Monday, November 05, 2018

U.S. Midterms

If entirely conventional benchmarks were what mattered in the U.S. elections on November 6 the current strength of the economy - essentially the pinnacle of the growth cycle that started with Barack Obama's stimulus bill in 2009 - then the Republicans ought to be doing extremely well. In 1998 in the midst of another period of strong economic growth - the roaring nineties as Joseph Stiglitz dubbed them - the Democrats made gains in the House of Representatives despite the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. This happened although off year elections following a presidential re-election are generally likely to damage the incumbent party. Credit may be due Obama for today's economic circumstances, but it is the current incumbent who gets credit or blame for the economy in U.S. politics.

However, Trump has managed to alienate large swathes of the U.S. as he essentially doubles down on the extreme white racism and misogyny that has been hallmark of his administration. It is a source of strength in rural and small town America but a source of weakness in the parts of the U.S. that are urban and diverse.

My overall impression is that this racial/ misogynistic extremism will lead to large Republican losses in urban and suburban areas, while Republicans will be either as strong as before or stronger in more rural communities. We saw this a year ago in the statewide election in Virginia where the Democrats won the Governorship by an unexpectedly large margin - the polls were wrong then,  underestimating the Democrat margin. The Democrats made huge gains in the state legislature almost gaining control. However, when I looked closely at the results I saw that the Republicans had held their own in rural areas. This year the Republicans may well gain a few rural seats in the House of Representatives at the Democrats expense, but that will be more than offset by gains in suburban areas.

In the Senate just one third of the institution is being elected, and strong rural support for Trump in places like North Dakota may keep the Senate under Republican control. We won't know what will happen until after the polls close.

The most interesting and significant Senate race is the one in Texas where the highly successful run by Democrat Beto O'Rourke may fall short in its effort to oust the execrable Republican Ted Cruz. However, it matters in the long term. That is because Texas is already similar to California in having a population composed of a majority of minorities. According to 2016 population estimates 44% of the Texas population is white. Republican control of its politics rests on lower turnout among the 37% of the population that is Hispanic. Population trends in California, now a reliably blue state, preceded Texas. In California the white population is 39%, while black, Asian and Hispanic populations total 59% of the population. Texas is headed this way and a key political indicator was the shift in support for the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton - she shrunk the size of the Democratic loss from 16% for Obama in 2012 to 9% in 2016. O'Rourke has raised a lot of money and is spending on turning out Latinos. There are similar population trends in Arizona and Nevada, two states that may switch from Republican to Democratic Senators this year.

Trump's racism and misogyny is the very opposite of what would serve Republicans in the long-term. According to Pew research there is a large gender gap in party identification with younger women supporting the Democrats by a huge margin. The racial and ethnic shifts in the composition of the American population along with large shifts in party identification and ideology, particularly among younger women, will register in Tuesday's results but the greatest impact of these trends will be felt in the years to come.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Will Doug Ford become a one term Premier?

Normally it would be absurd to pose such a question so early in a new government's term. However, if Doug Ford thought the electorate would submit meekly to his authoritarian ways he must know better than that now. Nonetheless he doesn't have to face the electors for four years.

He keeps talking about his mandate. He conceives of the legitimacy of government in traditional first past the post terms. If you won the most seats regardless of how votes were distributed the voters must like you and the public should defer to any oddball scheme you propose, like disrupting Toronto's civic election to cut the number of councillors on the grounds that there is real money to be saved, and that the existing council is dysfunctional.

On the latter score Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan columnist had it right when he wrote recently, "Whatever obvious dysfunction and gridlock Doug Ford witnessed in his years on Toronto council, he and his brother were the cause of it."

Ford bases his argument on the lack of progress on transit. The only problem, as Keenan points out, is that it is all untrue:
... let’s look for a moment at the talking point often used by Ford and his caucus and defenders: that Toronto city council (somehow because of its size) has been unable to build any transit in the city.
Leave aside a moment that the proposed remedy makes no sense.
The premise, itself, is wrong.
Toronto built lots of transit until the Conservative government of Mike Harris in the 1990s cancelled subway lines that were already under construction (even filling in a tunnel on Eglinton) and simultaneously withdrew all provincial funding for Toronto transit.
Fast forward to the mayoralty of David Miller, when the city council approved, got funding for, and began building the subway extension to York University and Vaughan (which is now open) and the Eglinton Crosstown subway/LRT line (which is still under construction and should open in a few years). He also had approval and funding to build the Sheppard LRT and the Finch LRT and a replacement for the Scarborough RT, all of which would already be open right now ….
Except for one thing.
The premier’s late brother Rob Ford was elected mayor and declared those projects dead.
They proposed a ridiculous transit plan, instead.
The city council they were supposed to lead overruled them. A new plan — a Bloor-Danforth subway extension in Scarborough and some LRT lines — was approved.
Since the Ford brothers left, a bunch of transit projects have been approved in principle or affirmed (including a subway extension and a new subway line), some of them at least partly funded, and work has progressed on them.
No delays.
No back-and-forths.
No gridlock at all.
The other justification is that cutting council seats will cut costs. As I pointed out in my last post the assertions about cost cutting are completely misleading. The savings are trivially small - about the cost of one Tim Horton's extra large coffee per year for each citizen of Toronto.

Our political culture until recently has accepted without question the idea that the party that finishes first is legitimate and has a mandate to govern, but that has been eroding. There is increased pressure for proportional representation - the simple idea that representation in the legislature should closely reflect the partisan distribution of actual voting. In fact, there is yet another referendum underway on this subject in B.C., that province's third in the last 13 years on the issue of proportional representation.

Officially, the Ford PCs captured 40.5% of Ontario's vote in the June 7 election, meaning other parties garnered on overwhelming majority 59.5% of the vote. However, looked at another way the Ontario election's 58% turnout meant that only 23.5% of the electorate as a whole voted for Ford. This kind of data point didn't matter in the past but seems likely to matter more and more in the future. One unusual aspect of this election is that Ford was unpopular when he came into office. On election day Andrea Horwath had a higher approval rating than Ford. Usually the most popular party and leader dovetail, not this time.

Not only does Ford start out behind on the approve/disapprove scale but in the City of Toronto, although tied with the NDP with 11 constituencies won (the Liberals took 3), the Ford PCs received a lower proportion of the vote overall, trailing the NDP by almost four points. Moreover their 32.8% support was a smaller percentage than the 33.7% support Ford won in the 2014 municipal election. Small wonder his midnight madness is not being received well in the city.

A poll from Mainstreet Research reported in the Toronto Star makes it clear this is not a winning issue for Ford:
The polling firm found that 65 per cent of Toronto residents oppose the premier’s move to use the constitutional override clause, with nearly 56 per cent saying they strongly disapprove.
“Make no mistake about it: Doug Ford is on the wrong side of public opinion when it comes to his use of the notwithstanding clause,” Quito Maggi, President and CEO of Mainstreet Research, said in a news release.
Further to the controversial use of the clause, more than 55 per cent of respondents said they disapprove of the decision to eliminate council seats, with 46 per cent saying they strongly disagree.
Ultimately, Ford will be judged not on this but on his overall spending and taxing regime. However, he will encounter major problems along the way including the fact that Ontario is already one of the lowest spending jurisdictions in Canada. He has promised a line-by-line spending review, no doubt hoping to find spending that is the equivalent of paying people to dig ditches and then fill them in. However, he is also no doubt forgetting that we have been through this before. Dalton McGuinty hired TD Bank economist Don Drummond to do essentially the same thing in 2011. As the Toronto Star report on the published review noted "quick fixes and easy savings are notably absent here". 

Ford wants to cut taxes but he will encounter a similar problem in this field. Ontario taxes are already relatively low. It is an imperfect measure but the tables below does give you some idea of Ontario's position. Ontario has among the lowest tax revenues among Canadian provinces relative to the size of its economy. There are many who incorrectly perceive Ontario as a high spending, high tax province. The numbers say otherwise.

Ontario is consistently eighth or ninth on this score.  It is not surprising that former PC leader Patrick Brown supported a carbon tax despite its unpopularity among rank and file Conservatives. He understood that Ontario needed the revenue, something Ford hasn't figured out yet. He is in court arguing the federal government does not have jurisdiction to levy a carbon tax, an effort doomed to failure.

Ford's weakness in the polls was already evident earlier this year. The PCs did better in the polls on average before the election call than after.

The reality is that for the Ontario PCs Ford is a liability and not an asset.

If one examines both the vote overall and among Ontario regions we find that the Ontario NDP gained more support in 2018 in most regions compared to 2014 than did the Conservatives. There were two exceptions - 905 North, the affluent suburbs north of Toronto, and Northern Ontario, where the NDP was already strong in 2014.

Had the PCs stuck with Patrick Brown or selected Christine Elliott winning additional terms would seem likely at this point, not so with Doug Ford.

Already journalist Stephen Maher is speculating in Maclean's that Ford may be leading a one term government. One can only hope his career arc follows that of Alison Redford, whose caucus forced her out as Alberta Premier two years after her PCs won a majority election victory.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Protecting the City of Toronto from Doug Ford

The Ford government lost for a second time in the courts on one of its early and arbitrary initiatives - the downsizing of Toronto City Council. Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward P. Belobaba ruled on September 10 that the Ford government's legislation violated the Charter of Rights.

Here is the most relevant section:

[7] Most people would agree that changing the rules in the middle of the game is
profoundly unfair. The question for the court, however, is not whether Bill 5 is unfair.
The question is whether the enactment of Bill 5 is unconstitutional.
[8] I am acutely aware of the appropriate role of the court in reviewing duly enacted
federal or provincial legislation and the importance of judges exercising judicial
deference and restraint. It is only when a democratically elected government has clearly
crossed the line that the “judicial umpire” should intervene.
[9] The Province has clearly crossed the line.
[10] For the reasons set out below, I find that the Impugned Provisions of Bill 5
substantially interfered with both the candidate’s and the voter’s right to freedom of
expression as guaranteed under section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and

In addition to timing the judge also found that cancelling the new 47 ward system violated the Charter by undermining the right to "meaningful and effective representation".

Regardless, the Ford government's justifications for its actions were seriously deficient. In the news release from the premier on July 27 he claimed that the bill reducing the size of council is "estimated to save Toronto taxpayers more than $25.5 million over four years". Sounds like a lot of money right, millions of dollars. This sort of misleading use of numbers happens all the time so let's examine more closely what is at issue here. First note the over four years qualification. Lets do a little math. Every year as a homeowner in the City of Toronto I pay thousands of dollars in municipal property taxes every year so you would think significant savings should be welcome.

$25 million dollars divided by 4 gives us 6.4 million dollars per year. However, there are 2.9 million citizens in the City of Toronto so the saving for each one of us is only $2.20, about enough to buy an extra large coffee at Tim Horton's once a year. In other words the savings Ford claims are utterly trivial, especially weighed against the steep cost to local democracy.

A Constitutional Amendment to Protect Municipal Democracy

There is something we can do.  The key democratic items in the City of Toronto Act, those relating to the number of wards and elections could be added to the Constitution Act, 1867 by an amendment made under section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which permits the constitution to be amended with the support of the legislature of the province and the federal House of Commons and Senate. Of course the protections could be removed in the same way, but it at least slows down the process. In the past the federal government has enacted amendments only where substantial support for the measure has been demonstrated within the province. In this case, substantial consent should be demonstrated within the city for such a change. In fact, the City Council voted to oppose the change and a recent poll found a clear majority of those making a choice were opposed.

As the recent controversy has illustrated the Ford government is prone to act impulsively and arbitrarily.  Municipal institutions are entirely with provincial jurisdiction but enacting the amendment suggested above would at least grant a small degree of constitutional protection to the citizenry as voters in municipal elections. Hopefully it would become a symbol no government would mess with.

The court decision today was welcome, but it could have gone the other way. It will take at least four years to get a provincial government sympathetic to the idea of enacting constitutional protection for municipal democracy, but building support for the idea should begin now.

Ford reacted by saying he will overturn the decision using the notwithstanding clause. This is utterly capricious. The notwithstanding clause is a blunt instrument and should only be reserved for extreme cases. It seems to me this strengthens the case for a constitutional amendment such as the one described above. The Ford government clearly needs restraint.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Ontario election near the finish line: Can strategic voting put the NDP over the top?

When the Ontario campaign got underway it appeared the PCs were headed for an out-sized majority. They stumbled, largely because they are led by an unctuous idiot. The Wynne Liberals, as I noted in an earlier post, never had a chance, a fact that Wynne recently, and for some bizarre reason, candidly acknowledged.

It is the NDP that clearly poses a challenge to the PCs but even with the late breaking family finances scandal most polling suggests the Conservatives should eke out a victory. There are no shortage of seat predictions, but all, including my own, are likely to suffer because of the massive shift in the political landscape from 2014. I have developed a modified version of my seat prediction model that alters how I calculate the number of NDP seats. I call it the NDP Strategic Voting Model.

First, here are recent public polls, released since the beginning of June:

A slight advantage to the Conservatives but still close. Most of these individual polls put the PCs ahead. However, Abacus Data is an outlier and has the NDP up by four. 

So what does all this mean in seats?  Let us look first at what the polling average in the table above (PCs ahead by 0.7 of a percentage point) would produce using my conventional model and then with the NDP strategic calculation.

The point of the NDP strategic model is that it takes the concentrated NDP support from last time and spreads it around more evenly.  I believe some version of this effect will occur.

So what would we get if the Abacus Poll has it right that it is the NDP that leads (note there is always some poll closer to the actual result than the average). Here the impact of the NDP Strategic Voting Model is more profound.

The Abacus poll if it proves accurate would, by my estimate, produce a PC minority using a conventional calculation, but a comfortable NDP majority (based on a four point lead in the popular vote don't forget) if we use the NDP Strategic Voting Model. The model of course is neat and symmetrical. In the real world strategic voting is likely to be messy and idiosyncratic.  Many voters will be baffled trying to figure out what they should do to oppose the Tories. The NDP Strategic Voting Model calculates that the PCs have a one and a half point structural advantage - the NDP would need a lead of that amount to get ahead of the PCs (others suggest they would need something larger).

All this serves to illustrate just how uncertain things are in Ontario at the moment. One correspondent suggests we rename it Peyton Place. He has a point! A majority in the new legislature is 63 seats. It now looks like we will have to wait until the polls close to know what party (or parties) will form government post June 7.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wynne's unpopularity and the economy

A key feature of this campaign is the unpopularity of the Wynne Liberals; they have become the unacceptable alternative, making the effective choice between the Doug Ford PCs and Andrea Horwath's NDP. Why? A principal reason is that the Ontario Liberals have been in office a long time. It happens to all governments and the Liberals have been in office in Ontario for almost fifteen years. Grievances accumulate, sharpen and deepen even to the point of being exaggerated as I think now is the case. Most of the issue grievances had their origins in the McGuinty government (with the exception of the privatization of Hydro One, a key Wynne initiative) but she takes the blame. However, economic factors (as discussed below) have also contributed to Liberal woes.

A similar phenomenon happened in Alberta in 2015; a variation of it looks like it will happen to the Quebec Liberals this year.

In the case of  Ontario, underlying this malaise are economic conditions that, despite the strong performance of the last two years, have created discontent.

This chart, adapted from Statistics Canada data, tells a part of the story. It measures growth in median incomes from 2005 to 2015 among the provinces and Ontario finishes dead last. This chart was also discussed recently in the Globe and Mail in the context of the election.

There are a couple of reasons for this outcome. Ontario was extremely hard hit by the deep downturn in the U.S. economy in 2008. That was followed by a high exchange rate that did not drop consistently below 80 cents U.S. until July 2015. Weak overall growth was characteristic for much of the period post 2008. In addition, job growth has been very uneven, as the Globe article cited above noted:
Over the past decade, Ontario has created 580,000 new positions, as measured by the increase in employed people. Metro Toronto, which accounts for less than half of the province’s population, nabbed 80 per cent of those jobs. Ottawa accounts for another 10 per cent. The rest of Ontario, with millions of people from Cornwall to Thunder Bay, accounts for the remaining 10 per cent.
Not surprisingly the Liberals are taking it on the chin, particularly in non-metropolitan parts of the province.

This is not the only time that the economy, which is only partially influenced by Ontario government policy, but whose overall strength is strongly tied to the North American and international economies, has played a decisive role in provincial politics.

The Bob Rae NDP government did make some unwise decisions, but their political fate was sealed from day one because the economy had already started down the road to the deep recession that was to plague them throughout their term before they were even elected. By contrast the Mike Harris PC government was elected just as a strong recovery in North America was beginning to take hold led by the United States. Nobel prize-winning economist and advisor to Bill Clinton, Joseph Stiglitz wrote a compelling book about that decade's economic growth - its title, The Roaring Nineties. On top of the strong U.S. growth the Canadian dollar declined throughout the nineties adding to Ontario's competitive advantage. That did not stop the Harris Tories from thinking it was them. In effect they were born on third base, but thought they hit a triple.

So what should we expect going forward? In the U.S. the recovery from the 2008-2009 downturn is nearing record length and I think we may be seeing the first hints of a negative outlook.  From the Calculated Risk blog a quote from a Merrill Lynch economics research note:
If bad luck intersects with bad policy, a recession becomes a real risk. We would keep a particularly close eye on two traditional business-cycle killers-the Fed response to stronger-than-expected inflation in the US and a growing shortage of oil, pushing prices to new heights.
Perhaps the 2018 Ontario election is not one you want to win.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The most accurate poll was....

Mainstreet Research (a firm not around for the 2014 Ontario election) is beginning a daily tracking poll today, so with three weeks to go in the campaign we should expect to see this and the results of many other surveys.

There will be much said good and bad about individual polls in this campaign. However, one hard piece of information we do have is how the polling companies performed in 2014.

After it was over I compared the polls conducted in the last week of the 2014 campaign with the results on election day. I calculated the difference between each party's share of the vote and the final public polls, then added them up to get the big picture.

Here are the numbers as I first reported the them in 2014 ranked by total error, the top table looks at just the top three parties, the bottom table all parties:

In addition to the above there was a Nanos poll published about two and a half weeks before election day that ended up being the most accurate. It was excluded from this analysis because of its timing. You will note with all the red that the polls then mostly underestimated Liberal support. That kind of pattern could easily emerge this time, but with some other party's support being understated. The most accurate poll from the last election could change this year and the shift could be significant. To take another example from federal politics, between the 2011 and 2015 federal elections Angus Reid went from most accurate to least.

The 2014 polls were more or less accurate although you could not tell clearly from the closing polls that the Liberals were definitely headed for a majority.

When it comes to policies and complex matters requiring good judgement, polls can make large errors. A recent Ipsos poll makes the argument that Ontarians prefer spending cuts (71%) to running deficits (17%) or raising taxes (12%) as budget policy. Piffle.  For most voters the term "spending" is a difficult to understand abstraction. Substitute the words "less health care and education" for "spending" and see what you get.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Strategic voting in the 1999 Ontario election failed to defeat the PCs. Can it work in 2018?

Two Ontario Elections

The Mike Harris PC government went to the polls on June 3, 1999, having been elected to a majority government in June 1995.  One striking curiosity about the two election results is that the Tories won just as great a vote share in 1999 as in 1995 but their share of seats in the legislature was smaller. They garnered 63.1 percent of the legislative seats in 1995, 57.3 percent  in 1999 - a consequence of strategic voting. I drafted a 17-page paper on the topic after the election. I discuss some of my conclusions below.

Two Ontario Elections, 1999 & 1995 

Ontario Election
June 3, 1999


Seats - In %

Ontario Election
June 8, 1995

In %
Seats - In %

The PCs had made a lot of enemies by 1999 - teachers, nurses, trade unionists, residents of Toronto, etc. The issues made strategic voting a theme of the election even though it was largely avoided by the parties themselves. Several strategic voting organizations inserted themselves into the campaign regardless. I think their impact was minimal to non-existent, but their mere presence reflected the real grassroots consciousness of strategic voting that had developed. That consciousness did have an impact.

In eight ridings where PC candidates were defeated, strategic voting appears to be the key factor which accounts for the outcome.  Of the eight PC losses, one was to a New Democrat, the other seven to Liberals.

It was not enough to change government. Simply put, about 45 percent was too close to 50 for the combination of opposition votes to achieve the objective of preventing a PC majority. But there were also nine 'near misses' or outright strategic voting 'failures' that, if they had gone the other way, would have left the government holding less than half the legislature.

Strategic voting demonstrated real potential.

Can strategic voting play a significant role in the 2018 election?

I think the answer is yes. However, what will determine its success will be the level of support for the Conservatives.  As the 1999 outcome demonstrated if the Conservative vote is high enough strategic voting, which will inevitably be imperfect, won't succeed. The current PC average in the CBC poll tracker is 41.1 percent and they have a large lead over the NDP currently in second place. Even so, Doug Ford, like his brother before him, is a deeply divisive figure. If anything, he is even more likely than Mike Harris to trigger a coalescing of opposition forces into a strategic vote that could finally succeed this year. To me a strategic voting success in this context is one where a relatively high PC vote is overcome by strategic voting. If PC support collapses (as it did in the 2015 federal election) that is a different phenomenon.

In the eight ridings where strategic voting worked in 1999 the winning percentage ranged from a low of 44.4 percent to 50.6 percent.  The losing PC candidates in all but one case obtained more than 40 percent. That is what we should expect to see if strategic motivation brings opposition voters together around one candidate.

Recent polls suggest it may be the NDP this year that plays the role of appropriate strategic alternative overall. That would mean a dramatic departure from the voting patterns of 2014. NDP support then was uneven, very weak in some places, much stronger in others. To be successful the NDP vote would have rise dramatically in some regions where they were weak last time, taking over from the Liberals the role of principal opponent to the Conservatives. It would have to have a wave like character, certainly a possibility.

A shift of this magnitude would make it difficult to predict individual ridings. My seat forecasting model did not project the 1999 outcome accurately because the pattern of voting changed greatly from 1995. It would be the same this time compared to 2014, not just for my efforts but for others as well.

The turnout last time was low. It would not surprise me if Ford Nation motivated quite a few new voters to turn out for the first time to support them. Intense dislike of Ford could do the same on the other side of the equation.

I will have more on strategic voting in subsequent posts.

*As a footnote the term 'strategic' is not really the precise terminology, 'tactical' would be better but I use the more commonly employed language here and will continue to do so.