Sunday, May 28, 2006

Blogs, Politics and Media

Blogging has become one of the most important political and media developments of the 21st century. It is beginning to have a profound importance on American politics (although not in Canada as yet in my view). An acknowledgement of this latter fact can be found in the article in the May 28 New York Times Magazine by Matt Bai about Yearly Kos, a convention of the liberal blogosphere sponsored by the blog Daily Kos, about which the Bai article notes:

Barely four years after Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, a former American soldier who grew up in El Salvador and Chicago, started Daily Kos from his home in Berkeley, Calif., the site is now less a blog than a civic phenomenon. With some 600,000 visitors a day, Daily Kos reaches more Americans — albeit like-minded Americans — than all but a handful of the largest daily newspapers.

Bai goes on in the article to be airily dismissive of its importance, but as a journalist in the traditional world of the mainstream media he misses the obvious point about the internet: it reduces the costs of information (networking, organizing, staying in touch, communicating laterally) to almost zero. And that has profound implications. The Howard Dean campaign demonstrated its fund raising potential but blogs are also a important political and media phenomenon, influencing opinion and delivering new forms of accountability.

I think Bai is also threatened by the democratization of media that blogging represents. There is an excellent discussion of blogging and media here in the blog of the American Prospect, which argues the following:

It’s often observed that the blogosphere constitutes a threat to big news orgs. But it’s not a threat only for the usual reasons mentioned -- competition for traffic, the speeding up of the news cycle, etc. Bloggers are also a threat because they're in the process of making the opinion-generating profession a purely meritocratic one.

Blogging is in its infancy. Daily Kos started up only in 2002. Despite the impacts of the past few years, it is likely that blogging's greatest impact has yet to be seen.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Nova Scotia Election Poll

A Corporate Research Associates poll was released in Nova Scotia this week, the first of the election campaign. It reported the following:

PC - 34
L - 30
NDP - 27

The poll if it were precisely accurate would give the PCs exactly 26 seats in the 52 seat legislature.

The poll elicited the usual media response of Tories down, Liberals up etc. compared to the previous poll released in March which had the following results:

PC - 36
L - 27
NDP - 29

In fact the results are all within the margin of error and indicated no change. Nova Scotia has a close, competitive three party system. I suspect the default option is a Conservative minority at the moment but the campaign, when the system is this competitive, is all important.

My impression to date is that not much has happened. There comes a point usually midway when a campaign develops a clear dynamic. It is not there yet.

The only part of the poll I found truly intriguing were the leader evaluations:

Macdonald (PC) - 33
Dexter (NDP) - 29
Mackenzie (Lib) -16

This does confirm my earlier impression from afar that the Liberals have weak leader. However, not everyone agrees, especially some Liberals. See the second last paragraph here for a contrary view.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Harper and the Mulroney Coalition

In two items in the May 23rd editions of the Globe and National Post, the narrative about a coming Harper majority based on breakthroughs in Quebec is once again articulated.

In the Globe Harper advisor Tom Flanagan suggests the coalition was outlined in a Stephen Harper speech 10 years ago:

“Mr. Harper marshalled historical evidence to show that all winning Conservative coalitions in 20th-century Canadian history had been built around three main elements: populist reformers, strongest in the West but also present in rural Ontario; traditional Tories, strong in Ontario and Atlantic Canada; and francophone nationalists in Quebec. “

The problem with this generalization is that there are only three cases and this fact alone makes generalizing problematic. One case, Borden’s victory in 1911, came prior to the World War I conscription crisis, which so defined Quebec politics in the 20th century, and should therefore be excluded. Flanagan’s argument does not accurately describe Diefenbaker’s 1958 sweep. Dief won Quebec votes based on the Quebec electorate wanting a share of power in an election where the outcome was generally known in advance. However, he was not at all successful in Quebec in 1957, 1963 and 1965. The unilingual Diefenbaker simply did not build a coalition with Quebec nationalists (although he received some support from the Union Nationale). Only Mulroney built the coalition Harper/Flanagan describe, sustaining it through two elections, and it always had the potential to disintegrate in the way it did in 1993 because the values of his western supporters and those in Quebec, while similar on free trade, were polar opposites on language and national unity issues. It does not have the potential to be a formula to make the Conservatives a “natural governing party” as suggested by Mr. Flanagan. Quebec might buy into Conservative decentralization but it rejects the rest of the package.

The big difference between today and 1984 is that there was no nationalist party in Quebec that stood between Mulroney and those nationalist votes. Now we have the Bloc Quebecois. Pro-independence nationalist parties have commanded thirty-nine percent or more of the Quebec vote, federally and provincially, since 1993 and 1976 respectively with the single exception of the Quebec provincial election in 2003 when the PQ received 33%, losing some soft nationalist votes to the ADQ.

The other obstacle facing Conservatives in Quebec are that province’s values. Whether it is Kyoto, Afghanistan or gay marriage, there are a host of issues where the Harper Conservatives are at odds with the views of a large majority of Quebeckers.

An Ipsos-Reid poll out May 23 is headlined as saying the Conservatives would win a majority if an election were held today. And indeed T.C. Norris’ forecast model agrees it would give the Harper Conservatives a majority of about 175 seats. But it is not based on gains in Quebec.

But in today’s National Post story on the poll we find the Quebec-as-source-of-majority narrative continuing:

“Basically what's happening is that Stephen Harper is recreating the Brian Mulroney majority," Ipsos Reid president Darrell Bricker said in an interview.
"And the way he is doing that is by breaking through in the province of Quebec. It's very much that kind of coalition -- Quebec and the West."

I think Mr. Bricker should study carefully the results of his own poll because it gives the Conservatives their greatest gains in B.C., Ontario and Atlantic Canada. That is where the majority is created. Indeed the Conservatives are in first place everywhere except Quebec. The Conservatives are up in Quebec, but they still trail the BQ and would pick up only six seats according to my model.

I think Harper could win a majority if an election were held today, but if he is going to do so, then this poll tells us it is likely to be outside Quebec. Harper needs significant gains especially in Ontario and Atlantic Canada plus smaller gains in B.C., combined with a more modest advance in Quebec, to win his majority.

This poll has a sample size of only 1,000 and therefore the regional numbers are suspect due to very high margins of error. To take just one example, the Ipsos poll says the NDP are at 11% in Ontario while two weeks ago, the SES poll had the NDP at 24% in the province. The SES poll would produce a strengthened Conservative minority of 139 seats, but nowhere near a majority.

The Ipsos poll also was taken prior to the Kyoto flare-up, and the Afghanistan vote and Gwyn Morgan fiascos, so it probably reflects the positive media around the budget, but not the more recent bad news days for the Conservatives.

The overall total for the Conservatives of 43% has a margin of error of ± 3.1% meaning it could be less than 40% and still be within the margin of error. The range of 40-43% is really in the area somewhere between majority and minority, so one cannot say for sure that this is the result the poll actually forecasts. I would say that a poll giving the Conservatives 45% is highly likely but not certain to predict a majority (given the margin of error).

Will our pundits notice the weakness and ambiguity of this week’s majority assertions? Since they seem incapable of noticing that Quebec is the one place where the Conservatives don’t have a lead, I don’t hold out much hope.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Republican Troubles

There is now a growing recognition that the Republicans are in deep political trouble, a train wreck in slow motion as I have previously characterized it. Normally, what we are seeing will produce a dramatic political sea change, greater than the prognosticators typically foresee. There is a good summary of the changing landscape at the Emerging Democratic Majority web site. I would say we are headed for Democratic control of both the House and the Senate. I do not underestimate Republican cleverness and there are many months to go, but the key issues, the war and corruption, are now out of their control.

It must not be forgotten that the current House of Representatives is gerrymandered in favour of the Republicans. My forecast model calculates their advantage as being about eight percent. That means the Democrats must have a total vote at least eight points ahead of the Republicans to win a bare majority in the House. I suspect it would work out to slightly less but the disadvantage remains regardless. However, look at the spread in all the recent polls on the generic Congressional ballot. With one exception, the Democrats are 10 points or more ahead.

In 2004 the Republicans were three per cent ahead in the House of Representatives.

Is there anything the Republicans can do? Say gay bashing?

Frank Rich, in a column in Sunday’s New York Times, (you need a subscription to see the whole thing) cites a most interesting poll number:

“The number of Americans who "strongly oppose" same-sex marriage keeps dropping — from 42 percent two years ago to 28 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center…” The poll details show there is a clear trend on this.

This issue was a critical tool for the Republicans just two years ago, but this poll suggests that those who feel strongly about it, and therefore for whom it could motivate voting behaviour, are declining precipitously.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Luntz Kerfuffle

There was a bit of a blogosphere blow-up last week around the fact that Montreal Gazette reporter Elizabeth Thompson managed to eavesdrop (by standing in a hotel lobby, a very public place) on a speech by Republican polling guru Frank Luntz. It was well covered in Antonia Zerbisias’s blog here and here.

Elizabeth Thompson posted the whole transcript on her blog.

Here is the quote (from her original story as quoted by Antonia) that interested me:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government should do its best over the coming year to dig up embarrassing information on the former Liberal administration and portray it as corrupt, a prominent Republican pollster counselled an influential group of Conservatives yesterday.

Speaking a day after meeting with Mr. Harper, Frank Luntz described the Conservatives as allies of the Republicans and urged them to discredit the Liberals so thoroughly that it will be years before they make it back into power.

Luntz confronts a dilemma in Canada. All the usual despicable bag of tricks available to Republicans – eg, constitutional amendments against gay marriage, etc – just aren’t available in Canada. Our social values aren’t the same. So, what does he recommend – why another run at a scandal that pales in contrast to the multiple instances of corruption and criminality south of the border. I would say that advice wasn’t worth the air fare but it does tell us that the Conservatives don’t have much to run against in the next election. They just might have to stand or fall on their record.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Harper's Policy on Climate Change

The anti-Kyoto policy of Harper, while still professing concern over global warming, is a joke.

Its similarity to Bush's approach strikes me as no coincidence. This excellent commentary in the Star by Simon Donner is worth reading by one and all.

Monday, May 15, 2006

When nothing goes right

I keep seeing little signs all the time that the Republicans may be heading for an electoral bloodbath in November.

Here is Pat Robertson, former Republican presidential candidate, offering up another:

From Political Wire's Quote of the Day:

"This is our government at work, and unfortunately it is run by Republicans."

-- Rev. Pat Robertson, quoted by the Manassas Journal Messenger.

Nova Scotia Election

A provincial election has been called in Nova Scotia for June 13. Nova Scotia Tories selected Rodney Macdonald (a politico who can really sing and dance) as their new Premier in February and now are seeking to cash in on his perceived popularity. A poll conducted just after the leadership convention reported results indicating the party has a good chance of winning a majority.

Indeed if the Corporate Research Associates poll is applied to my seat forecaster it gives the following:

PC – 31

NDP – 14

L – 7

However, the spread in the poll was actually somewhat close:

PC – 36%

NDP – 29%

L – 27%

It would not take much movement to turn the majority into another minority in Nova Scotia, which has elected a couple of minority legislatures during the past decade.

The party that on the face of it looks like it should be worried is the Liberals. The new Premier, who seems to be popular personally, comes from the Liberal stronghold of Cape Breton. It is my impression is that the new Liberal leader, Francis Mackenzie, is less attractive than Danny Graham, the man he replaced (and who had to resign due to an illness in the family).

There may therefore be an opportunity for the NDP. Assuming the NDP doesn’t win, if the Liberals were to wind up a distant third it could position the NDP, which continues to do well in Halifax but has only spotty support elsewhere, to be the logical alternative to the PC government The PCs will be vulnerable next time as they would then be seeking a fourth term (assuming they win in June).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kennedy and High Park

Gerard Kennedy is about to resign his provincial seat. He has been getting pressured by the provincial opposition, who according to this report in the Toronto Star think they might be able to win a by-election. This would be more likely true of the NDP than the Conservatives.

In this context, it is worth looking at the Liberal performance in the three by-elections (in Toronto-Danforth, Nepean-Carleton and Whitby-Ajax) held March 30. They were all made necessary by departures of three MPPs who contested federal constituencies in the recent federal election.

Although they lost all three, the Liberal performance was in marked contrast to their performance in three earlier contests. They did much, much better this time. Don’t forget that these were all ridings the Liberals lost in 2003.

However, a variation on my forecasting model can generate a province-wide estimate from a single by-election. Averaging the three March 30 by-elections we find the Liberals would have had an estimated 50.4%, the Conservatives 30.8% and the NDP 16.6% if they were translated into a province-wide outcome. For the three earlier by-elections, the comparable numbers are Liberal – 31.2%, Conservatives – 29.4%, and the NDP – 35.4%.

Now all these numbers need to be taken with a large grain of salt, but I do think the recent by-elections reflect the fact that the McGuinty is doing better politically these days, so one should not automatically assume that the Liberals will lose the Parkdale-High Park by-election that will have to be called later this year after Kennedy’s departure for the federal Liberal leadership trail.

Ignatieff and Iraq

Michael Ignatieff’s greatest negative in my view is the misjudgement he demonstrated in supporting George Bush’s Iraq war. Here is an excerpt of what he wrote in the New York Times Magazine on January 5, 2003:

Since Sept. 11, it has been about whether the republic can survive in safety at home without imperial policing abroad. Face to face with ''evil empires'' of the past, the republic reluctantly accepted a division of the world based on mutually assured destruction. But now it faces much less stable and reliable opponents -- rogue states like Iraq and North Korea with the potential to supply weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist internationale. Iraq represents the first in a series of struggles to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the first attempt to shut off the potential supply of lethal technologies to a global terrorist network.

Containment rather than war would be the better course, but the Bush administration seems to have concluded that containment has reached its limits -- and the conclusion is not unreasonable. Containment is not designed to stop production of sarin, VX nerve gas, anthrax and nuclear weapons.

I found this sympathetic treatment of Igatieff in The Tyee, which noted that he finally parted company with Bush in 2004:

In a forgotten NY Times Magazine article of March 14, 2004, Ignatieff did withdraw his support for the Bush-led war (as opposed to the war itself), acknowledging he had underestimated the competence of his shipmates, writing "I supported an Administration I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences.

Liberal Hawks in 2003

However, contrast Ignatieff’s slow recognition of Bush’s ineptitude with that of two liberal bloggers who at one time were sympathetic to Saddam’s removal.

Josh Marshall wrote a pros and cons piece in the Washington Monthly in September 2002 that had this concluding paragraph:

It's difficult to imagine that the establishment and national security bureaucracies would have brought us to our current and correct focus on Iraq. But it's even more clear that the hawks' record of breezy planning, reckless prediction, and indifferent fidelity to the truth makes them unfit to be the ones in control of how the job gets done. The hawks have a vision. But as the folks in uniform are so fond of saying, "Hope is not a plan." Getting rid of Saddam really is necessary. But it has to be done right. So, Mr. President, when the time comes for you to make a decision about Iraq, talk with Paul Wolfowitz and let him tell you what the goal should be. Escort him to the door and lock it behind you. Then sit down for a serious talk with Colin Powell.

Of course the problem was that this is the opposite of what Bush was doing, which was eventually plain for all to see. Eventually, Marshall concluded on March 9, 2003 that Bush’s course towards war should not be pursued. Kevin Drum came to a similar conclusion on the same day. So why was Ignatieff unable to see what was happening and that the incompetent neo-cons ruled the roost? Clearly, the evidence was available. He says he believed “the consequences would repay the gamble”. If this is the sort of convoluted gibberish he spouts when recanting his position on Iraq what should we expect of him as Liberal leader or Prime Minister? He clearly does not have the judgment needed for the position.

His lack of political experience also continues to show. A young Liberal attending an Ignatieff event commented: However, he needs to stop saying things that will make horrible media quotes. I will not write the example here, but trust me that it was much worse than herding cats.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bush in Trouble

Stephen Harper has been cozying up to two of the most unpopular politicians on the planet - Jean Charest in Quebec (read here) and a fellow named Bush south of the border. Look at this excerpt from a column in USA Today (I found the link on Daily Kos) about a talk given by a Republican pollster:

GOP pollster Lance Tarrance, who has been among his party's top public opinion experts for three decades, provided a bleak picture of Bush's standing with the public in a May 2 briefing sponsored by the Cook Political Report.

Buried in job approval ratings that have fallen into the low-to mid-30s are indicators of a more corrosive effect on a presidency. Tarrance said the number of Americans who strongly disapprove of Bush has accelerated so fast — and their feelings appear to be so deep — that Bush may now be in the worst shape of any wartime president.

In an April 27-30 poll by Tarrance and Thomas Riehle, half of respondents said they intensely dislike Bush and his policies. Tarrance called that result "fairly frightening" for a president trying to push immigration reform, sustain an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, and help his party hang on to narrow control of the House and Senate in November elections.The high-intensity dislike of Bush is "almost the point of no return for any president, and that's where Bush is right now," Riehle said. Their polling also showed Democrats with a historically high advantage over Republicans when respondents were asked which party they wanted to control Congress after November.

Watching Bush and the Republicans is like watching a major train wreck in slow motion. I have rebuilt my forecast model to apply to the U.S. House of Representatives and there are some polls out, which when applied to my model, suggest that the Republicans could be in for a mind-blowing humiliation. However, the race ought to tighten as we move towards November (for technical reasons I won't go into here).