Wednesday, August 29, 2007

When the poll numbers don't fit the narrative...

I suspect news editors sometimes think that they have a fix on public opinion, commission a poll to prove it but allow their enthusiasm for the storyline they have concocted in their heads to cause them to write the story before the hard news has arrived.

The Globe published its latest Strategic Counsel poll this week but the numbers didn't fit the narrative that the Globe appeared to be expecting of a Harper government doing well and perhaps headed for a majority. But it pushed that narrative in its coverage anyway. They covered the contradiction by calling it the "Harper Paradox".

The Globe editors appear to be astonished and chagrined that the Conservatives aren't on the verge of a majority. Thus, although the poll showed the Liberals and Conservatives tied overall with 33%, for the Globe, Canadians display "mixed feelings" about Harper as a person as they "grow more comfortable with the direction he is taking the country and as support for his party solidifies."

To prove this point we discover that 57% think the country is on the "right track" (I will come back to this phrase in a moment). Um, except, we then find out that this is four points DOWN from a year ago. Where can we take comfort? Well it is "up more than 10 points since the final days of the Liberals in early 2006."

Now there is an apt comparison. Let's take the tracking number for a government in its final days as it heads to defeat (having been labelled over and over again as corrupt) as the yardstick, rather than public opinion on Harper from a year ago, once the country has had eight months to react to his administration.

Returning to the "right track" statistic, while I have followed it in various polls for years I am not sure what it means to the public. One could think the country is on the right track because the economy is humming, even while one is appalled by the government's inaction on global warming and overseas military adventures. It makes more sense to me to ask a simple approve/disapprove type question to determine how the electorate actually feels about a government. Note that even when the Liberals were headed for a wintry defeat in 2006, getting just 30% of the vote in election 2006, according to the Globe the Grits had a right track number somewhere in the mid-forties.

The poll's details are all available at the Strategic Counsel web site here. However, the narrative problem continues in talking points on the SC web site and in the analysis by the firm's principals, Peter Donolo and Tim Woolstencroft, in the Globe. Thus the story begins:

After a year and a half in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has built up some impressive political capital.

Nearly six out of 10 Canadians think the country is on the right track. Even if he's not setting Canadians' hearts aflame, most have a neutral-to-positive impression of Mr. Harper. He's seen as a decisive leader. A majority believe he's kept his promises. And most Canadians trust him to do the right thing for the country.

Before we address this paragraph, I will make two points:

1. On the SC web site (page 5) there is this observation: "While there has been some volatility in party support over the past 18 months, party vote has stabilized in the most recent sampling around the levels of the 2006 election."

Oh really. In the last election the Conservatives nationally had 36% and the Liberals 30% whereas in the poll they are tied at 33%. My estimate of the seat numbers using the SC data is that this distribution of support would actually reverse the net outcome of the election and produce a Liberal minority. Is it really accurate to say "around the levels of the 2006 election"?

2. From the Globe story: "In Quebec, meanwhile, Mr. Harper's Conservatives are in solid second place to the Bloc Québécois outside of Montreal. The percentage of Quebeckers who believe the country is on the right track has nearly doubled in two years."

Um, except the poll data tell us that the Conservatives overall have declined in Quebec including outside Montreal while the Liberals have gained. To be sure the BQ is also down a bit but the gains outside Montreal at the expense of the BQ have seemingly gone to the Liberals, the Greens and the NDP while the Conservatives have dipped. See the table on page 28 of this pdf.

You get the picture.

Much of the poll is composed of mush - meaningless statistics about how many Liberals, NDP etc. are "open" to voting Conservative, feelings about Harper being "partisan" or "controlling". But leadership sentiment in any case is often a trailing indicator of party support not a leading indicator. When the last election campaign began, Harper's leadership numbers were a net -17 and still -10 three weeks into it but up to +12 with a week to go. See here on page 17.

The one agree/disagree statement in the mix that seems fairly straightforward to me is: “The Conservative government under Stephen Harper has accomplished little during its time in office.” (On page 3 here) 53% of Canadians agreed with that while only 41% disagreed.

Re: the paragraphs above regarding Mr. Harper's political capital. Note how the authors don't mention this Q & A, a simple question asking respondents for their overall assessment of the government's performance. Why is this not noted?

In a world dominated by celebrity and gossip journalism, is this the best analysis our national newspaper can produce?

Bush's Descent

It is widely known by now just how unpopular George W. Bush has become. But many see it as linked only to Iraq. As important as the war is, the turning point for this administration was Hurricane Katrina. An incisive analysis in today's Washington Post by Dan Balz makes the case well:

Bush's presidency took a fateful turn during Katrina and reminders of the damage inflicted from that storm were resurrected again this week with the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. What linked the two events -- and what has left the president permanently weakened -- were perceptions of incompetence within the Bush administration. ...

An analysis of public polls by the Democracy Corps, a Democratic organization, found that Bush's approval rating in July 2005 averaged 46.1 percent and his disapproval averaged 50.2 percent. By the following July, his approval averaged 38.1 percent and his disapproval averaged 56.2 percent. Last month, his approval averaged 29.3 percent while his disapproval averaged 65 percent.

In short, in the past two years, the margin between the president's approval and disapproval ratings fell from minus 4.1 percentage points to minus 35.8 percentage points.

Much more than Katrina explains the continuing drop in Bush's support in the past 12 months, but there is little doubt that the hurricane crystallized negative perceptions about Bush's performance that he never has been able to shake.

TC has argued before that the Republicans appear to be heading for an unprecedented disaster in 2008. According to Balz, they now seem to agree with this assessment:

What worries Republicans most is that the damage inflicted by the administration now costs them as much as it does the president ... while the White House may be worried about Bush's legacy, congressional Republicans fear the consequences of administration incompetence will affect them and their party in the coming election. ...

Two years after the hurricane hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the breakdown in government at all levels is well documented. But the president then and now has paid the biggest price for the inadequate response. Iraq will be the central event in the shaping of Bush's legacy, but in terms of political devastation, Katrina will be remain far more than a footnote in that history.

The political implications of this administration's failure are just now sinking in within official Washington. A major regime change is coming.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Canadian political news

In the news today we had two stories that are both commanding the attention of those who follow Canadian politics. First and foremost there is the Harper cabinet shuffle, which appears substantially driven by the war in Afghanistan. Gordon O'Connor was simply too big a liability to continue in the Defence portfolio. Peter MacKay represents a riding in Nova Scotia, which has significant military establishments. More important by putting Maxime Bernier in Foreign Affairs, Harper acquires a Quebec francophone defender of Canada's Afghanistan policy.

The other is the SES poll, which reports an uptick in support for Dion and the Liberals. Although Harper remains ahead in the popular vote, the seat distribution from my model says the result would produce a Liberal minority government if reflected in an election.

However, the most important story to me today was from the Report on Business; headlined "End of the U.S. consumer boom?", the report from Barrie Mckenna quotes Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg:

"There are plenty of signs now suggesting that we may be in the early stages of a consumer-led recession for the first time in 17 years," Mr. Rosenberg warned in a report to clients.

"The future is very likely in the hands of the consumer on Main Street, USA, and the latest sign posts are not encouraging."

Economic stories like this zero in on the economics of recession, but if Rosenberg is right it will have absolutely enormous consequences for politics. We have come through an era where the doctrine of balanced budgets has held sway (at least in Canada) - in a boom this is the equivalent of being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

The financial implications of recession for public finance would mean the end for balanced budgets would probably come quite quickly everywhere except in Alberta. Politically recessions are generally devastating for incumbent governments. No matter what choices they make in response to the situation - raise taxes, cut spending, run a deficit - they are likely to be hurt by their actions as well as the overall sense of malaise that affects a population faced by economic calamity and rising unemployment. However, it will take some time for these effects to be felt, perhaps a six to nine month lag from the onset of the problem (which appears imminent according to Mr. Rosenberg) until the polls for incumbent administrations head south.

TC's guess is that among the worst hit would be Bush and the Republicans, but if Canada does not go to the polls until 2008, Harper will feel it too.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ignatieff's Mea Culpa

What makes Michael Ignatieff completely unacceptable as a leadership aspirant or potential Prime Minister is the mistake he made in supporting George Bush's war in Iraq. It demonstrated extremely bad judgment.

This weekend he published a mea culpa in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. However, even though he acknowledges his poor judgment, it struck me that, despite his regrets, he was still being disingenuous. The phrase that irked me the most was the following:

But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

He does not specify in any way who the many were or what they expressed. It is clear that the president was after the oil at least in part. This of course could all be cleared up by releasing all the details of the Cheney energy task force, where, if Ignatieff is to be taken seriously, the subject of Iraq's oil could not have come up. However, the subject does appear to have been discussed:

Documents turned over in the summer of 2003 by the Commerce Department as a result of the Sierra Club’s and Judicial Watch’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, concerning the activities of the Cheney Energy Task Force, contain a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, as well as two charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects, and “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.” The documents, dated March 2001, also feature maps of Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates oilfields, pipelines, refineries and tanker terminals. There are supporting charts with details of the major oil and gas development projects in each country that provide information on the project’s costs, capacity, oil company and status or completion date.

If Iraq had no oil, would there have been an invasion? A rhetorical counterfactual question to be sure but the query answers itself.

I am not the only one not to have been impressed with the new Ignatieff. Reed Hundt says at TPM Café:

He doesn't even begin to know all the reasons why he was so completely nutso about Iraq. It makes me wonder if anyone who was wrong about Iraq has yet gotten right about why they were wrong. Does it matter? If you think that those who misread their own history shouldn't be trusted with the power to make the same mistakes twice, then yes.

The reaction was shared by others. See Kevin Drum here.

UPDATE: A correspondent drew my attention to this comment by Katha Pollitt in the Nation, best critique I have read so far.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Ontario Election - Tories Narrowly ahead

The next Ontario election is just over two months away. Heading into the campaign, John Tory's Progressive Conservatives are narrowly ahead, at least in projected seats.

An average of the three most recent polls gives us Liberal - 37, PC - 36, NDP - 18.3, and Green 8.3. (The most recent poll is here.) This yields an estimated seat total of:

PC - 53
L - 44
NDP - 10

A party needs 54 seats for a majority so this would leave the Progressive Conservatives just short of that. A slightly different estimate is available at democraticSPACE but the order of finish is the same.

This estimate does not take into account any impact from the multicultural grants scandal that triggered the resignation of Minister of Immigration and Citizenship Mike Colle.

Campaign dynamics could dramatically alter this picture but my impression is that the government is weaker than is generally presumed to be the case. The polls have suggested for a long time that there could be a close competitive race and now that seems to be a certainty.

The Liberals can still reasonably hope that as the likely second choice of the Greens and the NDP, they might still pull out a majority or minority win. And John Tory's support of aid to religious schools is likely to become a prime target of the Liberals. Public opinion in Ontario appears to favour overwhelmingly a single public school system. If this became THE issue of the campaign it could clearly draw votes away from the NDP if the Liberals can persuade NDP supporters to swallow their doubts about the Liberals to vote strategically in order to block this from taking place. Up to this point the moderate image of John Tory has been defusing the strategic voting that so hurt the NDP in 1999 and 2003.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Conservatism and the bridge collapse

The Minneapolis bridge collapse is clearly related to the anti-tax ideology that has been so dominant in U.S. political discourse. Among anti-tax adherents is Tim Pawlenty, the Republican Governor of Minnesota. As this NPR snapshot says:

The hallmark of his administration has been his decision to sign -- and stick by -- the Minnesota Taxpayers League no-new-taxes pledge.

This blog posting by Rick Perlstein links this to the bridge tragedy:

The bridge-collapse tragedy is a teachable moment: This is your government on conservatism.

This year two Democratic Minnesotan legislatures passed a $4.18 billion transportation package. Minnesota's Republican governor vetoed it because he had taken a no-new-taxes pledge, Grover Norquist-style. That's just what conservative politicians do.

The original bill would have put over $8 billion toward highways, city, and county roads, and transit over the next decade. The bill he let passed spent much less.

Now four people are dead, and counting.

Taxes and high quality public services matter to us all. These occasions need to be recognized and marked.

Update: As tragic as this accident and the injuries and loss of life has been, consider this: monsoon rains in South Asia have caused 60 bridges to collapse and 12 million people have been left homeless.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Election Hint

Harper advisor Tom Flanagan in today's Globe:

Surviving for 18 months has been an impressive achievement for the Conservatives, but mere survival will become increasingly less rewarding unless it is matched by legislative achievement. No government can survive politically if it acquires a reputation for weakness, and that is the risk the Conservatives face if they remain tied up in Parliament.

By using confidence measures more aggressively, the Conservatives can benefit politically. If the opposition parties retreat, the government gets its legislation. If the opposition unites on a matter of confidence, the Conservatives get an election for which they are the best prepared.

Flanagan claims the fixed election date legislation, which the Conservatives pledged and is now the law, has weakened their influence within the minority parliament and hence he suggests the government declare their bills to be matters of confidence.

It is impossible to believe that Mr. Flanagan says anything without consulting the PM. This suggests to me a none too subtle threat: let some our bills get through or be prepared to go to the polls.

The catch is that the Tories are not doing well enough in the polls to win their coveted majority. In the most recent poll, released by Angus Reid on July 20, the Conservatives had only 33%, three points below their showing in the 2006 election. The Liberals were at 28%, the NDP 19%, the Bloc at 9% (36% in Quebec) and the Greens 8%.

This poll would give us a very weak Conservative minority:

Conservative - 115
Liberal - 99
NDP - 42
BQ - 51
Other - 1

The numbers suggest that getting legislation through is the principal purpose of Mr. Flanagan's threat of an early election.

Update: I found an error in my spreadsheet today (four more seats for the Conservatives, five less for the Liberals and one more for the NDP) and a correspondent pointed out that I had omitted the BQ, both errors now corrected.