Sunday, October 24, 2010

Toronto's Mayoralty Race

It is a close race.  The momentum and zeitgeist would appear to favour Rob Ford.  However, the race has effectively polarized into pro-Ford and anti-Ford camps to the extent that the many will abandon the left leaning candidate Joe Pantalone, and vote for big "L" Liberal George Smitherman.

The 2009 garbage strike is key to Ford's success in this campaign. It lasted a long time and caused considerable unhappiness at a time when the economic downturn was causing general stress. Add to that the resentments Ford has exploited with his complaints that there is some sort of  "gravy train" at city hall. These sentiments, however much they are divorced from reality, are more easily exploited in difficult economic times.

If one looks at demographics in the polls, one key factor helps Ford - he is most strongly supported by those over 60. One the other hand the better educated and more affluent favour Smitherman.  Polls do a terrible job of measuring and anticipating turnout. However, we know that the better educated and more affluent are more likely to vote, but so also do senior citizens.

If Ford does win, TC's view is that he would be a disastrously bad and unpopular mayor. Unfortunately, the city would be in for four years of real suffering as a consequence.  More so than is generally anticipated even by anti-Ford voters.  Ford looks much worse to TC, for example, than Mike Harris.

Obama's leadership skills

Obama is taking a great deal of heat right now.  It is unlikely that the Democrats will do well in the midterm elections because the economy in the U.S. remains in bad shape.  Brendan Nyhan has argued persuasively that it is this structural factor that is the key determinant of the off year election. One should remember that Obama continues to have good leadership skills as he faces mounting criticism the result of current political circumstances. I certainly remember thinking Reagan was politically finished after the 1982 off-year elections.

A couple of weeks ago Fareed Zakaria interviewed Steven Rattner, the Wall Street executive who headed up the Auto Bailout and has just written a book about it.  Zakaria started off by asking him what he thought of Obama as a CEO.  From the show transcript:
ZAKARIA: What do you think of President Obama as a CEO? You -- you spent a lot of time in the private sector. Was he a good CEO?

RATTNER: I thought he was a terrific CEO. It was interesting, because people said, well, what does he know about being a CEO? He's never managed anything besides a Senate staff. Of course, he did run a campaign pretty well.

But the fact was he was a natural. I thought he was a natural.

I have been around, as you say, a lot of CEOs over the years. But he was -- he didn't dwell on things. He was willing to make decisions, but he didn't sort of rush through and say, well, I've got 10 minutes to make this decision. I'm going to make it.

There was one famous day when he adjourned a meeting until later in the day so he could have more time to reflect on the question whether to save Chrysler, which is one of our toughest -- probably our toughest decision -- his toughest decision.

And I thought he was thoughtful. He did his homework. He came to the meetings having read his briefing papers. I can't imagine when he started running for president he thought dealing with Chrysler was going to be something he was going to have to do, but he -- he was a good soldier and he -- he dug into it.

And so, no. I came away with a lot of respect for his CEO qualities. 
The rest of the transcript is here (you have to scroll down).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

When polls don't agree - Ontario and Manitoba

One can usually gauge political trends relatively easily.  Polls vary, but they don't tend to contradict one another dramatically, so one sits up and takes notice when this happens.  There have been a couple of interesting recent examples involving Ontario politics and Manitoba politics, two provinces that will be holding elections a year from now within a week of each other.

An Ipsos-Reid poll released on August 21 received considerable attention because it had the Ontario PCs ahead - 36% to 35% for the McGuinty Liberals and 18% for the NDP. However, a one percent difference is really a tie given the inherent uncertainties of polling, the margin of error, etc.  A poll released by Angus Reid on September 28, just five weeks later (too soon for any actual opinion shift to take place), suggested a very different outcome: an eleven point lead for the PCs, 41% to the Liberals 29% and 22% for the NDP.  The difference matters even more in terms of seats.  TC's forecast model says the Ipsos poll would produce a Liberal minority government of 51 seats, the Angus Reid poll a large PC majority.  They are so different that one can say with confidence that one of these polls is wrong.  With no immediate election, however, we will never know which one it is.

Perhaps we might get some clue as to what to believe from Manitoba.  There, three polls have been released in recent weeks and a similar pattern emerges.  The opposition PCs were reported on September 21 by Angus Reid to have a 15 point province wide lead over the governing NDP 49% to 34% with the Liberals in third at 12%.  It was preceded by a Viewpoints Research poll conducted Sept. 7-15th that had the NDP one point up on the PCs at 39% to 38% with the Liberals at 14%. This survey was followed by a Probe Research poll on October 7th that had the PCs at 42% and the NDP at 40% with the Liberals at 12%.  Again we would have different election outcomes.

Despite the PC lead in the Probe Research poll, the concentration of PC support outside the City of Winnipeg and its weak performance inside would produce an NDP government in a new election - the PCs lead the NDP 53-32 in rural areas but trail the New Democrats 46-35 in the city. TC estimates that the Probe poll would produce a legislature with 32 New Democrats, 23 PCs and 2 Liberals; the Angus Reid poll would produce a PC government with just 30 seats (despite their large overall lead) to the New Democrats 25 and the Liberals 2.

A key difference between the surveys is that Angus Reid does online polling while the others use traditional telephone methods.  Online surveys are relatively new methodology. TC thinks they need to be seen as experimental.  Reid uses large panels (they describe some of their methods here) recruited at least in part through internet ads (such as this).  I have heard that their panel is about 100,000 in Canada.  However, it is not clear that this gives them the truly representative sample they need to properly capture public opinion. And one wonders how large their Manitoba panel can be. 

Angus Reid (or Vision Critical as it is named on its web site) has been close on some election outcomes, including in 2008 in Canada, but they have also had some bad results. Earlier this year they managed to get the order of finish wrong in the UK general election. Reid's final UK poll results are here and the final election results here.  But what explains the apparent Tory tilt in the Manitoba and Ontario polls and the disagreement with traditional pollsters? While the Manitoba and Ontario numbers are suggestive, the limited poll set here can't really tell us anything conclusive.

We know well the methods of the telephone polls but what of the online polls? Their methods remain relatively opaque, and they still haven't established a reputation for accuracy and reliability.  While Vision Critical is not included in his assessment, Nate Silver rated online pollster Zogby the least accurate polling company in a review of the accuracy of dozens of US firms. Éric Grenier of the blog estimates the "house effects" (or partisan tilt to put it another way) of polls.  His estimate (top poll in table) suggests Angus Reid's polls are favourable to both the Conservatives and the NDP.

TC puts more stock in polls conducted using the telephone and remains skeptical of online polling. I would therefore see the overall races in Ontario and Manitoba as close and still competitive.  Nevertheless, the NDP in Manitoba will be looking for a fourth mandate (with a new leader), and the Ontario government a third. Both situations imply a change in government even if it is not yet clearly evident in the polling.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why it is so difficult for Harper to win a majority

A column in yesterday's Star by Jim Travers renews the endless Ottawa speculation about a Harper majority and concludes that Harper "is closer than it appears to the majority he covets."  He quotes pollster Nick Nanos as saying:
Conservatives... are both efficient in converting votes into seats and unusually skilled at "repelling people from voting for others".
TC has discussed this issue before but it is worth reviewing again.  The largest obstacle to any party winning a majority under our current party system is that the Bloc Québecois controls between 40 and 50 seats in Quebec.  A majority must come from the seats that remain. If we assume the Conservatives can win at least 10 seats in Quebec (although most recent polls suggest it will be a few less) then the party must win 145 of the 233 seats outside Quebec to get a bare majority of 155 seats.  That 145 number is 62.2% of all non-Quebec seats. (It would be a little less if the Conservatives could win additional seats in Quebec.)

One can assess the likelihood of this by comparing it to the era prior to the advent of the Bloc when parties did not face the same obstacle to a majority.  I am ignoring the post 1993 period because as TC wrote before:
Chrétien's majorities were flukes in the sense that they depended on an even split between Reform/Alliance and PCs in Ontario and very low NDP numbers, which themselves were a product of a temporary decade-long depressed support level caused both by unpopular provincial governments (Harcourt/Clark in BC and Bob Rae in Ontario) and unusually weak federal leadership, principally Audrey McLaughlin. The NDP did begin to revive a bit under Alexa McDonough and gained new ground in Atlantic Canada but remained very weak in Ontario.
If we ask which majority governments won 62% or more of the seats in the pre-1993 period of Canadian history but after 1921 when third and fourth parties began to emerge, we find the PC majorities of Mulroney in 1984 and Diefenbaker in 1958 as well as the Liberal victories of St. Laurent in 1949 and 1953, and Mackenzie King in 1935 and 1940 (King's wins, however, were strongly affected by the depression and the war).  There weren't that many, they tended to be early wins (Mulroney in '84 and Dief in '58) and there have been just two since 1958. Trudeau was close in 1968 but he won just 58.3% of the seats.

As for Nanos two points: first, the Conservatives are not particularly efficient at converting votes into seats.  For example, look at all the wasted votes they accumulate in their huge majorities in Alberta.  Second, with respect to vote suppression, one should note that in the last election turnout was 58.8%, down from the previous three elections. It appeared to TC that it was particularly concentrated among Liberal voters who lacked confidence in Stéphane Dion. How much greater vote suppression can one realistically expect when over 40% of Canadians already don't show up at the polls?

What Travers and Nanos are asking us to believe (without reviewing the math outlined above) is that a government that has been around for six years can win more than 62% of the seats realistically available to it.  It is possible in the sense that anything is, but it is also not very likely.