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?