Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on polls and snake oil - the deficit

One of the successes of late twentieth century conservatism has been the propagation of the notion that cutting taxes would somehow boost the real income of most people and, conversely, raising taxes represents a real loss of income, instead of a shift from private consumption to (often vital) public consumption such as health care.

When debates commence about how to reduce the deficit, we find "raising taxes", which is at least well understood by most, contrasted to "cutting programs". The problem is that "programs" is an abstract, undefined term. In a survey from Nanos we find the following question:

What do you think the Government of Canada's primary focus should be to reduce the deficit? Among the options were "raising taxes" and "cutting programs"

Not surprisingly only 29% wanted to raise taxes compared to 48% who said cut programs.

In many if not most cases, the response to a polling question is determined by its wording. Suppose instead of "cutting programs", the question wording was "cutting spending on things like health care, education, and pensions" (about 31% of all federal spending, for example), the answer would be quite different.

In addition, a rapid reduction in the deficit could trigger a renewed downturn and even more unemployment. No information from the pollster of this nature. The survey reports that, unprompted, 5% did say "don't need to fight the deficit". A few do understand the stakes involved in this debate but it would be helpful if polls were not so obviously biased in one direction.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

David Miller

I was saddened to see David Miller will not be running again. He has been an excellent mayor.

Were it not for the outrageously dreadful media coverage of this summer's garbage strike, he might still be in the race. Compare this column by John Lorinc on Spacing Wire with the nonsense published in the Toronto dailies (linked to by Lorinc) and the bilge we saw on the airwaves. That said, garbage strikes are intrinsically unpopular, especially for a mayor with ties to labour, so the re-election would have been difficult.
Perhaps his greatest legacy was his work on public transit. Longtime transit advocate and citizen expert Steve Munro wrote this tribute on Spacing Wire. It is all worth reading but here is his conclusion:
What is David Miller’s legacy?

Transit is a vital, central part of City planning and building. No longer is the TTC trying to fit one more rider on the roof of every bus and streetcar, and despite many problems with fleet availability, plans are still in place to continue improving service. Transit is no longer something only downtown Councillors with their “pampered” constituents fight for, it’s a concern in wards right across the City. Showing people what can be done and encouraging them to ask for more is a vital part of advocacy and leadership.

I am deeply saddened that we won’t see a third term, that the changes now underway must be completed by others, indeed could even be threatened by the short-sighted who would trash “Miller projects” without regard for their intrinsic value.

I remember a meeting in the Mayor’s office early in his first term. A confident, happy Mayor, proud of his city, sat with his legs up on the couch while a group of us discussed what was needed for transit. We’ve come a long way since then.

When the first LRV rolls along Sheppard Avenue or into a redeveloped eastern waterfront, when Councillors demand even more routes as part of the 10-minute network, when cutting transit service becomes utterly unthinkable at budget time, David Miller should be there if only in spirit.

UPDATE: This item by Michael Hollett in NOW Magazine is also worth reading:
We have what may arguably be the greenest city on the continent, shrinking crime rates, reduced business taxes, safer streets, less homelessness, a more inclusive city, a building boom downtown, a police chief who doesn’t wage war on his citizens, expanding public transit, an arts-positive atmosphere and an enthusiasm and vigour on our streets and boulevards that were unimaginable just 10 years ago.

In the same way I’m amazed at the ability of the right-wing press in the U.S. to put a negative spin on Barack Obama’s attempts to bring health care to the needy, I have to give grudging respect to this city’s conservative dailies (yes, you, too, Toronto Star – Joe Atkinson is spinning in his grave) for successfully painting Miller’s accomplishments in such a negative light.

Does nobody remember the previous buffoon of a mayor enthusiastically endorsed by Toronto’s mainstream media just before Miller? Mel Lastman presided over a collapse so complete that his most enduring idea was a bunch of plastic moose that sat as empty-headed as Hizzoner on crime- and litter-filled streets.

The same media experts who now try to paint Miller as a failed mayor happily endorsed this joke of a leader who made Toronto a punchline in the world and oversaw a City Hall so crammed with corruption that secret envelopes of cash, privileged plane rides to hockey games and grotesque patronage scandals like the MFP computer debacle just seemed like the way things were done.

Polls and Snake Oil

It has always managed to get under TC's skin that our media swallow polling results literally - without a hint of skepticism. Recently there have been several polls on federal party leadership (such as this Nanos poll and some numbers in this Angus Reid poll). Why? Presumably in part to give us some idea about how the next election might go. However, leadership polls can be extremely misleading.

As readers of my previous two posts know, TC holds no brief for Michael Ignatieff. However, the fact that he trails Stephen Harper on this particular scorecard doesn't tell us much. For example, consider this poll from Nanos Research taken on September 7, 2003. The results inform us that the leader Ontario voters favoured in the provincial election then less than a month away was Ernie Eves: he had 41% support, followed by 25% for Unsure and 24% for Dalton McGuinty.
However, the very same poll asked the ballot question: Which party would you support? The poll reported the Liberals with 45% compared to 43% for the PCs. This answer was much closer to the voting results of the general election on October 2, 2003 when the Ontario Liberals won a large majority with 46.5% of the popular vote.
We will return to his topic again.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More evidence of Ignatieff's strategic ineptitude

The Liberals are making a big mistake in denying Martin Cauchon's bid to become the Liberal candidate in Outremont.

It is an arrogant and stupid decision. The riding was never going to be easy for the Liberals to take away from the NDP's Thomas Mulcair; it may now be impossible. It is an extremely foolish thing to do. As my previous post noted: not ready for prime time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not ready for prime time

My doubts about Ignatieff began to arise when it seemed to me that his dramatic pronouncement that he would endeavour to bring down the government came seemingly out of the blue. Suppose that public reaction to such an announcement was going to be negative. Wouldn't the Liberals have wanted some inkling of that before committing themselves?

Indeed they should have spent the summer floating the idea in case they needed to back away from it. But they did not do that. It appears that political amateurs are running the Ignatieff operation. The apparent signals from the Bloc and the NDP that they will keep the Harper government running a little longer should be welcomed by the Liberals. They are not ready for prime time.

As I contemplated this, I was reminded of Ignatieff over-committing himself in a June press conference to a "my way or the highway" position on Employment Insurance. He backed down and looked bad but it was all forgotten over the summer. So why the premature boldness in June and the failure to "leak" their intentions over the summer? The Liberals are in trouble and don't know it. In a way, it is not surprising. Ignatieff is a neophyte apparently surrounded by advisors who are equally inexperienced.

If there is an early election the bad economy will push us toward a Liberal win, but it is not guaranteed and inept campaigning and tactics might give Harper a new (albeit probably weakened) mandate.

On the other hand, the delay could help the Liberals. The downturn might come to a technical end but its consequences, both in unemployment and weak government finances, will be with us for a long time to come. The worst days for the Rae government in Ontario in the early nineties came in 1993-94 when they felt obligated to tackle the deficit and enacted the Social Contract to achieve some budgetary savings. Rae's popularity, already low, fell further and his regime was subsequently decimated in the 1995 election. The recession was also over when the Mulroney-Campbell regime was reduced to two seats in the 1993 election.

Harper might not adopt anti-deficit strategies as unpopular as those of Rae but he will come under increasing pressure to say something about his intentions, and nothing he announces is likely to be well received. I wonder if the Ignatieff strategists are familiar with history.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Stephen Harper's Back Yard

The politics of recession hit home in Alberta last night when the right wing Wildrose Alliance won a by-election from Ed Stelmach's provincial PCs in Calgary Glenmore, which just happens to fall within the boundaries of Stephen Harper's federal riding of Calgary Southwest.

Alberta has been hit hard by the downturn as the oil boom of the tar sands has gone bust, with direct consequences for Alberta's bottom line.
The downturn should have an impact on the federal election but TC, who until now has thought that the Liberals were the most likely winners, is beginning to have second thoughts about that. More in a future post.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Where Jack's At

I think this Liberal blogger's assessment of Jack Layton's current strategy is right:

Mr. Layton, knowing he and his party are probably the key votes of either keeping the government alive or causing it’s downfall, comes out sounding very conciliatory, trying to get out the message to the voters that the NDP is trying to “make Parliament work”, if Harper and the Conservatives are willing to make concessions for the greater good. If Harper rejects that (and indications are he will be), then Layton can claim that he tried his best to keep the Canadian public from that “unnecessary election”, but Harper just wasn’t being reasonable. That line of argument might help both the NDP, and indirectly the Liberals, against the charges of the Conservatives that this is an “unnecessary election”.

Is that what the NDP strategy is? We’ll see. Some of my Liberal blogging brethren may not buy it, but when I saw how Layton was wording his statements to the media, I began to think that is what he and the NDP might be up to, strategy wise. After all, it’s the Prime Minister’s duty (and the governing party’s duty) to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. With the Conservatives playing partisan games with the EI Commission, and then potentially spurning the NDP’s offer of conciliatory gestures, the counter charge that this government is unwilling to work with the other parties certainly can be made, and made by multiple opposition parties.

I would add that Layton's approach to pre-election positioning is optimal: he defends key NDP principles while showing Canadians en masse that he is willing to be reasonable and accommodating to get things done - as popular a place to be in current circumstances as one could hope for. There would be a problem with actually making a deal with the Conservatives, since it would expose the NDP to potentially effective attacks from the Liberals. It is a very different situation from the NDP support given to Paul Martin in 2005.

The NDP doesn't really have much in the way of prospects for additional seats in this election, and is likely be focused more on protecting seat pickups from 2006 and 2008. But the party's ability to protect those gains should not be underestimated. If the Liberals do well, some seats will be lost, but the NDP's resources and very considerable strategic talent will likely produce relative success in this context.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Glory Days

Parliament resumes this week as we appear headed for a fall election. The fact that majorities say they don't want an election doesn't mean much because it is not going to matter a great deal in the considerations that determine voting when election day comes.

The Liberals declare they will no longer support the government but have yet to offer a compelling rationale for why voters should support them. We will learn if they are going to have some capacity to do this in a speech Ignatieff gives on Monday. He doesn't have to give his platform away, but he needs something more than the cliché "we can do better". Winning an election even in these economic circumstances is not a slam dunk.

Meanwhile Harper wants to resurrect the days last year when the Conservatives spiked in the polls when threatened with a coalition by trying to stoke Canadians' fears of Quebec separatists. It kind of reminds one of the Bruce Springsteen 80s hit Glory Days which ends with a line Stephen Harper would do well to remember:

"well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days

What Harper missed then was that the public reaction was less rooted in opposition to the idea of coalition per se than it was in the idea that the outcome of the 2008 election would be overturned, and that the unpopular Stéphane Dion would wind up as prime minister. And there can be no doubt his overheated rhetoric about Quebec separatists has damaged him permanently in Quebec. That is his enduring legacy from that time. The strategy won't work again; this election will be focused on economic issues.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

We report, you decide

Overall the state of political journalism in Canada is dismal. Because so many polls are proprietorial - paid for by newspapers that then trumpet them, we never get the full picture. For example, to follow up on yesterday's post on the state of public opinion in Quebec:

Pollster SurveyDates Sample Error Cons. Liberal NDP Bloc
Strategic Sept. 3-6 244 ± 6.3 16 23 6 49
Leger Aug. 31-Se. 2 1005 ± 3.1 16 30 16 35
CROP Aug. 14-23 1003 ± 3.1 17 30 18 30

Compare especially, Leger and Strategic as they polled at about the same time, although as not much has happened, one might as well look at CROP too. The two large sample polls by Quebec pollsters, who we know for sure have telephone interviewers speaking the same language with the same accent as their respondents, have the Bloc at 30 & 35% but Strategic thinks they are at 49%, a spectacular improvement on the 38.1% they obtained last October 14. Now which polls do you believe?

I have long had doubts about the Globe Strategic Counsel polls. This only reinforces them.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Federal Election 2009 - Quebec

TC has been busy of late so not much posting. I hope to pick up the pace because it appears a federal election is coming.

If some pundits are to be believed, Quebec is crucial to Liberal hopes. Quebec public opinion exists in a world apart from the rest of the country. In national polls, however, it is but one region. So it makes sense to pay close attention to the Quebec polling companies, which conduct large sample surveys just in Quebec. The two most prominent are Léger and CROP, both of whom have had recent polls, Leger in September, CROP in August .

I have developed a new seat model that takes into account language preference in Quebec. However, one tends only to get a linguistic breakdown in large sample Quebec polls. I have combined the two polls (I had to infer the Anglophone vote in the Léger poll which has not put details in the web yet) and used my new linguistic model to get the following outcome:

Cons. Liberal NDP Bloc Total
7 24 2 42 75

Lysiane Gagnon argues in the column linked to above that the Liberals think they can win as many as 12 more seats than their current 14. This calculation would bring them up 10 seats.
However, the Bloc would remain the dominant party and Liberal gains here would not be decisive in determining the overall outcome.

The Conservatives at the moment have just enough support to hold most but not all their Quebec seats, while the NDP appears to be slipping under the radar and at the moment would do better than expected here.