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.