Sunday, December 16, 2012

Most disturbing thing I have seen about Newton

Here is my cut down version From the Talking Points Memo blog:

From TPM Reader SS

I’m a pretty left-of-center liberal. Read TPM regularly. Donated nearly $1,000 to BHO’s re-election campaign. But I was raised with guns. More to the point, my childhood was steeped in gun lore: I learned to hand-load ammunition when I was 10 and 11, and - by the time I was 14 - my dad was trusting me to prepare my own handloads. I could (and to some extent, still can) recite chapter and verse of firearms arcana, from muzzle velocities - a product of the type of gunpowder used in one’s handloads; of the weight (in grains) of a projectile; of the length of a gun’s barrel (the longer, the faster); of the temperature and elevation at which one is shooting - to impact energy (measured in footpounds), to trajectories (flatter for heavier bullets; some calibers have an innate advantage over others), and so on. I bring this up to establish my bona-fides. The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick;” it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization. ...

The guns that I grew up with (in the late-1970’s and 1980’s) were bolt-action rifles: non-automatic weapons, with organic fixtures - i.e., stocks - and limited magazine capacities. ...

I was raised nominally to hunt, although we didn’t do much of that: once a year, at most. More frequently, we’d go to the range and shoot at targets. So I grew up practicing, and enjoying, what’s commonly called benchrest rifle shooting. I still do so (to a limited extent) today....

I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends - all of whom, interestingly, came to guns in their adult lives - for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol - with its matte-black finish, laser site, flashlight mount, and other “tactical” accoutrements - effectively circumscribe what’s meant by the word “gun.” ...

The “tactical” turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it’s used - liberally - by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you’ll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of “tactical” weapons, “tactical” scenarios, “tactical applications,” and so on. It’s the lingua franca of gun shops, gun ranges, gun forums, and gun-oriented Youtube videos. (My god, you should see what’s out there on You Tube!) Which begs my question: in precisely which “tactical” scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they’re going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the “tactical” as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone - their customers, interlocutors, fellow forum members, or YouTube viewers - experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life.

They tend to speak of the tactical as reality. And I think there’s a sense in which they’ve constructed their own (batshit insane) reality.

One in which we have to live.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The federal by-elections

Quite unusually the November 26 federal by-elections produced a set of outcomes that managed to deliver bad news in one form or another for all the parties including the Green Party, which actually won large shares of the popular vote in Victoria and Calgary Centre representing large gains over 2011. However, these two constituencies previously featured the sixth and ninth best performances by the Green party in the 2011 election.  Having just three by-elections to contest therefore was as about as good an opportunity as one could ask for to break through and win another riding. But the first-past-the-post electoral system in Canada is remorseless. Big increases in popular vote in two of your strongest ridings that don't produce victories represents a setback. It is not surprising that the Greens are enthusiastic supporters of cooperation among the non-Conservative parties: they would have the most to gain.

The Conservatives won two constituencies but relatively speaking lost ground in all three provinces, although their loss in Ontario was small enough that it might be seen as satisfactory. TC takes the individual results and calculates what a provincial outcome comparable to the 2011 result would look like.  For the Conservatives that would be about 40.5% in Ontario compared to their 44.2% in 2011.  Their relative losses in BC and Alberta were much greater, and in Victoria their poor performance (14.5% compared to 23.5% in 2011) could justifiably be regarded by them with alarm about what it might say about the province as a whole.

The Liberals have been doing well in national polls recently but there was no evidence in the November 26th results of their recent gains at the national level. Perhaps there is no Trudeaumania II outside the confines of the Liberal Party. On the other hand the David McGuinty/Justin Trudeau comments about Alberta did not seem to hurt the Liberals in Calgary Centre where the outcome was not far off the pre-election polls, and a marked improvement for the Liberals over 2011. The Liberals finished in third place in 2011 and have a long way to come back.  These results cannot be seen as encouraging.

The NDP picked up some ground in Durham and finished a poor fourth in Calgary Centre and they were no doubt disappointed by their weak result in Victoria despite winning. It was the one contest that featured a debate about a local policy issue - whether or not there should be a new treatment plant for Victoria's sewage.  Only NDP candidate Murray Rankin strongly supported the plant while the others were opposed (including, remarkably, via some fairly tortured logic Green candidate Donald Galloway), and even, in the case of the Conservative candidate Dale Gann, if it meant reversing previous support.  The case for proceeding with the proposed new plant is well-argued here on the blog of Victoria City Councillor Ben Isitt (who unsuccessfully sought the Victoria NDP nomination).  It appears that most Victorians wish to avoid future local tax increases at the expense of pollution continuing to flow unabated into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There were two good columns on this topic by Victoria Times-Colonist columnist Les Leyne here and here.

One other factor may have been the anti-Mulcair radio campaign that has been running frequently on Vancouver radio stations and likely also in Victoria, something the national NDP may need to regard with alarm.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

U.S. Election - Obama still on track to win

With two days to go TC still sees victory ahead for Barack Obama.  I do follow Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Times site but, if anything, I pay more attention to Mark Blumenthal's site on the Huffington Post.  Like Silver, Blumenthal started his site independently as Mystery Pollster, but had it taken over by a larger institution. He is a former Democratic Pollster and his model was created by him and Stanford political scientist Simon Jackman. currently projects Obama to win 277 electoral votes to Romney's 206 with four states still too close to call - Florida, Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire.  My own projected map created with's do-it-yourself electoral map agrees with the, but I expect Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia to be won by Obama.  I still see Florida as too close to call.

The closing national polls show a closing tick to Obama, and as you can see on this Nate Silver post, almost all of the recent swing state polls are going Obama's way albeit narrowly.

Here is the current national polling average (I customized it to date from September 1 to present)

Let me finish with a note of caution.  On election night it is likely when the vote count finishes for the evening, whether or not enough states have yet been decided to conclude the contest, it is likely Romney will lead in the national vote count.  This is the message of TNR blogger Nate Cohn who says:
If Obama ultimately wins the popular vote by a narrow margin, as suggested by the current average of national polls, Obama won’t lead the popular vote on Election Night and might not for weeks.

With the West Coast providing the margin of victory for any Democratic candidate in a close election, Republican presidential candidates outperform their eventual share of the popular vote until the West Coast reports its results. In 2008, California, Washington, and Oregon voted for Obama by a 4 million-vote margin, representing nearly half of his national popular vote victory.
But the time zones are not alone in delaying results from Washington, Oregon, and California. In most eastern states, the overwhelming majority of votes are counted by the end of Election Night, since only a small share of absentee or overseas ballots arrive after the election. But elections in Washington and Oregon are now conducted entirely by mail and 41 percent of California voters voted by mail in 2008. In some states, ballots only need to be postmarked by Election Day and it can take days before all of the votes arrive and weeks before they get counted, usually in modest batches once or twice a day..
On the results for Senate and House of Representatives I still see a Democratic Senate and Republican House. Although I am marginally more optimistic about potential Democratic gains in the latter the Republicans will retain a comfortable majority for the next two years.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

U.S. Election - Why Obama is likely to win.

TC's view is that so far, while the race is close, barring significant unforeseen developments in the last week, Obama will likely win a majority in the electoral college and the national popular vote on November 6th.
If you follow the race through the impressions of reporters in the mainstream media, one gets the impression of a race that has rocked back and forth.  There is a clear difference in the view of the race between the quantitative analysts - sites such as Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and Mark Blumenthal's on the Huffington Post - and the so-called 'savvy experts'.  Some polls have suggested a volatile race while others have suggested a much more stable scenario.

These clashing views were best articulated by YouGov pollster Peter Kellner in an analysis (essentially similar to the views of Nate Silver and Mark Blumenthal) that TC finds persuasive:
There are two versions of what has happened in the past three weeks in the battle to be US President. One is the version told by most nationwide polls and accepted by the media; the second, told by a minority of nationwide polls, including YouGov, and most polls in the key battleground states, is significantly different.

Version one says that the first television debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was a game-changer. If we average the polls conducted by Gallup, Pew, Ipsos, ARG and the Daily Kos, we find that before the debate, Obama was ahead by four points; afterwards Romney led by four – a shift in the lead of eight points. Before the debate, Obama was heading for a clear victory; afterwards, Romney looked the more likely winner. Since then, the contest has narrowed a little, but Romney has held most of his initial gains.

Version two says that the first debate made only a small difference. If we average the polls conducted by YouGov, Rasmussen and ABC/Washington Post, then the debate shifted the nationwide vote shares by just a single point: from an Obama lead beforehand of 2% to an Obama lead of 1% afterwards. The figures have stuck close to that ever since. (YouGov’s latest survey, completed this Monday, shows Obama 2% ahead.)

Movements in polls in the key states sit nearer version two than version one. If we average their findings then Florida tipped from Obama to Romney after the first debate, but Obama remained ahead in other key states – notably Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico. Obama narrowly led in Virginia and Colorado before the first debate; afterwards, they were too close to call. On these figures, Obama would still win the electoral college, even if Romney won Virginia and Colorado.
This commentary was posted on October 23 but little has changed since.

There are a number of factors that even suggest Obama may win by more than expected: 

1. There is evidence assembled by Latino Decisions that national polls (and one might add state polls) are systematically under-counting Latino votes for Obama who leads by 3-1 in that community.  Here is what was posted on their web site on October 23:
In 1998 Harry Pachon and Rudy de la Garza wrote a report for the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute titled “Why Pollsters Missed the Latino Vote – Again!” in which they argued that polls across California failed to accurately account for Latino voters in their samples, and that pre-election polls statewide were fraught with errors as a result. Pachon and de la Garza argued that “mainstream” pollsters failed to account for Latinos for three primary reasons: 1) their sample sizes of Latinos were far too small; 2) their Latinos samples were not representative of the Latino population within the state; and 3) they were not interviewing Latinos in Spanish at the correct proportions. THIS WAS 14 YEARS AGO (yes I am screaming).

In 2010 Gary Segura and I wrote that not much had changed and polls continued to mis-represent the Latino vote. It is now well-known that polls in Nevada had small, unrepresentative and biased samples of Latinos, leading them to entirely miss Harry Reid’s 5-point lead over Sharron Angle. Two weeks ago, Nate Silver wrote at 538 that some polls seem to be continuing the same mistakes and under-counting and mis-counting Latino voters, which he had originally picked up, and wrote about the day after the 2010 midterms. Around the same time some new polls started appearing in states like Nevada and Florida with bizarre data for Latino voters – Obama only had an 8 point lead among Nevada Latinos, and Romney was actually ahead among Latinos in Florida. Really?

If this is true, and the evidence they present is persuasive, Obama is likely to do better in the national popular vote than polls suggest, and will easily win Latino vote-rich states such as Nevada and Colorado.

2. Obama is much better organized to turn out the vote, which alone could be worth 2 points This report on the Atlantic Monthly website concludes:

Some Republicans admit that the ground game is a weakness for the party. In Colorado, one top GOP consultant who has worked on presidential campaigns told me he mentally added 2 to 4 points to Obama's polls in the state based on superior organization. In Florida, GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said Republicans would win in other ways: "They're very organized. They're very, very organized, and you have to admit they're very organized," Diaz-Balart said of the Democrats. "However, I think Republicans are very motivated."

We may not be able to fully size up the campaigns' ground games and their effect until Election Day -- and maybe not even then. But what struck me most, in talking to Republicans about their ground game, was the extent to which they admitted they weren't even playing the game.
3. It is worth noting what a friend pointed out to me: there have been a lot of election polling errors recently that go in one direction.  Examples include the recent elections in Quebec and Alberta, last year's federal election, the 2010 UK election and the French presidential election earlier this year.  What all had in common was that support for incumbents was under-estimated.  Perhaps the same will happen in the U.S. on Nov. 6.

Most of the attention is on the race for the presidency.  However, the contests for the House and Senate are equally important, and there the outcome is likely to be a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. A divided Congress is not good news for any hope of policy activism in a second Obama term. The House of Representatives has considerable power and influence in the American system so the outcome there matters. To date the national generic congressional polls show a slight Democratic edge, but the margin does not appear to be enough to oust the Republican majority.


Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Obama and the Washington Consensus

There are a number of young, very astute, intellectually brilliant bloggers TC has been following over the past number of years.  They include Matty Yglesias, Josh Marshall, Ezra Klein, Jon Chait, Nate Silver, and Greg Sargent.  To this list one must add Noam Scheiber of The New Republic. His takedown of Bob Woodward of Watergate fame is not to be missed. It captures all of the corrupt, dysfunctional character of 21st century Washington D.C.  It is a review of Woodward's book about Obama, The Price of Politics.  This paragraph stood out:
...the book is perfectly in sync with Woodward’s oeuvre. There is a body of respectable Washington opinion that considers Obama unworthy of the presidency: he hadn’t put in his time before running, didn’t grasp the majesty of the office, evinced no respect for the way things were done. He not only won without courting the city’s elders, he had the bad manners to keep his distance even after winning. This is the view Woodward distills.
There is a relatively simple dynamic at play among establishment Washingtonians. They favour changes that would take from those on lower incomes and give to the wealthy. The Woodward book is about the debt ceiling crisis and deal from the summer of 2011 and Obama's alleged failure to play the bipartisan Washington game even when the ideological extremism of the Republican party made this impossible. This summary paragraph from Scheiber says it all:
So, to review, the Republicans were theologically opposed to even the meagerest, mangiest revenue increases—even to the minimum amount of revenue Obama could have gotten without them, even in exchange for trillions of dollars in spending cuts—and yet Obama is somehow to blame for blowing up the deal because … why, exactly? Because he didn’t invite Boehner over for grilled cheese? (The mind boggles over the catastrophe that would have ensued had Obama texted Boehner via iPhone.) This reeks of the frozen-in-amber Sally Quinn lament that politicians don’t spend enough time bantering at Georgetown dinner parties, when in fact there are vast structural forces militating against collegial deal-making. Namely, that national politics has become intensely polarized over the last generation as the parties have sorted themselves along ideological lines. During that same time, the Republican Party has completely lost its marbles, having turned into a collection of anti-tax jidhadis bent on the upward redistribution of wealth.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Justin Trudeau and the state of the federal Liberals in Quebec

I am grateful to Jonathan Kay of the National Post for his Trudeau story on September 26.  It frames the expectations for Justin Trudeau well.
"It’s fashionable to write off Mr. Trudeau as a lightweight, and his party as a spent force. But recent events in Quebec — specifically, Pauline Marois’ election as premier, and the student strikes that indirectly brought her separatist party to power — suggest there is an avenue for the Liberals, with Mr. Trudeau at the helm, to make themselves relevant again in Canadian politics, and perhaps even make a play for power.

First off, anyone who still dismisses Mr. Trudeau as an untested political dilettante isn’t paying attention. As early as 2006, he was chairing the Liberals’ youth-renewal task force. In 2008, he became an MP — and he did so in the competitive, highly multicultural, hardscrabble east-end Montreal riding of Papineau. In the 2008 election, he fought a hard door-to-door ground war against former BQ vice-president Vivian Barbot, defeating the incumbent by fewer than 1,200 votes. In 2011, he survived the Orange Wave, defeating his NDP challenger by more than 4,000 votes.

In short, he’s gone up against both the separatists, and the left, and won both times. Even if he’s done this using the political rocket juice of name recognition, he’s won the right not to be treated as a pretty-face novice....
But the Liberals do have one remaining advantage. As Conrad Black reminds us, the Liberals ruled Canada for 80 of the 110 years from 1896 onwards. And the reason for this, he argues, is that they were the party (a) that could convince Quebec to stay in Canada; and (b) that could convince the rest of Canada that they could make the sale in Quebec."
Let's start with the 'Liberals ruled Canada for 80 of the 110 years from 1896 onwards'.  They did dominate Canadian politics and there were good reasons for that, including domination in Quebec. However, at the end of that era the Chretien majorities were built on sweeping Ontario not Quebec.

In the first instance Laurier, as the first French-speaking prime minister, commanded loyalty from his fellow citizens in Quebec. That would be reinforced in 1917 by the conscription crisis, which led to long-term francophone distrust of the Conservatives.  However, the reasons for Liberal support among Quebec francophone voters no longer apply.  Indeed the Liberals last won a plurality of francophone votes in Quebec in 1980, some 32 years ago. Antagonism to the 1982 Constitution for allegedly 'excluding' Quebec, plus Meech Lake and sponsorship reduced the Liberals to their lowest point ever among the Quebec francophone electorate in 2011.

How bad is it for the Liberals in Quebec?  Look at the table below which groups Quebec riding results from 2011 into three categories, by far the largest of which is "Most Francophone":

C.P.C Liberal NDP Green Bloc Other Total
Most Francophone (85%+) 18.6% 8.8% 43.7% 2.0% 26.4% 0.5% 100.0%
Intermediate (50% to 85%) 11.0% 18.5% 44.5% 2.2% 22.1% 1.7% 100.0%
Anglo (Less than 50%) 19.8% 33.6% 33.7% 2.7% 9.6% 0.5% 100.0%
Quebec - All voters 16.5% 14.2% 42.9% 2.1% 23.4% 0.9% 100.0%

The Liberal vote among francophone voters is somewhere around 9%.

Let's look closely at Justin Trudeau's own riding of Papineau: the pattern repeats itself there. The red Liberal polls at either end of the riding are predominantly anglo/allo while the more francophone strip in the middle divided itself between the NDP orange and the Bloc blue. See this map of allophones by census tracts in Montreal. While not perfect it gives you the general idea. Look at the tracts just south of Metropolitan Boulevard on either side of Papineau. Indeed the NDP/BQ split of the francophone vote enabled Justin Trudeau to increase his margin (as Kay cites) while simultaneously losing vote share (he received about 41.5 % of the vote in 2008 but just 38.4% in 2011).

This is the situation the Liberals face. They confront a newly successful federalist NDP now led by Thomas Mulcair, a person who has deeper roots in Quebec than Justin. And a complete loss of faith in the Liberal Party by the Quebec francophone electorate, and they have even lost some ground among the anglo/allo electorate.

There were specific, valid reasons why the Liberals did so well in the 20th century that are not present now. What is it that Justin Trudeau brings to francophone Quebec voters that would permit them to reason that he makes a preferable alternative to other parties? There is no obvious answer.

The Liberals still retain a significant measure of support among anglophone/allophone voters. Perhaps Trudeau could expand Liberal support among this demographic but Mulcair too has a history of defending the interests of this community.  It won't be as easy or automatic as many seem to assume to roll back the orange tide.

It continues to be TC's strong impression that the Liberals are just not facing up to the dilemmas that confront them, particularly with respect to Quebec.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Quebec postmortem - polls and PQ prospects

The person with the best grasp of Quebec polling (in TC's view) is Université de Montréal sociologist Claire Durand.  In a post on her blog Ah les sondages, she made several estimates of the potential outcome based on the polls.  Her scenario #2 here (en français) was not all that far off the final result estimating the PQ at 32.5% [actual was 31.94%], the PLQ at 28.9% [31.21%] and the CAQ at 27.7% [27.06%].

The problem of underestimating the Liberal vote is not new and it showed up again in 2012.  The reason Durand's scenario # 2 was closer than others was that she disproportionately distributed undecided voters to the Liberals, giving them half of that group. In a close three way race such as this one, an apparently small shift can make a significant difference. Durand discusses it further in her post-mortem.

The PQ now has a government and a leaderless Liberal opposition, so it will have some breathing room. However, it has one of the weakest mandates of any newly elected administration in Canadian history.  The 1927 Manitoba election gave the Bracken Progressives 32.4% of the vote, although they won a majority of the seats. I have been looking but haven't yet found a weaker popular vote (the BC Socreds were a little lower in the 1952 BC election but it wasn't a first-past-post voting system).

The PQ faces an electorate opposed to its sovereignty plans and with little appetite for a referendum.  The same CROP poll that reported 62% opposed to sovereignty found that 68% of Quebec's citizens are opposed to holding a referendum.  For all the initial bluster of their post-election statements they will have no choice but to proceed cautiously.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Quebec Election - PQ will win

The PQ will win tomorrow's Quebec election, either just above or just below a majority.  This assumes the polls are accurate, by no means a certainty given what happened in Alberta earlier this year.

There has been near unanimity in the closing polls on a close race overall.  However, there are two Quebecs: in anglophone Quebec the Liberals continue to hold a large overall lead, while the PQ is about six or seven points ahead of the CAQ among francophones.  The latter is the critical number.  A six point lead is enough to give the PQ a comfortable victory although perhaps not a majority in the province as a whole. Earlier upward progress for the CAQ among francophones has stalled. Is this accurate? That's the question.

My seat estimate gives the PQ just above a majority with the Liberals in second and the CAQ third.  If the vote is at all close overall the Liberals could easily finish third in the popular vote while finishing second in seats.

Only CROP has polled on the sovereignty question.  They appear to be using a "hard" question about sovereignty rather than a variation on the sovereignty-association questions used in 1980 and 1995. Nevertheless, with the undecided redistributed proportionately, the NO side leads 69-31 and this has increased since the beginning of the campaign. With the PQ on the verge of winning the increase in anti-sovereignty sentiment may be a consequence.

The campaign of prospective Premier Marois has made a great deal of nationalist noise since the beginning of the campaign.  However, pressure from party ranks appears to have made this necessary.  I expect that post-campaign the new PQ administration will initially sound a lot like the mythological Rene Levesque of this Aislin cartoon:

Indeed we have already heard via the Globe and Mail that the bond market will take it all in stride:
Investors may be “underpricing the risk” of a pro-sovereignty government in Quebec, but a Parti Québécois victory in Tuesday’s election promises only a muted initial response after a campaign of soothing words where the markets are concerned.
Nonetheless, the greatest constant of Quebec history is nationalism and, while it is quiescent at the moment, one cannot always count on it remaining so.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Quebec election - my initial take

It is much too early to get a good take on the Quebec election. 

However, there is reason to conclude that it will be an indecisive result. The choice is between an unpopular incumbent Liberal administration that appears to be calling the election early to avoid the fallout of an inquiry into corruption allegations, an opposition PQ whose leader suffered numerous defections from her party and caucus over the past few years, and a small 'c' conservative third party, the CAQ, led by an uncharismatic former PQ minister, who now implies that he is no longer interested in sovereignty but is trying to straddle the nationalist fence while embracing bizarre policy planks.

The eventual post-Labour day outcome seems a long way off.

This seat-by-seat projection from Canadian Election Atlas seems as reasonable as one might expect at this stage, and the totals of Liberal - 44, PQ - 57, CAQ - 17, Quebec Solidaire - 2 and Close - 33 seem reasonable but by no means predictive of the final count. 

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The $16 orange juice

There has been a growing tendency in all forms of media to regard almost all forms of benefits accruing to those who work in the public sector, either in the political or bureaucratic realm, as a scandalous waste of resources and an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer.  Thus we have the $16 orange juice expensed by the now departed Bev Oda deemed to be a critical factor in her expulsion from the Harper cabinet rather than her many other abuses as a minister.  As Calgary Grit noted: "While most will toast Bev Oda’s departure with a $16 glass of orange juice, to me, she’ll always be the Cabinet Minister who doctored government files and got away with it." Elizabeth May also has a good blog post on this topic that focuses on Oda's real sins.

What TC laments is that there is a whole structure of private privilege in the corporate world, most of which has real costs that are borne by taxpayers (through corprate and personal tax deductions) and individuals as citizens (through prices, interest rates, lower returns on pensions, you name it). But we rarely hear about them.

Watch this scene from the 2011 movie Margin Call where the corporate chief executive played by Jeremy Irons treats himself to an expensive meal with a fine bottle of red wine. He is in the fictional company's dining room high atop a New York skyscraper overlooking the city's skyline. The scene is a metaphor but these kinds of perks are real. They do receive some attention from investor watchdog sites. The business magazine Forbes provided a few highlights (or lowlights) in this article. Many are tax-subsidized.

Our perspective on this has become completely lopsided and distorted. Oda stayed at an expensive hotel in London (the Savoy) that she she should not have. But who do you think the hotel serves most of the time: politicians and public servants, or those in the private sector (including celebrities) many of whom will be able to deduct the costs from corporate and personal taxes, or who work for firms such as defence contractors that are lavished with tax dollars?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Justin Trudeau as Kim Campbell

A poll released today by Angus Reid offers the suggestion that the Liberal Party, if led by Justin Trudeau, would leap to first place ahead of the Conservatives and NDP.

We have seen this before. In 1993 the press and polling firms eagerly produced a series of polls suggesting that if the PCs of the day chose Kim Campbell as leader, a third PC majority would be at hand. 

The polls also continued to ask the standard who would you vote for question.  The conditionalized if Kim Campbell question produced, in some cases, spectacular results for the PCs who had been in a deep polling funk for a couple of years (as low as 11% one month in 1992 in the Gallup Poll).

A Gallup poll in the Globe in April 1993 reported that with Campbell as leader the PCs would have 50% of popular support while the Liberals would have just 29%.  However, in the regular Gallup Poll all through this period where the 'which party would you vote for if an election were held today' type question was asked, the Liberals always led the Conservatives and never fell below 39%. Even when Campbell did become leader and had a honeymoon period (which evapourated as the 1993 campaign unfolded), she never did as well as she did in those early conditionalized surveys.

Once you depart from the regular question, the whole polling exercise becomes quite different from ordinary surveys, and the results have we have seen as about as meaningful as they were in April 1993.
Angus Reid has also polled last year on Canadians' favourite Prime Minister since 1968.  Pierre Trudeau finished ahead of Harper shortly after he won his majority despite the fact that Mr. Trudeau had left office nearly 30 years earlier. Pierre Trudeau is clearly now an icon (largely I suspect due to the popularity of the Charter). However, an abstract icon is quite distinct from a flesh and blood politician who delights some and annoys others. I suspect the father's enduring popularity influences the apparent support for the son, who, it is likely, is not yet well known to most Canadians. In the longer term it will be the reality of the son and not the father that will matter.

The popularity of the father very much makes this a politics of yearning for an earlier, better time if you are a Liberal, a politics of nostalgia.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Politics of Nostalgia

With Bob Rae's announcement that he won't contest the Liberal leadership, there is now considerable media speculation about Justin Trudeau as the great Liberal hope. 

Trudeau indeed has real political skills including strong performance skills (partly reflecting his dramatic training). His political potential first emerged when he delivered the eulogy at this father's funeral. He seems quite willing, according to the accounts one reads on Twitter and in the the Liberal blogs, to respond to speaking and appearance requests by party members. Ironically, this aspect of his character seems more reflective of his uninhibited mother than his shy father. However, the interest in his candidacy would be far more muted if his name was Justin Sinclair (or Justin Smith).

But the Trudeau era is gone, and Liberals need to recognize the sheer scale of their weakness to have any hope of revival.  TC wrote a series on Liberal decline in 2010, and said the following in the concluding segment:
The Liberals may find a way out of their current doldrums and a leadership change might serve as catalyst. However, the Liberal party is in crisis and it is possible that this will present an opportunity for the NDP to break out of the confines of third place. The Liberals need to identify their areas of strategic and demographic weakness and do something about them, but there is no evidence of that happening. So it is fair to describe the Liberal Party as being in a multi-dimensional crisis.
One area of "strategic and demographic" weakness is Quebec, particularly francophone Quebec. In 1980 Pierre Trudeau in his last election won 74 of 75 Quebec seats.  In 2011, in the 44 ridings in Quebec with a population more than 85% francophone, the Liberals won zero seats and just 8.8% of the vote.  Only one Liberal, Denis Coderre of Bourassa, won a majority francophone district.

Justin Trudeau strongly supports his father's vision of federalism.  In the eulogy noted above he said:
He left politics in '84. But he came back for Meech. He came back for Charlottetown. He came back to remind us of who we are and we're all capable of. But he won't be coming back anymore. It's all up to us, all of us, now.
However, the Trudeau vision of federalism has not won an election in francophone Quebec since 1980. The Chrétien Liberals did finish first in vote share in Quebec in the 2000 election but that largely reflected unhappiness with the Bouchard PQ government in Quebec City and in particular, its municipal amalgamations. Moreover, the Liberal success was based on overwhelming anglophone and allophone success. A plurality of francophones voted for the BQ, which actually increased its vote share from the 1997 election (See the 2000 Canadian Election Study on p. 6 for some details on vote share).
The NDP's success in Quebec in 2011 has been unduly attributed to Jack Layton's personality. While his personal appeal was quite important, one cannot ignore Layton's long term wooing of soft nationalists in Quebec including support for asymmetrical federalism, and policies on Quebec-Canada relations included in the 2005 Sherbrooke statement. The NDP approach to federalism in Quebec, which has just demonstrated its success, is completely at odds with the Trudeau vision and legacy.  What are the thoughts of Liberals on these issues?  We hear nothing except bland assurances that the Liberals can somehow easily grow their support in Quebec.
Will the Liberals now try to appeal to this segment of the Quebec electorate and if so, how? If their objective is to rebuild support for Trudeauism in Quebec, how do they expect to succeed? What strategic premises underpin such an approach?  These questions need answers.  To ignore the problems or assume them away is wishful thinking.
As TC noted a couple of months ago in discussing Thomas Mulcair, in addition to performance skills and ideology there are other "important aspects of leadership: the role of the party chief as motivator, cheerleader, reconciler of the inevitable party factions, lead party organizer, most important fund raiser and chief executive officer". 
However, the leadership quality that matters most to Liberals now is figuring out what to do about the party's long-term strategic failure. Instead of coming to grips with reality, one sees wishful thinking and a politics of nostalgia. That seems to be what the Justin Trudeau candidacy represents.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Harris-Decima poll on Mulcair's views

Polls frequently measure something other than what they appear to be estimating.  Take the example of the Harris-Decima poll for CP headlined:New poll suggests Canadians split over NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's energy views.

At first glance one might think that Canadians are assessing Mulcair's views on how the Alberta oil sands are causing the Canadian dollar to be overvalued, costing Canada manufacturing jobs, as a consequence of the failure of the federal government to enforce existing environmental legislation.

The problem with polling on this topic is that it is complex, and it is highly likely that relatively few understand it. As political scientist John Zaller noted in his invaluable work, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (on page 76):
To state the matter more generally, most people aren't really sure what their opinions are on most political matters.... They're not sure because there are few occasions, outside of an interview situation, where they are called upon to formulate and express political opinions. So, when confronted by rapid-fire questions in a public opinion survey, they make up attitude reports as best they can as they go along.
The HD survey asked two questions; the first sought to measure awareness:

"Recently, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has made comments regarding the impact of the oil sands on the Canadian economy. Have you read, seen or heard something about these comments?" In addition, Mulcair's views were described this way: “Mr. Mulcair suggested that the oil sands raise the value of the Canadian dollar, which is hurting the economy in other parts of the country as buyers can no longer afford to buy as much from Canadian manufacturers.”

Note that the question does not provide the environmental context of Mulcair's position, something he repeats whenever he talks about this issue.  See this exchange in the House of Commons May 17 where, for example, Mulcair says:
Mr. Speaker, 500,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost because we are not enforcing legislation. We are not enforcing the navigable waters act. We are not enforcing the migratory birds act. We are not enforcing the Fisheries Act. We are allowing these companies to use the air, the soil and the water as an unlimited free dumping ground. Their model for development is Nigeria instead of Norway. We know what we want: it is sustainable development to protect future generations. 
It should not be forgotten that many people are reluctant to acknowledge their own ignorance of an important issue, so the poll almost certainly overstates Canadians' actual awareness of his views. But the poll reported that just 44 per cent of Canadians even claimed to be aware of his views. Logically, only those who affirmed awareness of his views should have been asked the following question (although it appears all were asked): "Would you say you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with Mr. Mulcair's remarks"?

The poll perhaps not surprisingly does not really give a picture of what Canadians think about this relatively complex argument.  Instead it taps into pre-existing attitudes to the oil sands and Mulcair. What matters most are the words in the question. The words almost certainly prompted respondents to articulate how they felt either about Mulcair and the NDP, or the oil sands.

In its release, HD notes the following:
Agreement with Mulcair’s comments mirrors partisan ideology fairly well with the majority of NDP supporters agreeing with him (55%) along with 64% of BQ supporters with Liberal supporters fairly evenly split (48% agree vs. 44% disagree). Green party supporters were actually the second most likely to disagree with Mulcair’s assessment (56% disagree).
Hardly a surprise.

What strikes TC about the views of Green supporters is while it might seem surprisingly at odds with the strong environmental content of Mulcair's views, it is easily explained.  It is likely that many Greens are low information protest voters who simply don't know what Mulcair's views are.  The HD questions don't include Mulcair's environmental views, and media reporting on this score has been lamentably deficient.

The pundit class and the media have largely echoed the government line put succinctly by Heritage Minister James Moore in the exchange linked to above:  "The NDP approach is to attack the west, divide Canadians and attack parts of this country that he has never even been to."

Not to pick on him but, for example, pundits like Bruce Anderson speculated: "Mulcair’s oil-sands musing risks halting NDP momentum."  Anderson suggests that "some" think Mulcair "wants to deliberately split the country, rallying Ontarians and Quebeckers to put the NDP over the top by blaming the West’s success for Central Canada’s misfortunes."

The regional conflict paradigm, the government's narrative, has been the dominant narrative about this story in the media and among pundits. The actual story is more complex and could have been summarized clearly and fairly.  It wasn't.
However, because the debate is complex, and not really of immediate relevance to people's lives (although the long-run implications of how the tar sands are developed do matter), the whole exchange has been mostly an elite "inside the Queensway" discourse. While many media pundits were sure it would harm the NDP, it has in fact appeared to have had little impact one way or another. Two polls have been conducted and released since the contretemps emerged. The NDP leads in one, and both rank Mulcair as the most popular leader.

Mulcair and the NDP have not been harmed by this debate, and Mulcair, to his credit, confounded media and pundit expectations by sticking to his principles.  However, he does need to communicate in terms that are more easily accessible. A few understand what "internalizing the costs" of the tar sands means but most of the Canadian public does not.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Recent research at Harvard makes it clear the Harper EI changes make no sense

Employment insurance is there to provide income support to workers who have lost their jobs. Ideally, if the labour market is to work efficiently and well, then workers generally should be able to find comparable employment to what they had before.

The Harper government's changes are headed in the completely wrong direction.  I think Tom Walkom has it right in the Star in his column headlined "EI changes driven by contempt and ideology".

Moreover. there is recent research that contradicts the Harper approach to unemployment insurance.

As a kind of add-on at the end of a fascinating column in the Financial Times called "Lunch with the FT" (featuring a lunch discussion between FT columnist Martin Wolf and Paul Krugman) there is the following:
Young economists: The empiricists strike back
The empirical work of young economists, as championed by Paul Krugman, is influencing policy debates. Here are some names to watch, say FT leader writers Martin Sandbu and Ferdinando Giugliano:....

Raj Chetty, 32, is one of the youngest-ever tenured professors at Harvard’s economics department. He is best-known for going against the conventional theory that unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to look for work. Chetty’s research shows benefits can be helpful as they prevent people from rushing to take an unsuitable job.
The full Chetty study alluded to in the column can be found here:

I think someone should tell the Harper government that perhaps that practical, empirical research says they are headed in the wrong direction in this area as in so many others.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Alberta election results

For most what was striking about the Alberta election outcome was that fact that there was almost no hint of what was coming in the polls. The polling error was significant and TC can't really account for why it happened. There are good discussions of what might have happened here and here. However, it was not without some precedent in recent history.

It should not be forgotten that there was significant polling error at the time of the last federal election. It was most important in Ontario but significant elsewhere (of course we know now that voter interference may have been involved).  The polls had the average lead in Ontario for the Conservatives as 9 per cent while on election day their actual lead was 18 per cent, enough on its own to make the difference between majority and minority.

In Alberta comparing the results of the 2008 election with 2012 reveals that the key region in the election was Calgary.  The PCs significantly overperformed in the city relative to their overall provincial performance.

As one can see in the table below the PCs lost 8.7% province-wide but actually gained a little vote share in Calgary.

Change 2012 minus 2008 PC Liberal NDP Wildrose Green Other
Alberta -8.7% -16.5% 1.3% 27.5% -4.2% 0.5%
Calgary 0.3% -22.0% 0.6% 26.7% -4.2% -1.3%
Edmonton -2.4% -17.2% 3.9% 16.8% -2.8% 1.7%
Lethbridge/Red Deer -8.0% -22.5% 8.4% 24.5% -4.2% 1.8%
Rest of Alberta -18.7% -11.4% 0.0% 33.9% -4.9% 1.1%

This does suggest to TC that the endorsement from Peter Lougheed mattered in Calgary as did the comments of Calgary Mayor Nenshi attacking the extremist comments of two Wildrose candidates.  So too did the climate change comments of Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

Interestingly, the Alberta outcome has led to some despair among more right-wing Canadian conservatives such as Gerry Nicholls, a former VP of the National Citizens' coalition. For him the result in Alberta meant 'Canadian conservatism is dead':
Time of death: April 23, when Alberta’s conservative-leaning Wildrose Party, after being swept up high on the winds of the polls, came crashing down to Earth with a disappointing thud. What made this event the equivalent of an ideological house crushing is not so much the result of the vote, but rather how that result is being interpreted. Experts are blaming the Wildrose loss on its conservative agenda. They say Wildrose was just too radical to win.

For instance, in its electoral postmortem, the Toronto Star gloatingly pointed out that Albertans didn’t share “Wildrose’s enthusiasm for rehashed ‘firewall’ policies, privatized health and charter schools.” Of course, you would expect those on the political left to make such an argument. But surprisingly Wildrose leader Danielle Smith is also saying much the same thing. As she put it, “We have some soul-searching to do as a party. Our members have now seen that some of our policies were rejected by Albertans, quite frankly .… We will be revisiting some of those. You can’t run a government if you don’t get sanction from the people.”
He is right that what really matters is that the Wildrose leader herself acknowledges that her party is too extreme for the Alberta electorate.

Nicholls goes on to offer an alternative explanation but perhaps he is on to something.  Despite that great triumph a year ago for his former Citizens' Coalition colleague Mr. Harper, there are signs that Canadians are beginning to tire of this kind of politics.

One more footnote on Alberta, it provided yet another example of the continuing carnage being experienced by Canadian Liberals.  The Alberta party lost 16.5 % from one election to the next.  The focus was on PC/Wildrose but note also that in contrast to the Liberals, the NDP made a modest advance in a context where there was an incentive for voters on the left to vote PC to block Wildrose.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Harper's Celebration of the War of 1812

In announcing their intention to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 the Conservative press release noted:"Against great odds, it took the combined efforts of Canadians of all ancestries to repel the American invasion..."

Indeed early on the war effort of the Americans was a dismal failure. But do the Harperites realize it was a failure in no small part because the forces advocating the war in the U.S. were low tax small government consevatives like, um, the Harper Conservatives? From Econobrowser:
I’ve been reading some history, from Simon Johnson and James Kwak's new book, White House Burning. And it strikes me how ahistorical (or just plain ignorant of history) so many of the prescriptions for fixing up the economy are. For instance, the tax cutting ideology of today is merely a recapitulation of what has caused America to come to grief at the Nation’s birth.
From White House Burning, on the lead-up to the War of 1812:
... the War Hawks were ideologically and politically opposed to taxes—particularly the excise (internal trade) taxes that Gallatin wanted to impose. As the party of small government, the Democratic-Republicans believed that higher tax revenues constituted a threat to individuals’ and states’ rights. Perhaps more importantly, they feared that raising taxes to fight a war could hurt them at the ballot box. ...
Hampered by Congress’s reluctance to raise taxes, the Treasury Department struggled to pay for soldiers in the field and ships at sea. ... Congress finally agreed to impose excise taxes in 1813, but it was too late to build up a world-class military. ... In August 1814, British forces sailed into Patuxent. ... The soldiers marched overland ... and eventually reached Washington, where they encountered little resistance. On the night of August 24, they burned the Capitol, the Treasury Building, and the White House ...” (pages 3-4)
Of course irony is not one of Harper's strong suits so I am sure this would sail over his head. The juxtaposition was just too delicious to ignore.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Conservatives stoop ever lower

The Conservative party has contributed to a lowering of the civility of political discourse in Canada.  An example came on Saturday night when the NDP elected a new leader. The very minute Thomas Mulcair's victory was announced the CPC attack dogs sent out an email full of bile and vitriol.

Today on Question Period, CTV's Kevin Newman asked the right question to Conservative cabinet minister James Moore about it: "Does your political culture not allow for even one minute to say congratulations?"

See it here at the 1:39 mark.

NDP Convention Voting Turnout

Apart from the difficulties of online voting, we should not have been surprised at the relatively low turnout in yesterday's voting.

In 2003 58,202 members voted, about 54 per cent of the then total membership.  There was only one ballot.

Yesterday the turnout was a little lower, about 50 per cent on the first ballot. It dropped a little on succeeding ballots. We should not forget that rules regarding union membership and participation were different then so the two situations are not strictly comparable.  But it should not have been assumed given previous experience that most members would vote.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

NDP Convention Second Ballot

Overall the total vote dropped by 2614 votes on the second ballot (there will be an assumption that it is online voters but it could be early voters not expressing a second choice or some on the floor; it is actually impossible to tell) but the four candidates still around gained a total of 9827 votes.

Of the votes gained by those still on the ballot Thomas Mulcair picked up 42.5 per cent of the total, far ahead of the others.

Mulcair will win. I would guess on the fourth ballot, but it might be the third.

Convention Math

The first ballot of the NDP convention is complete.  Mulcair leads with 30.3% followed by Brian Topp at 21.4%.

Assuming the order of finish after the first ballot remains the same, Brian Topp would need 60 per cent of second choices over the next few ballots to overhaul Thomas Mulcair.  That is too steep a hill to climb.

While it is hypothetically possible that the number voting online will increase on the second ballot, TC thinks it is highly unlikely to increase much if at all.  I haven't been able to find the number from 2003 but my memory tells me there was similar surprise at the relatively low number voting online or by telephone.

Friday, March 23, 2012

NDP Convention gets underway

Mrs. tcnorris was at the NDP leadership convention today with a friend, and they report that, overall, the speeches and presentations were positive. Two stood out particularly: Paul Dewar's show was far and away the strongest, while she did not like Brian Topp's efforts.

It occurred to TC, however, that the speeches and demonstrations weren't important.  As this Hill Times article noted, "55,659 New Democrats across the country had cast online or mail-in ballots by Friday morning". That is easily going to be a majority of all votes cast. In principle it would have made more sense to hold the events of today a week ago (if one could ignore the logistics).

In previous delegated conventions speeches rarely mattered, even perhaps when they should have, despite the fact that all those then listening could have changed their minds.

The lesson here is that unless the final outcome is exceptionally close, the convention dynamics this weekend won't matter (for example, candidates dropping off and supporting another candidate still on the ballot). You may not get that impression from the media coverage.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Online polls

Of the two polls referred to in my February 15 post, one, Angus Reid, was an online poll (methodology outlined on the first page) while the Ekos poll (methodology on the last page) was conducted by an innovative telephone technology, interactive voice recognition or IVR for short, essentially a recorded voice that asks the questions while respondents as Ekos states "enter their preferences by punching the keypad on their phone."

Increasingly the polls being reported in the media are conducted online.  Essentially, firms recruit a very large panel of respondents by advertising on the net and getting voluntary sign-ups. With the panel's email addresses the pollster then conducts a poll by randomly selecting members of the panel to receive answer an internet survey.  However, the methodology is new and essentially experimental. Certainly there are no clearly defined agreed upon standards for online polls.

Recently, Nate Silver of the New York Times wrote a long and intelligent blog post entitled Before Citing a Poll, Read the Fine Print, about this new methodology:
Internet-based polls are very likely to be a part of polling’s future, and my view is not necessarily that they should be dismissed out of hand. However, they need to be approached with caution.
The central challenge that Internet polls face is in collecting a random sample, which is the sine qua non of a scientific survey. There is no centralized database of e-mail addresses, nor any other method to “ping” someone at random to invite them to participate in an online poll. Many people have several e-mail addresses, while about 20 percent of Americans still do not go online at all.
The situation can be contrasted with the platonic ideal of a telephone poll, in which everybody has a phone number, and they each have an equal chance of being reached through a random digit dial method.
In reality, telephone polling falls short of the platonic ideal, while the best online polls take steps to make their samples effectively random. Some telephone polls, especially those that are conducted through automated scripts, do not call cellphone numbers, even though more than a quarter of American households do not have landline telephones at all, with the fraction increasing by several percentage points every year. Meanwhile, households often share a single number between a family, or they have multiple telephone lines; careful pollsters take steps to ensure that their samples are not biased by these problems, but others apply a blitzkrieg approach to polling and do not.
Practices for conducting online polls vary significantly from survey firm to survey firm.....
My view is that online polls should be regarded as “guilty until proven innocent.”
TC completely endorses the latter sentiment.

If one looks at Canadian polling firms one finds a full range of methodologies.  There are some including Nanos Research and Ipsos that use traditional telephone methods of conducting a survey. Angus Reid uses online surveys from its panel, volunteers recruited from the internet. Forum Research mainly uses interactive voice recognition for its media polls but on its web site suggests that it uses a variety of research methods.  Ekos research used interactive voice recognition for its election polls in 2011 but also deploys a combined methodology it describes as a "unique, hybrid online/traditional random digit dialling (RDD) panel" (see p. 12). It also notes that all "respondents to our panel are recruited by telephone using random digit dialling and are confirmed by live interviewers".  Abacus polls online as in this latest federal party preference survey.

A recent example illustrates why we need to be skeptical about all polling.

Nanos released a poll on March 15th on Ontario party preference.  It described its methodology this way:

Between March 3rd and 5th, 2012, Nanos Research conducted a random telephone survey of 500 Ontarians 18 years and older. A random telephone survey of 500 Ontarians is accurate plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.  For 428 decided voters, the margin of error is accurate plus or minus 4.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The poll reported that the Ontario Liberals led with 39.9%, the PCs were second with 30.0% while the NDP had 24.7%.
This day before Forum Research released a poll with this methodology (as described in the Toronto Star):
Forum’s interactive voice-response telephone poll of 1,065 people, conducted on Tuesday, is considered accurate to within 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
However, the poll had the PCs leading with 40%, the Liberals at 28% and the NDP at 23%. 

It was two weeks later than Nanos but the time lapse cannot possibly explain the different result.  It is a lesson that the results of a single poll can be dead wrong. Which one of these two is wrong?  Who knows? And we can`t find out as there is no imminent Ontario election on the horizon to confirm one outcome or the other.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The NDP leadership race

On March 24 in Toronto the NDP will select a new leader, one who well may become prime minister after the next election. The NDP became the official opposition following the May 2, 2011 general election due in no small part to the leadership and personal appeal of Jack Layton.

However, it is now many months later and Frank Graves of Ekos Research argues that the NDP`s popularity endures despite the loss of Layton. In a commentary released with a survey on March 16 Graves says:
Another interesting finding is the continued strong performance of the NDP. One might think that a leaderless party, with a largely untested caucus, that had vaulted to unimaginable heights, putatively on the charismatic authority of the now departed Jack Layton, would have fallen back to Earth. The fact that they remain squarely in second place, well ahead of the still hapless Liberal Party, and within striking distance of the Conservative Party, suggests that this interpretation was flawed. ... the stable strength of the NDP under such inauspicious conditions suggests this movement to the NDP was far more than Jack-o-mania. The real forces lie in understanding the new salience of income inequality as an issue (reflected in the relative income characteristics of NDP versus Conservative supporters) and a longer term shift to a more polarized ideological landscape.
The Ekos poll party preference numbers continue to report the Conservatives in first with 35.4%, the NDP in second with 29.7% and the Liberals at 19.6%. In addition Graves notes:
Looking at how Canadians feel about the direction in which the country is heading, we come across a rather shocking finding. For the first time since we began measuring national direction in the late 90s, those who feel the country is going in the wrong direction now outnumber those who believe it is going in the right direction.
This underlines the importance of the NDP contest. The candidates for the NDP leadership have exhibited many strengths, but none seem to have the combination of attributes that made Jack Layton a superb and uniquely successful national NDP leader.

Among the leading candidates Thomas Mulcair has far and away the strongest political skills, and he appears likely to win precisely because of those skills. However, there are legitimate doubts about him. These are less about ideology, notwithstanding the Topp/Broadbent complaints, and more to do with the other equally important aspects of leadership: the role of the party chief as motivator, cheerleader, reconciler of the inevitable party factions, lead party organizer, most important fund raiser and chief executive officer.

Mulcair is best positioned of all the candidates to consolidate the NDP's gains in Quebec. The questions about him are how well he will appeal to other parts of Canada, and how he will do in the multiple other roles demanded of a party leader. That latter question applies to the others as well.

Were it not for the importance of Quebec to the NDP at this historical moment Paul Dewar might be seen as a logical choice. However, his French is weak and some of his platform performances have been wooden. Despite his linguistic handicap Dewar has rolled out the strongest, best organized campaign suggesting some real talent for the non-policy leadership roles. If Mulcair wins and wants to demonstrate skills in re-uniting the party he would do well to incorporate some of Dewar's organizers into his team.

Peggy Nash appears to have the strongest appeal to the party's left and most of its feminists. However, her performance in the debates has been dull and weak, rarely rising above conventional political rhetoric conventionally delivered. With a Masters in French Literature, the bilingual Nash has a combination of attributes that suggest she will be a strong second choice for many, and the one candidate who might overcome Mulcair.

Brian Topp started out trying to overwhelm the race, but has since fallen back substantially, a product of an uninspiring performance and poor retail political skills.  Early on TC heard complaints about his managment style from several separate sources who had had previous direct contact with him in different contexts. Despite his strong Quebec roots and French language skills, he has wound up becoming a divisive candidate likely to fall well behind.

Clearly Ed Broadbent's intervention against Mulcair came from Topp's campaign. Broadbent's key charge that Mulcair would take the party to the centre was not substantiated in any meaningful way. However, it is ironic, given that Topp was a key party organizer in the 2011 election, a campaign characterized as follows in this article by the National Post's Chris Selley:
... University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane observes in a recent study of the NDP’s marketing strategy during the 2011 campaign. “The party tried to establish its Third Way credentials early in the campaign by focusing on issues not usually associated with the NDP: helping veterans, increasing military spending on building naval ships … hiring more police officers, preventing gang recruitment and issuing tougher sentences on home invasions and carjacking,” he writes. Canadians, strategists accurately concluded, “expected a potential governing party to have a well-rounded set of policies” — they want, dare we say it, something approximating centrism.
TC's view is that, for all the campaign rhetoric, there will be no difference among any of the contenders in terms of what it will mean for the NDP's ideological stance going forward. Regardless of who wins the party will straddle the centre-left, seeking to maxmize its appeal while continuing the party's traditions.

Frank Graves notes in his commentary that the NDP has now supplanted the Liberal Party as the first choice of Canadian small 'l' liberals.
In this survey, we asked respondents whether they considered themselves to be small-l liberals or small-c conservatives. What is perhaps most striking here is the growing polarization between those who see themselves on the left and those who see themselves on the right....

For the first time, we now see more small-l liberals in the NDP camp than in the Liberal camp. The slight proliferation of small-l liberals will do little do reduce the success of the conservative wave which has swept to power in Canada as long as the liberal choices are ineffectually arrayed across four rather than one choice.
Graves's latter point brings us to Nathan Cullen who advocates formal Liberal-NDP cooperation. Cullen has substantially exceeded initial expectations of how well he would do in this race. His specific mechanics for doing NDP-Liberal cooperation appear to be impractical, and there are no immediate prospects for the Liberals and NDP coming together. However, in the longer run what will matter are the actual professed beliefs of the two parties, and the perceptions of the Canadian public about where the two stand.

The parties have decades of different traditions and policy priorities, but Cullen's argument cannot be dismissed easily. For several years now, various organizations have been pitching inter-party cooperation between the Liberals and the NDP on the premise that the two parties' differences are small relative to the contrast with the Harper Conservatives. At the very least the NDP and Liberals ought to maintain a strong informal dialogue to clarify the views they hold in common as well as their differences. They could find that the next election result places considerable pressure on them to come together to form a government.

Apart from raising this issue Cullen has been successful in the party debates in projecting the image of a fresh and somewhat droll voice from the west coast. Starting out as a minor candidate whose proposal for party cooperation is probably rejected by a strong majority of NDP members, he has brought himself into the leading group of candidates.

It is not clear to TC what the exact order of finish will be, although it is my strong impression that Mulcair will wind up on top. Whoever wins will have a difficult road ahead re-uniting the party and faces an immediate challenge in parliament following up on the electoral fraud/ vote intereference scandal.

It should also be remembered that leadership contests often bring out the worst in human behaviour and are especially hard on the losers. An excellent book on this subject, Leaders and Lesser Mortals, by Geoffery Stevens and John Laschinger, should be placed on the bookshelf of whoever wins as a reminder.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Robocalls and stuffed ballot boxes

TC is considerably annoyed with the characterization of this scandal under the nomenclature "Robocall".  It places the focus on the means of communcation - pre-recorded voice messages delivered by phone - and not on the substance of the message.  This creates real confusion about what the real issue is here.  It is NOT about the technique of robocalling.

These messages were intended to confuse voters on voting day in order to discourage them from voting. If a party, say the Conservatives, can cause its opponents not to vote, it boosts its election chances in the same way as if it had stuffed ballot boxes with phony votes.  The net effect is the same.

But now we see stories about pre-recorded messages that Liberals used to criticize their Conservative opponents in Guelph, a legitimate use of the technology. I repeat, this is not about the technology, it is about its use for very dirty electoral tricks that clearly amount to electoral fraud.  It is about interfering with Canadians right to vote, electoral fraud, dirty electoral tricks, call it what you will, but it is not about "robocalls". 

The opposition, media and blogging critics have fallen into the trap of focusing on the technology.  That is not the point.

Lawrence Martin in iPolitics in effect asks the right Watergate-type question about all this: What did Harper know and when did he know it?

Monday, February 27, 2012

The voter interference scandal

It is going to happen sooner or later and it seems to TC this might be the one, the scandal that finally damages the Harper government's reputation as being essentially straightforward and honest.  They don't deserve that reputation,  but so far they have retained it.

However, as Lawrence Martin reminds us in the Feb. 27 edition of iPolitics, the vote suppression scandal is really nothing new for the Harper government:
The Conservatives have been caught up in many shady activities since coming to power. The revelation that they may have been behind a robocall operation to suppress voting for opposition parties would rank, if proven, among the more serious offenses....
In giving or not giving the benefit of the doubt on matters like these, the question of the track record figures prominently. To the misfortune of team Harper, its record on duplicitous activities is hardly one to inspire confidence that its hand are clean.
Be sure to read Martin's description of all the other activities. He lists 22 examples and notes that it is not exhaustive.  To be sure.  After publication came this new revelation in the Toronto Star on the voter interference scandal. That latter phrase, in TC's view, is what this scandal should be called. "Robocall" sounds far too neutral.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reporting on Polls

It is TC's view that the reporting of public opinion polls by media outlets has deteriorated recently, athough it has long been flawed.

Two cases in point.

Take, for example, this headline in the Toronto Star, a newspaper that has increasingly been displaying the worst habits of the tabloid NY Post/Toronto Sun variety:  Majority of Canadians support return of death penalty, poll finds.

What is striking is that the headline that appears on the website of the polling firm in question, Angus Reid, actually reads: Canadians Hold Conflicting Views on Death Penalty

While the lead paragraph in the Star speaks of Canadians "warming to the idea of a return of capital punishment", it never outlines the details of the second question asked in the Reid survey: "All things considered, which of these two approaches would you prefer as punishment for convicted murderers in Canada?" The options are "life imprisonment without parole" or "the death penalty".  By a margin of 50% to 38% life imprisonment is preferred.  The question that returned a majority for the death penalty was: "As you may know, Canada eliminated the death penalty for murder in July 1976. All things considered, would you support or oppose reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada?"

It is important to recognize that capturing real public opinion is elusive. Question wording has a significant impact on the numbers that a given query will produce, but it seems clear that, given a choice, Canadians prefer life imprisonment as a punishment for murder.

The Reid headline is more accurate. The Star acknowledges the point about respondents preferring life imprisonment, but the words are deep in the story and oblique: "Given the choice of supporting the death penalty or life imprisonment, 50 per cent chose the latter, the survey found." The impression is clearly left that Canadians are more enthusiastic about the death penalty than life imprisonment. But it ain't so.

A quick Google search also reveals a 2010 Ekos poll that contradicts the Reid question that did produce a majority favouring return of the death penalty (a plurality of 46% to 40% disagreed with the idea of restoring the death penalty).  Information about other surveys with results on the same topic should also have been included if the Star was doing its job.

A more traditional flaw one sees oft repeated is the media outlet/pollster that reports a new result without reference to the work of any other polling firms. Thus we have the following National Post headline about a Forum Research poll: Liberals reach post-election high, but Tories rule the polls 

Just one problem, they are referring only to Forum Research polls. The last Nanos poll, taken before the Forum Poll, had the Liberals at 27.6%, slightly higher than Forum's 26%. Unfortunately, one sees this kind of comparison frequently.  The real problem is the careless journalism.