of the story we would do well to remember at this precarious time. (For most of what follows I am drawing upon the account in the book Dream No Little Dreams: A Biography of the Douglas Government of Saskatchewan, 1944-1961, written by A.W. Johnson ; with the assistance of Rosemary Proctor.)  Note that Johnson was a founding father of medicare.

Medicare was always among the plans of the CCF when they came to office in August 1944. Saskatchewan was emerging from a decade and a half of war and depression, a period of austerity and scarcity that meant it felt compelled to balance its budget (farmers post-depression in particular were allergic to debt). However, that did not stop it from the beginnings of medicare. In 1946 Saskatchewan legislated the Saskatchewan Hospital Services Plan to start on January 1, 1947, a plan to pay for hospitcal care that was universal, comprehensive and publicly administered. It was expensive but Saskatchewan did not hesitate to find the necessary funding. Financing came from general revenues and family premiums (taxes), which were set initially at $30 ($425 in current dollars) per year for a family of four (less for singles and couples).

Before taking office the CCF contemplated abolishing the sales tax, but opted instead once in office to make it more progressive by exempting 'necessities'. The tax was an important part of financing hospitalization. Indeed, the sales tax rate was raised from 2% to 3% in the 1950 budget in part to cope with cost pressures from hospitalization. Provincial Treasurer Clarence Fines commented in his budget speech:
... the tax has been criticized more than any other provincial tax but this criticism has usually been political, and not based on sound reasoning. As originally drafted with few exemptions the tax did have some vicious features. Any tax on food stuffs must be considered regressive. The same is true of tax on many other necessities for which the poorest person in the province must pay as much as the wealthiest. It has been my purpose to remove these regressive features. 
The speech then proceeded to list many of these in detail, including, for example, foodstuffs, drugs and prescriptions, soaps and cleaners, weed control chemicals and animal feeds.

Fines concluded:
There is no doubt that certain persons would be prepared to sacrifice badly needed health and education services in order that they may gain whatever political advantage they can by their advocacy of removing a tax which they introduced many years ago. I am confident however, that most intelligent people realize that such a proposal can not be genuine, unless the welfare of the people of the province is to be sacrificed. (Saskatchewan Budget Speech, March 8, 1950)
The budget speech also attacked the federal government, making it clear that despite Saskatchewan's hospitalization initiative, the failure of the then St. Laurent Liberal government to act on proposals for a national program (made originally in 1945), and instead to take what Fines called "token action" served only to increase the "financial load" upon Saskatchewan. Bending to pressure the federal government acted in the late fifties. Once the federal legislation to create a national hospitalization program took effect on July 1, 1958 half the cost of Saskatchewan's now eleven year old program came from federal coffers. The extra dollars meant Douglas government could see it would have the financial capacity to enact medicare.

One can hear echoed in the budget speech the anti-tax attitudes the government faced, but it decided nonetheless to forge ahead. At the time the tax increase did not hurt the party politically. The CCF, which had seen its popular vote and seats decrease in the 1948 election, increased its majority in the legislature and popular vote when it next faced the electorate in 1952.

Less than a year after the start of national hospitalization, the Douglas government commenced planning for universal health care, announcing its intention to proceed at a public meeting (held as part of a byelection) in the village of Birch Hills on April 25, 1959. Plans for the program were drawn up by an interdepartmental planning committee that reported to cabinet in November 1959. The plan identified ten objectives that would become familiar elements of Medicare such as universality. In the context of the current crisis, I want to draw attention to objective number four. It argued that "in the design of the medical care program... the preventive objective should always be kept at the forefront...Medical practitioners... must be encouraged to participate in preventive programs and apply preventive measures to personal health care."

A pandemic makes clear the ongoing importance of preventive public health programs and spending. But conservatives both south of the border - Donald Trump - and north of the border - Doug Ford - have made recent cuts to the public health component of our health care services. Trump eliminated a pandemic preparedness unit in the White House.

For the Douglas government, enacting and implementing medicare would be a multi-year, highly contentious struggle that involved making a series of difficult decisions. The controversies, particularly the struggle with the doctors and the 1962 strike are the better known part of the story. This article written on the 50th anniversary of the implementation of Medicare in Saskatchewan for Canadian Dimension looks back on those events. It starts off saying:
Medicare was born in Saskatchewan on July 1, 1962. It would be the first government-controlled, universal, comprehensive single-payer medical insurance plan in North America. It was a difficult birth. The North American medical establishment and the entire insurance industry were determined to stop Medicare in its tracks. They feared it would become popular and spread, and they were right. 
In order to finance the introduction of Medicare in 1962 the CCF government, now led by Woodrow Lloyd, raised the sales tax by two percentage points (1½% for health care). In addition they added one point each to personal income and corporate taxes. By today's political standards these represented enormous tax hikes. One should not understate the political risks assumed by the CCF. Although the CCF would be defeated in the next election after 20 years in office, Saskatchewan's Medicare would become permanent.

A few years later the precedent established by the CCF (along with other factors) would lead to implementation of a national cost-shared Medicare program on July 1, 1968. Among the other developments that were important was the report of the Hall Royal Commission on Health Services appointed in 1961 by the Diefenbaker governmennt. The author of the report, Emmet Hall, was a fellow Conservative and old seat-mate from law school of Diefenbaker. Opponents of medicare had pressured for the appointment of the commission. However, they were to be disappointed. The report delivered in 1964 to the Pearson government strongly supported the establishment of a national medicare program.

Two other important political developments of the early sixties mattered. T.C. Douglas became leader of the New Democratic Party, which was established in 1961, carrying the advocacy of medicare to the national stage. There was also internal debate in the Liberal Party. A key proponent of medicare inside the Liberal Party was policy guru Tom Kent. In his book A Public Purpose he describes some of the internal struggle as follows:
... there always were within the party people of conservative mind who did not want Canada to have, for example, medicare; their numbers increased... as former Liberals returned to activity. Throughout, however, the ideological conservatives were mostly people not actively engaged in politics; many were business "friends" of the party those whom I call "the men who come to lunch." They were a nuisance, because they worried Mike Pearson and wasted time for many of us, but there was never much danger they would succeed in staying to dinner, in getting measures such as medicare taken out of the program.
In the end the pro-medicare forces were successful, in part because the Liberals wanted to win votes from the NDP and knew support for medicare was an essential condition of doing so. However, the conservative Liberals were pleased by Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp's delay in the introduction of medicare by one year.

With advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should all be grateful that the struggles to achieve medicare, beginning in the 1940s, were successful. We would be much worse off without it. The efforts to establish it were extremely difficult both politcally and financially. We will forever be in debt to those like T.C. Douglas and A.W. Johnson who worked hard and took risks to make it happen.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Thoughts on Canadian politics post the 2019 election

National political context emerging from 2019 election

Polling during the 2019 election left many with the impression that the Liberal government was on the ropes. However, the distortions of the first past the post system disguised the fact the Liberals were actually comfortably ahead in most of the country. The Liberals trailed the Conservatives in the national popular vote:

However, the popular vote share disguised an important regional dimension. The strong Liberal national lead in MPs elected was an outcome based on the regional implications of first-past-the-post. An enormous Conservative lead in two provinces - Saskatchewan and Alberta - produced the following:

Many of these were 'wasted' votes. Elsewhere, the Liberals had a comfortable eight point popular vote lead when you look at the combined results in other provinces. That national popular vote looked close, but when it came to MPs elected, once we exclude the two most Conservative provinces, we find a majority of the seats going Liberal in the rest of Canada.

This illusion disappears if seats are distributed by proportional representation, but the current political reality is that what might look close in the national poll standings really isn't.

The Liberals

The Liberals emerged from the election in a minority, the first Liberal minority government since 1979. After the 1972 campaign the Liberals ran an adept and strategic minority that turned into a majority in 1974. In 1980, following numerous strategic and tactical errors on the part of the PC Joe Clark government (that governed as if it had a majority), the Pierre Trudeau Liberals were back for four years with a majority. Other than Carolyn Bennett the current group of Liberals have no prior experience governing as a minority. The Liberals were last in a minority in 2004 to 2006. It remains unclear to me if they will govern as the 1972-74 Liberals, or closer to the Joe Clark model. They had no logical partner in 2004-006 although they did get just enough to win one vote in 2005 with the help of the NDP.

At the moment, they have a get of jail free card until after the Conservative convention, and they are close enough to a majority that only a combined opposition can bring them down so there is some measure of safety. To get back to a majority, unlike in 1974 and 1980, they can't realistically base it on gains in Ontario. A small but achievable increase in popular support in Quebec appears to be the most realistic path to another Liberal majority but don't be surprised if a new election produces another minority.

Since the election Justin Trudeau has handled issues that have arisen reasonably well, particularly the aftermath of the Iran air crash, as well as the rail blockades (although some of the polling on this has been negative for them) and the result is that their position is still strong. Take this March 4th albeit opinionated assessment on the election forecasting blog
A lot of sound and fury has been raised over the allegedly broken nature of Canada recently, all of it stupid.... Finally, today, we got enough data to update the LeanTossup Canada Model, and contrary to so many assumptions about how the blockades and issues around resource extraction are hurting the Liberals, they’re actually up in seats. 
I suspect a greater threat to the Liberals could come from the negative economic impact of COVID-19, an impact certain to extend to all incumbent governments.


Historians will no doubt forever treat the NDP's decision to get rid of Thomas Mulcair as a strategic error. From 2015 to 2019 the party dropped from 44 to 24 seats won. Their losses were particularly dramatic in Quebec. Nationally their popular vote dropped by 3.9 percentage points. However, in Quebec it dropped 14.7 percentage points and they lost all but one of the 16 seats they had won in 2015. There is no doubt the NDP exercised collective bad judgment in getting rid of Mulcair, who likely would have been gone after 2019 in any case.

In the 2019 election tactical voting hurt the NDP.  In closing polls the NDP nationally averaged 18.3 per cent but on voting day received only 15.8% of the Canada-wide vote, a gap of 2.5 percentage points.  Poll error would be part of the explanation but I suspect tactical voting (for the Liberals as the preferred alternative to the Conservatives) accounts for a substantial portion of the difference.

However, seen in the context of the longer term, it suggests there is more underlying support for the NDP than the 2019 election result would suggest. As well, there is some poll evidence that after a poor start as NDP leader Jagmeet Singh's election performance has left a positive impression on the electorate. There are a number of different polling questions one can pose to evaluate support for a given leader. One that I like is asked weekly by Nanos Research on whether a specific individual has the qualities of a good leader. Although Singh badly trails Trudeau and Scheer if the question is about which leader is your preferred choice for PM, he does quite well when poll respondents are asked if he has the qualities of a good political leader. Recently, he has been scoring in the high forties on this one just behind Justin Trudeau and well ahead of Scheer (Mulcair also performed well on this question).  This strongly suggests he has the potential to do well in the future overall. I think Singh is a net asset to the NDP and does not hold back its popularity. The party should not repeat the error of its past and seek to remove him from the post.

Conservative Leadership Race

There is a Conservative leadership race for a number of reasons: critiques of Scheer's performance in the election, the scandal about party finances that emerged and so on. However, I think the key consideration was a product of the results themselves. The Conservatives deceived themselves into thinking that their strength in national polls translated into enough support to win at least a plurality of the seats. Finishing 36 seats behind the despised Justin Trudeau was more than they could take. (Somewhat similar disappointment coming out of 2015 had an impact on the NDP.)

The race is now on for the Conservative leadership, and like the NDP race in 2017, some of the expected strong candidates - Rona Ambrose, Pierre Poilievre - did not enter.  Of greater significance is that the global zeitgeist has moved against the political right. If we look back three decades some of the key issues of the time and the way they were framed in public debate - free trade, lowering taxes, deregulation - were matters on which the party appeared to have a comparative advantage. The Mulroney PCs negotiated NAFTA, the Liberals at the time were unwilling to change it, and today they completely embrace it.

Today's zeitgeist is quite different. For example, the Conservatives are particularly weak on issues such as climate change and inequality. They are on the defensive and historically on the wrong side of the argument on both matters. As well, social conservatism on issues such as abortion or LGBTQ rights have transformed it from being an asset for the Conservative Party to being such a handicap in polling that we now see leading party activists lobbying to suppress social conservativism in the current race. And they are being successful. The party recently prohibited social conservative Richard Decarie from being a candidate.

However, the party still tilts right on key issues where their positioning is clearly a long run liability. As the Globe and Mail reported in January:
The key contenders in the Conservative leadership race say they plan to keep fighting the federal carbon tax, if they win the party’s top job. 
While Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole and Marilyn Gladu have tried to distance themselves from other elements of outgoing leader Andrew Scheer’s election campaign, all confirmed to The Globe and Mail that on the carbon tax they agree with Mr. Scheer. 
The Conservatives remain mired in climate change myopia; it will hurt them over time. Cutting taxes such as eliminating the carbon tax is all the Conservatives have to say on inequality. Yet this is an era where public opinion has been moving in the direction of higher taxes for the wealthy.

There is considerable evidence that politics in North America is steadily shifting leftward. You would have no inkling of that if you look the current Tory leadership race.

The current global health crisis also illustrates the weakness of conservatives as they flounder in response. Let's not forget that one of the decisions of the PC Ford government was to cut public health spending.