Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Fourth Term Problem

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to Liberal success in this campaign is the simple fact that they are seeking a fourth term. In recent decades with but a few exceptions, Canadians have tended to get fed up with the party in power, generally after two terms, but almost always by the time a party is seeking a fourth term. This applies to both federal and provincial governments.

There was a time, roughly the period after World War II until the 70’s, when it was quite common for governments to win multiple consecutive majorities. At the federal level the 22-year King-St. Laurent era from 1935 to 1957 won five consecutive majorities before falling to the Diefenbaker Tories in 1957. Between 1963 and 1979, the Liberals finished first five consecutive times, but won only two majorities (in 1968 and 1974). Since then the Liberals had a one-term government in 1980, the Mulroney era was two terms, and now the Liberals have won three majorities.

However, it is now barely more than ten years since Chrétien was first elected and the circumstances that produced his three majorities were unusual. His opponents in English Canada were weakened by divisions on the right, and unpopular provincial NDP governments in B.C. and Ontario on the left, plus less than sterling leadership of the federal opposition parties. In Quebec, support for the BQ was strong in 1993 but began to erode after election of the PQ provincially in 1994. My conclusion is simply that whatever his virtues as a political leader, which were considerable, he was one lucky petit gar de Shawinigan.

Now the right is united, the left reinvigorated, and the PQ out of office in Quebec. On top of it all the sponsorship scandal has acted as a symbol of the need for change that is fed naturally by the passage of time.

The Provinces
Except for Newfoundland and Alberta (and just recently Saskatchewan), there have been no new four term governments elected in Canada since the defeat of the PC dynasty in Ontario in 1985.

The Exceptions:
1. Alberta has had small ‘c’ conservative government since 1935, with a switch from Social Credit to Progressive Conservatives in 1971, but it is a virtual one-party state.

2. The Saskatchewan government first elected in 1991 won re-election last fall to a fourth term by a very narrow margin (two constituencies and 5%) over an opponent, the Saskatchewan Party, because the Saskatchewan Party was too strongly rooted in rural Saskatchewan, and unable to secure enough urban votes to win.

3. Newfoundland has been governed by multi-term administrations since entering Confederation in 1949.

The Others
In the period just preceding and the 30 to 40 years after World War II there were several multi-term provincial governments:

1. The CCF in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas won five consecutive majority governments, governing between 1944 and 1964.
2. The Liberal-Progressives in Manitoba won seven majorities (partly as a coalition) between 1922 and 1958.
3. The Ontario Tories governed for 43 years from 1943 to 1985, including winning seven consecutive majorities between 1945 and 1971.
4. In B.C. W.A.C. Bennett won six consecutive majorities and one minority while governing from 1952 to 1972.
5. In Quebec, the Union Nationale won four consecutive majorities, governing from 1944 to 1960.
6. In New Brunswick, Richard Hatfield won four majorities, governing between 1970 and 1987.
7. In Nova Scotia, the PC’s won four consecutive majorities beginning in 1978, leaving office in 1993.
8. In P.E.I. the Liberals won six majorities commencing in 1935, finally being defeated in 1959. They then won four more majorities between 1966 and 1979.

The contrast is clear, multi-term governments were once the norm in Canada but are no longer. The task of satisfying the electorate and keeping the opposition at bay has clearly become a much more difficult task. Mr. Martin faces a significant challenge simply from the appetite for changing government after a few terms that now seems to prevail in Canada.

The First Week

A Star-Ekos poll released on Friday, May 28 suggests a close race with a weak Liberal minority. My seat count is Liberal – 126, Cons. – 97, NDP – 32, BQ – 53.
When the poll respondent’s second choices are requested, Ekos found that the NDP was in first place at 22% followed by the Conservatives at 20%. The second choice preferences strongly imply minority government.

The pollster believes that a substantial negative impact from the Liberal budget in Ontario on May 18 is a key explanatory factor. This could be. Ekos asked questions about the Ontario budget but hasn’t reported the results yet. But Ekos pollster Frank Graves said: "Ontarians are furious with Dalton McGuinty and his budget. They're looking for someone to get,"

The Liberals
I thought that during the first week of the campaign the Liberals ran the best campaign. They were quick to establish their key campaign theme – that they will reform and protect Medicare – and they consistently hammered away at it. The attacks of their opponents – mainly that Martin cut health care as Finance Minister – had some bite, but swing voters are mostly those who won’t remember the details about budgets a decade ago and, to some extent, will be confused by it all. This, at least, is what the Liberals hope. There is a fair bit of media commentary. However, it appears the Liberals have yet to do anything that will yield a recovery in Quebec, so minority government still looms. It is worth remembering that the last time the Liberals won a majority of francophone constituencies in Quebec was 1980, nearly 25 years ago.

All in all though, it was a generally good week for the Liberals. Their weakness in the Ekos poll released on May 28 shouldn’t be seen in my view as a contradiction as polls seem to me to have a lag effect. They tend to measure the impact of earlier events. This is one reason that last minute news, even if it is dramatic, tends not to affect election outcomes.

It takes time for campaign strategy and tactics to pay off. My comments here are only about the way I perceive the execution of campaign structure and strategy. The Liberals appeared to be very effective in establishing a cohesive theme for their campaign. At the end of a week focusing on health care they returned to the cities theme. A handful of key policies under an overarching theme are what parties try to achieve in an election campaign. The Liberals seem to be doing this effectively in week one.

The media is hostile to the Liberals, however, and is giving a great deal of play to the genuine hostility in reaction to the McGuinty budget. Anecdotally, I was also told by a Conservative canvasser in a suburban riding that there he encountered a lot of anger at the door and ABL sentiment – Anybody But (the) Liberals. A Liberal source confirms the antagonism to the budget. However, Martin’s record in this area is very strong – promising a balanced budget “come hell or high water”, and then delivering. There ought to be enough time for damage from this problem to be significantly reduced. However, I do see it as evidence of the fourth term problem.

The Conservatives
In week one the NDP and Conservatives used a more scattershot approach with the Tories emphasizing scandal (their big promise at the end of the week was to extend the powers of the Auditor-General). The Conservatives conceded their weakness in Quebec and Atlantic Canada by touring Eastern Canada in the first few days. Expect to see limited appearances there from now on. In Atlantic Canada, the Ekos Poll, once I convert the regional results to ridings, would give the Liberals 31 seats and the NDP 1 with the Tories being shut out.

The Conservatives were never going to do well in Quebec but the critique of federal bilingualism by their constitutional critic, Scott Reid, on May 27, despite Harper’s subsequent repudiation, has sealed their fate. Quebeckers already perceived the Conservatives this way and this type of “admission” can potentially be perceived as more real than the party’s official position. It could also be damaging to the Conservatives in Ontario.

The Stephen Harper charisma deficit is clearly still there. The title of a Chantal Hébert column this week was: Watching paint dry with Harper.

I thought the NDP had the weakest campaign. To be successful, any election campaign needs a cohesive theme to establish an answer to the ballot question:
“So why are you voting NDP?” and the answer of “I’m voting NDP because…” simply isn’t there. Their overall approach is too scattershot and Layton probably hurt himself somewhat with the homelessness comment ("Deaths due to homelessness in this city took a rapid rise immediately after Paul Martin cancelled the affordable housing program….”). More on this below.

The NDP has the following quote on its website This campaign is about who listens to you and who will make positive choices to build a green and prosperous country where no one is left behind. Ho-hum. Useful rhetoric for a speech perhaps, but not a campaign theme or a simple, cogent reason to vote NDP on election day. By contrast, Liberal voters can say: “I am going to vote Liberal because Paul Martin will protect health care.” Conservatives can say: “I’m voting for Stephen Harper because he is the only one who will cut taxes and reduce government waste.” What is the equivalent for the NDP? At the moment, it is not there.

Layton’s Remarks on Homelessness
One of Jack Layton’s faults is a proclivity for hyperbole. Clearly it was on display here. One of his virtues is an ability to learn from mistakes. If he read the papers or watched or listened to the news the day after his commotion caused by his comments, he would see that he needs to discipline himself better in the future. I noticed that his second day rhetoric was muted even while officially he clung to his position.

Even if the core facts are true, he left the impression that Paul Martin was very personally responsible for the deaths of the homeless by cutting affordable housing funding. Layton could easily have simply critiqued him for cutting the funding at a time when low vacancy rates and rising homelessness made that a callous decision, without appearing to be unfair. Now the appearance of unfairness has distracted from his message.

By coincidence, I concluded last summer that there was an increase in deaths among the homeless beginning around 1995. There is a plaque outside a church in downtown Toronto that I chanced upon. It recorded the deaths of the homeless by year beginning in 1991. After studying it for a few minutes I was struck by the rising incidence of deaths among the homeless recorded there after 1995. I concluded that the most likely cause was the sharp cut in welfare rates by the Harris government in July of 1995. This caused a significant drop in real income among the poorest in Toronto at a time when the rental vacancy rate was 1.2% and falling. Following the rate cut, the Harris government tightened eligibility requirements, another factor that could well have contributed to the rise in homelessness.

With respect to housing and Paul Martin, I think Layton’s remark was just partisan claptrap. In fact, building any affordable housing project is a long, complex, process that can take years. Any impact from the Martin decision could only have appeared years later, and any evaluation of the impact is obscured by the need to analyze other developments in the housing market and other changes, whereas the impact of the welfare policy shift was direct and quick. My impression at the time as well was that there was a rapid rise, after the welfare changes, of panhandling on Toronto streets, a factor likely associated with homelessness.

Conclusion: None of this matters much. The first week of a campaign is like the fall of 1939: a phony war. Only the most politically committed are paying much attention and most of them already have firm political commitments so what happened positively and negatively is much less important that what is to come.

Monday, May 24, 2004

The Conservatives' electoral math

In assessing the Conservatives prospects it is useful to look at the numbers from the 1988 election, the last time a party with Conservative in the name won a majority.

No matter what else happens this time the Conservatives are highly unlikely to win a single seat in Quebec. In 1988 they won 43% nationwide and 53% in Quebec. If the Conservatives reach or exceed 32% this time they will have done as well or better than the Conservatives in 1988 with the exception of Quebec which added about 11% to the PC total then – about what the Bloc gets now.

This means that they are trying to win a majority with two hands tied behind their back. They can win a bare majority only if they repeat the Mulroney 1984 experience in English Canada – by winning the equivalent of a landslide outside Quebec.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Pre-election Outlook

The federal election is about to be called for June 28. In this note I will briefly outline my overview of how it might go and provide some polling statistics you won’t see elsewhere. My view is that the media has, since the sponsorship scandal broke, been endeavouring to construct a simple narrative that sees the election as a gladiatorial contest between Martin and Harper. The problem with this is that the Conservatives are non-existent in Quebec and very weak in Atlantic Canada, and running far behind their performance in the 2000 election (as the Alliance and the PC’s combined) elsewhere. To win a majority I estimate they would need to win about 140-145 seats, about 70% of the total west of the Ottawa River. The media have been saying over and over that Stephen Harper is underestimated (the latest example can be found in Graham Fraser's column in the Sunday May 23 Toronto Star), which means, because the media keep saying it, that the exact opposite is true – he is by no means being underestimated.

I view the appropriate question about the campaign as: Will the Liberals be able to win a majority? My own intuition is that it will be exceedingly difficult and, in fact, unlikely. To do so they must recover in Quebec. This appears improbable at the moment, but I have always found Quebec politics difficult to read and have been surprised many times in the past. One thing that might be a consideration in Quebec voting is the de-merger referendums scheduled for June 21st. There are going to be quite a few. However, it is unclear today what the impact might be, and which party might benefit.

If the Liberals flame out like John Turner in 1984 the Conservatives could win the most seats but a majority is almost certainly out of reach. I have thought for a long time that the national media has been underestimating the NDP. Yes, they see them returning to a traditional level of support, 18% or so in the polls, about 20 seats in the House of Commons but they sort of dismiss them with a yawn.

The NDP's support in the polls has averaged 17% over the past couple of months but when I convert the polls of the past couple of weeks to seat numbers I calculate they would win on average roughly 29 seats. In addition, the numbers on leadership when available tell me that large numbers of voters still don’t know much about Jack Layton. I think the NDP could quite possibly increase their support to greater than 20% (their previous high) during the campaign, particularly if Martin performs poorly. And a strong showing by the NDP will have a critical bearing on whether or not the Liberals can form a majority government, and whether any two parties can form a majority if the Conservatives are able to win more seats than the Liberals. The media ought to have been paying more attention to the NDP. However the media rules for balanced campaign coverage mean the NDP will henceforth be more or less on an equal footing with the other parties. Plus the party appears to be competitive in terms of money for advertising.

Much of the fluctuation in the polls in recent months in my view is just so much statistical noise. I actually think changes since February have been marginal.

The National Post and the Globe have made much of the McGuinty budget affecting support in their polls for the Liberals. They both have them at 42% but one (Compas) has the Conservatives at 39% (which is inconsistent with all previous polling) while the Reid has the Tories at 28%. Clearly, someone is wrong.

I have created a weighted average of the recent polls (since April 1) in the table below including the Saturday May 22 Reid poll and the new CROP poll in Quebec (which is far more likely to be accurate than Reid about the Quebec numbers.)

April-May Average National and Regional Polls Province...Lib....Cons...NDP...BQ...Green...Oth...Total...Sample...MoE


When I apply these numbers to my seat generator I get the following outcome:
Liberal - 158, Conservatives - 69, NDP - 28, BQ- 53. A bare majority is 155 so it is clear that the Liberals were (during this period)just over the line. Contrary to the findings in the Ipsos-Reid poll published in Saturday's Globe, I find the following seat totals Liberal-141, Conservatives-76, NDP-30, BQ-61.

Pre-election Polls Compared to Final ResultsOne phenomenon of previous campaigns has been that the Liberals lose support during the campaign. This happened, for example, in the 2000 election. This time the Liberals start from a weaker position than four years ago, so it is more likely they are closer to their base vote and any drop-off will be smaller. It is worth noting that the drop-off for the Liberals appeared to be greater in the West than the East (except in Atlantic Canada where pre-election polling had the Liberals very high. Could it happen again? Yes, and if the pattern repeats itself, a Liberal minority would result.

Comparison Pre-campaign Polls Compared to Final 2000 Results

This table compares polls from late September to the election call in the third week in October to the final official results.

My conclusion: fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a wild ride.