Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The weak performance of Forum polls in recent by-elections

Forum research conducted polls in two recent sets of by-elections, the August 1, 2013 Ontario by-elections in five constituencies (I posted analysis of the results on August 5) and again for the recent November 25, 2013 by-elections.

Much though I, like others, was fascinated by the polling numbers, overall they were not nearly as accurate as we should expect from polls, and the publication of polls themselves draws too much journalistic attention and energy better spent on issues raised during those contests such as inequality, which did get debated to some extent in Toronto Centre. As others have noted, this does a disservice to voters and might have affected the outcome in at least one constituency.

So just exactly how well did the polls do in these contests.  It is completely measurable.  We can compare the claimed margin of error for the surveys with the actual differences between Forum's final polls and the actual election results.

First a methodological note: the expected error for values that fall towards the extreme end of a range (in this case 1% to 100%) is smaller than for values closer to the middle.  That means as a practical matter the parties that won only a small share of the vote almost always fell within a poll's claimed margin of error.  I have therefore excluded the Green and Other Categories from the tables below as they don't really tell us anything about how well a poll performed. Among the major parties, there were occasions where a party received less than 10% of the popular vote in a given riding. I found only one case of party getting less than 10% (the NDP in the provincial Ottawa South by-election) where the error between the actual outcome and the poll number exceeded the claimed margin of error. It is the major contestants that are of principal interest, those likely to finish first or second in an electoral contest. That is where error truly matters. Among those the Forum polls did not do well.

The bolded numbers in the Difference table are outside the margin of error. What we see is that of the fifteen outcomes in the table above, the number exceeds the margin of error in seven instances. In one additional case, the NDP in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, their 6.1% vote share (7% in the poll), while within the margin of error, was too small to be important. This is a poor performance. In addition, Forum's numbers accurately anticipated in the winner in only three of  five by-elections, one of which, Windsor-Tecumseh, was a runaway victory for the NDP.

Again, in examining the polling in the federal by-elections we find four outright errors among thirteen outcomes. In addition, the Conservatives in Bourassa and Toronto Centre, and the NDP in Brandon-Souris and Provencher had small vote shares (under 10%).  So the fact that all these cases in the Difference table fall within the margin of error is not significant.

The polls were better than throwing darts; the poll numbers were reasonably close in Bourassa and Toronto Centre, but not nearly good enough. Overall Forum's polls were certainly weak enough that no Forum poll released during this most recent set of by-election campaigns deserved a big headline, and none in the future should be treated by the media in any fashion except cautiously and skeptically.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Federal By-elections: What Stories Are They Telling Us?

Most media interpretations of the by-elections lumped them together. It is true that in all instances Conservative support dropped substantially. TC's view is that there are different stories that need to be told to understand what happened.  Since half of the by-elections were in Manitoba, it makes sense to start there.

Manitoba - Provencher and Brandon-Souris

Although the Conservatives won both Provencher and Brandon-Souris, their margins were sharply reduced in both places (the Senate scandal was no doubt an important factor) and the Liberals actually came close to winning in Brandon. Indeed this analysis by Brandon analyst Deveryn Ross asserts that, but for a series of strategic errors including not having leader Justin Trudeau campaigning there last weekend, the Liberals could have overcome their 391 vote margin of defeat. Many have called Brandon a safe Conservative seat but that is an over-simplification. First, while many analysts referred to it as rural, more than half the population lives in Brandon, a large urban centre.  In provincial politics its two ridings have delivered more votes to the NDP than the provincial PCs in the last four elections. Brandon also was never won federally by the Reform Party or the Canadian Alliance. A potential to challenge Conservative dominance has been there for some time and as the constituency becomes more urban over time that is likely to remain. Provencher, despite being won three times by the Liberals since 1968, is currently the safer seat because of its large socially conservative population.

In Manitoba there is a strong reciprocal relationship between Liberal and NDP levels of support both federally and provincially: when one of the two parties is strong, the other is weak. Over the past forty years, voters have quite comfortably switched back and forth between the two. It is clear from voting patterns that the provincial NDP has depended on federal Liberal voters in provincial elections. A spike in Liberal strength in 1988 when the Liberals came close to winning a provincial election was accompanied by success in the 1988 federal election later that year. This strength was matched by NDP weakness from the late eighties into the mid-nineties before reversing.  Below is a graphic on Manitoba federal politics; there is a similar pattern provincially.

Recently polls conducted by Probe research, a Manitoba polling firm, have reported declines in NDP strength both federally and provincially. Liberal support has increased.

In particular, the provincial NDP government of Greg Selinger has been experiencing political weakness since increasing the provincial sales tax in last April`s budget. The NDP government, with the exception of the virtual one-party state in Alberta, is the longest serving Canada and the strains of age are beginning to show.

The Manitoba-Saskatchewan sub-samples of National polls also report increased Liberal strength. The results of the federal by-elections appear to fit these larger patterns. Overall the Manitoba by-elections were a good news story for the Liberal Party.

Toronto Centre

Toronto Centre was less competitive than has been generally perceived. As TC noted in a previous post:
The impending by-elections in the Liberal held seats are being touted as a "test" for Justin Trudeau. However, these were ridings held by the Liberals in 2011 at their lowest point ever. If the recent polls mean anything at all the Liberals should be in a position to easily retain them. I think this will be true of Toronto Centre, where the latest numbers would put the Liberals twenty-five percentage points ahead.
As it turned out Liberal Chrystia Freeland finished 13 points ahead of New Democrat Linda McQuaig. Relatively speaking, this was a strong performance for the NDP, and a weak one for the Liberals despite widespread perceptions to the contrary. The fact that the Liberals were at a reported 37% in Ontario in the new Ipsos poll only reinforces the argument that the party under-performed in Toronto Centre relative to what it should have done. The Liberals only received 19% in the 2011 federal election in Ontario. Given that their poll support is now almost double we should have seen a much greater vote share for them in the by-election.

The NDP performance was partly a product of a strong effort by the NDP. But it always struck TC that the NDP had no realistic chance of winning. Nonetheless it seemed they came to believe they could overcome the odds and the party allowed public perceptions to see a race that wasn`t actually close as winnable. I found much to agree with in this analysis by Robin Sears who is referring to both Toronto Centre and Bourassa:
If they had not allowed themselves to be pushed into the “close NDP/Liberal fight” narrative before election day, their message could have been, “That the Liberals couldn’t win back their traditional support in these party bastions, even in a byelection, should make them a little scared about the next election. We are very proud that we held onto the high-water mark that Jack Layton established for us for the first time in these Liberal fortresses.”
The NDP`s unduly optimistic assessment of the race apparently also led to the adoption of churlish and ineffective tactics such as attacking Chrystia Freeland for not having lived in Canada for 10 years. This tactic distracted from the core NDP message on inequality. Although all parties do this from time to time, they are also all hypocritical in this regard and as far as one can tell, wasting their time and energy.

However, the debate over income inequality likely helped the NDP overall. Linda McQuaig had a more focused and aggressive position on this while Freeland was cautious and platitudinous. In one way the issue may have helped Freeland, albeit in an ironic sense. The Forum polls taken during the race (about which more in a future post), while highly inaccurate in Manitoba, did come close to the mark in Toronto Centre.  If you look at the table on page 3 in this press release from Forum, one notices a steady decline in the Conservative support over the five surveys taken during the race. It would be my guess that some Conservatives saw Linda McQuaig as a threatening figure who should be stopped, and therefore voted for Freeland. If this is true (I am only speculating), it would make the Liberal performance appear that much weaker.


This by-election was held in a long-time safe Liberal riding.  However, the pattern of Quebec politics was upset by the orange wave in 2011 so it was worthwhile for the NDP to take a stab at winning here despite the long-term pattern of voting in this constituency. If one looks at recent province-wide polls in Quebec one sees that the Liberal Party has more than doubled its 2011 support.  However, in the Bourassa by-election, Liberal support rose from about 41% in 2011 to 48% in the by-election, a much smaller overall increase. The NDP`s support slipped a bit but did hold close to its 2011 support. At the very least this suggests the NDP will remain an important player in Quebec in the next election. It is nonetheless a weak (and no doubt disappointing) showing for the NDP given the effort and resources the party was able to focus on this race. Its support in 2011 was part of a wave election and required no special effort then. However, as was the case in Toronto Centre the large increase the Liberals have achieved in recent Quebec polls should, in TC`s view, have given them an even better outcome in Bourassa.

The BQ also slipped a bit further in this by-election (they actually won the riding in 1993) and there may be some larger potential significance there. I have been struck by the weakness of the BQ brand that appears in the recent series of polls conducted by Nanos Research designed to measure "composite federal party brands".  If you look at the Quebec section of the most recent Nanos release (on page 9), you will see that the BQ is running behind even the Green Party in Quebec. It was clear in 2011 that the huge losses suffered by the BQ went mainly to the NDP. Is this survey an indicator that the Bloc might suffer additional losses next time (they did retain 23.1% of the vote in 2011)? If so it is likely the NDP that would benefit most.

Overall, there were a variety of patterns evident in the by-election campaigns and results and they provided a great deal of information to be considered about the state of Canadian politics.

Friday, November 15, 2013

How big is Ford Nation and what is coming in 2014

The Ipsos poll released on November 12 gives us a basis for estimating the size of Ford Nation, at least prior to the beginning of its death spiral. Current developments including stripping Ford of his powers will likely make his situation somewhat worse.

One weakness of Forum Research's recent polling on approval of Ford's performance is that the surveys did not distinguish between those who strongly or just somewhat approve/ disapprove of him. The Ipsos survey does make this distinction. Here are detailed results:

Generally speaking do you approve or disapprove of the overall personal job performance of the following in Toronto?

Strongly Approve
Somewhat Approve
Somewhat Disapprove
Strongly Disapprove
Total   Approve
Total Disapprove
Rob Ford
The box that reports "Strongly Approve" as 18 per cent gives us the size of Ford Nation while wildly desperately anti-Ford Nation aka "Strongly Disapprove" is more than double Ford approval at 43 per cent (which is getting close to 50 per cent for one choice available to poll respondents out of four alternatives).
2014 Mayoralty Race
The Ipsos survey also offered a variety of possible match-ups for a 2014 race.  One scenario is described this way:
In the fourth scenario – the tightest of them all—John Tory and Olivia Chow all face off against Ford, Stintz and Soknacki. The results are much closer than in the other scenarios with Olivia Chow (36%) edging out John Tory (28%), while Rob Ford (20%), Karen Stintz (13%) and David Soknacki (3%) are behind.
Note that Rob Ford in this scenario finishes third with 20%, about the same number who "Strongly Approve" of his performance. While I have my doubts about Tory entering the race Star columnist Bob Hepburn reported on November 14 "that growing numbers of Conservatives, finally fed up with Ford, are pressuring Tory to enter the election, slated for Oct. 27, 2014." Another Star report stated: "A two-part, two-hour campaign session Monday night at the Bloor Street East offices of FleischmanHillard was the clearest signal yet that Tory will run in next October’s municipal election." It is too early for the other numbers overall to be considered as generally other than soft indications.

Two additional points:

  1. I doubt that Stintz and Tory will both be in the race at the end. The one of those two who is in the running at the end will easily win over much of the support of the other.
  2. I also expect that Ford Nation, who disproportionately fit a low education, low income and older profile, will have a relatively low turnout. This will likely be amplified by the fact that the Fordites are bound to be discouraged by the diminishing political strength of their hero. In the end I would expect a highly competitive Chow-Tory or Chow-Stintz race with Ford Nation trailing in the dust.

One caveat about the poll: it is an online survey of 665 drawn from the Ipsos online panel, which is described on their website as having a membership of "over 200,000" in Canada.  However, Toronto despite its size only has about 8% of Canada's population.  This suggests that the sample was drawn from a panel of 15,000 to 25,000 of Toronto's estimated 2.8 million population.

While such surveys have achieved good results in the past (I think this poll gets the approval numbers about right), there have also been some polling fiascoes in the past couple of years. It is my view that we are entitled to know the size of the panel from which the sample was drawn, and as much about its methodology as possible, certainly more than we now know.  The media who sponsor many of these surveys should insist on it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Player

Justin Trudeau's intellectual limitations were on display last week in the remarks about China that have been so widely commented on.  The best critique is the column by Andrew Coyne that notes that the Trudeau gaffe is one of a series. As Coyne puts it:
...the Trudeauvian gaffe generally involves a quite deliberate statement, presented not flippantly or off-hand but in a determined effort to sound provocative or profound. If they instead strike the listener as ill-judged, it is because he seems to have invested so little actual thought in them. It is in the gulf between his intellectual reach and grasp that his reputation as a ninny has been earned.
There is another column from November 11 by Andrew Cohen, who is generally sympathetic to the Liberals, that suggests that alarm about the young leader is beginning to set in. Cohen wants the Liberal leader to do some homework:
Trudeau has to prepare himself. He is a gifted retail politician, superb on the hustings in either language. He can draw a crowd and appeal, in particular, to younger voters, with an edgy message.
What he lacks is gravitas. He looks too young, too slight, too whimsical. He must be seen as seasoned, savvy and ready to run a big country with a trillion-dollar economy.
To do that, he first needs to invest in himself, intellectually. He should spend a morning every week with experts on social, economic, fiscal, cultural and foreign policy. New leaders benefit from these tutorials. 
The bolding is my emphasis.  The question it raises is: why has he not already done so?  By the time Pierre Trudeau was his son's age, he had, for example, founded Cité Libre, contributed to a book on the asbestos strike and published the seminal essay on Duplessism, "Some Obstacles to Democracy in Quebec".

There is no evidence of comparable accomplishment on Justin's part.  Regardless the Trudeau name continues to be a magnet for large sections of the Canadian population.

One aspect of Justin's remarks that has been overlooked does contain an important truth: his drawing attention to China's crash green energy program. Started about seven years ago, China's efforts have not had enough time to produced significant dividends. Prompted by China's terrible air pollution, the program is nonetheless real. Of course, Trudeau could also have referred to democratic Germany's solar energy program and other green policies.

What the comments particularly revealed, however, was that Justin was not ready with a good answer to the question and more importantly, he did not have the skill, that all politicians need, to smoothly change the subject without stumbling, such that his audience and the media didn't notice.

When he was elected in April I argued:
I think the Justin phenomenon goes further than an initial burst of enthusiasm. It has an Emperor’s New Clothes feel about it. I see the enthusiasm of press and pundits, but a disproportionate amount of this is the politics of reputation, which... can disappear when there is a sober, candid appraisal of his actual performance. The residual popularity of Trudeau the father has made the son a celebrity, and has driven a circular self-reinforcing narrative that is predicated in large part simply on this popularity and celebrity. This has an impact on the polling, which then reinforces the media narrative, thus influencing future polls. This has happened before. It will happen again.
However, there is a limit to this cycle.  He must perform well as leader, especially in Parliament.
Perhaps the limit is close to being reached.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

How popular is Rob Ford? An Update

On November 2 Forum Research released another poll taken just after the dramatic news about the Ford video on Thursday. That poll is now being reported, for example, by CBC as "Ford Approval goes up despite video scandal".  This is simply not an accurate portrayal of the state of public opinion.

Here are six months worth of results from Forum's approval question:

Poll date
Oct. 31st
Oct 28-29th
Sep 23rd
Aug 29th
July 29th
June 25th
May 24th
May 10th
April 11th




As you can see the Oct. 28-29th poll number is the exception here not the rule.  Forum's own headline on its release is closer to the facts in saying "Ford's approvals unaffected by controversy".  However, the same poll also stated that a huge majority (a margin of 60 to 36 per cent) say he should resign. This fact is further down in the CBC story but deserves equal emphasis. What looks like some degree of confidence really isn't.
There is an additional problem with this poll and all other instant polls.  Public opinion takes at least some time to form. It may well be that the approval rating won't change but a survey on that should not be conducted until a number of days have elapsed. Media constantly seek dramatic headlines and therefore make mistakes like the one cited above. They ought to give more reflection to how they report all polling.

And as I discussed in my previous post the Approve/Disapprove in this poll does not distinguish between those who strongly or just somewhat approve or disapprove. Those who make use of public opinion put much more emphasis on those who express strong views.  The other series of questions Forum asked in the Oct. 28-29th survey gives us better insight on that and it is not favourable to Mr. Ford. It is clear that a far greater share of citizens in Toronto strongly dislike him than greatly admire him.

ONE MORE COMMENT: the poll that gave us reports on Ford's approval rating that caused the media to say it was "going up" was taken on Halloween.  That is not a good night to conduct a public opinion poll.  I also noticed some of the internal crosstabs don't make sense. For example, Ford had more support among younger respondents, less among older, which is completely inconsistent with earlier surveys. This particular poll should be discounted.

Friday, November 01, 2013

How popular is Rob Ford?

I have seen expressions of dismay by many after the latest Ford fiasco that express the notion that the man retains his popularity despite all his foibles, violations of ethics and general incompetence. When I examine the evidence I see a mayor who, while more popular than he should be given all this misbehaviour, nevertheless is not popular and has no chance of being re-elected.

Most of the polling evidence comes from the firm Forum research.  Forum uses IVR (Interactive Voice Response) telephone methodology meaning most of the population has a chance of being contacted (unlike online polls). However, it does mean their surveys are short.

Just prior to the latest Ford news, Forum released a poll on October 30th that includes a table with results of Ford's approval/disapproval from earlier surveys plus a new set of questions that gives us a more detailed picture of Ford's popularity.  This most recent survey reported that 61% disapproved of the job Ford is doing as mayor compared to 39% who approved.

Since early in his tenure more residents of Toronto have disapproved of Ford than approved. Averaged over the whole period about 56% disapprove of his performance while 44% approve.  Forum does not ask if respondents strongly or somewhat approve or disapprove of Ford.  This means that this way of measuring opinion lumps together those who feel strongly with those who aren`t really certain.

However, a more probing question by Forum in its latest poll asked respondents to rate Ford offering multiple choices, including whether he was the best or worst mayor the city had ever had, a good or poor mayor, or somewhere in between.  This gives us a better idea of his real status.

Here is a table of the results

Good or Best 36
Poor or Worst 54
One of Toronto's best mayors 18
Good mayor 18
Neither good nor poor  9
Poor mayor 15
One of Toronto's worst mayors 39
Don't know 1

So let`s look more closely.  Almost 40% are willing to say that they think Rob Ford is one of Toronto`s worst mayors. Presumably they might vote for almost anyone to get rid of him.  In addition another 15% think he has been a poor mayor for a total of 54%.  One can see the real size of the so-called Ford Nation here: it is the 18% who say that he is one of Toronto`s best mayors.  That is enough support to make noise and provide suitable candidates for the streeters local media insist on including in their coverage, but not enough to win the mayor`s race in 2014.

In addition an August 31, 2013 Forum poll offered up trial heats of Ford against potential opponents Olivia Chow, John Tory and Karen Stintz who is not well known yet but has declared her entry into the race. The survey found that Ford would lose to all three, the first two by big margins while the Stintz race would be close, and would finish third in a contest featuring Olivia Chow, John Tory and Rob Ford.

While a campaign will matter it is Ford`s record that will most determine his fate next year. A final reminder: all these numbers preceded the disclosure by the police that they had the Ford crack video. Ford Nation will no doubt be unmoved but there aren`t enough of them to matter.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Contractionary policy is contractionary

Coordinated austerity in euro-area countries has stifled economic recovery and deepened the crisis across the currency bloc, according to a new technical paper prepared by an economist at the European Commission.
Spending cuts in Germany in particular have made things worse for the weaker members of the euro area through “spillovers” – the economic impact on economies connected to Germany’s– the paper says, adding that limited stimulus programs in richer countries could help the whole of the currency bloc.
No surprise here.  Spending cuts slow an economy down.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Trade deal with Europe: where austerity prevails

The impact of austerity on Europe was summed up quite succinctly in a single graphic by the Washington Post today.  This is what is looks like:

Canada now has a new trade agreement with the European Union. Enough said.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mulcair's prospects and the Nova Scotia Election

Recent national columns have suggested that the loss by the NDP in the recent Nova Scotia election is harmful to the national NDP's hopes for 2015.  For example see these commentaries by Thomas Walkom, Chantal Hébert, and Jeffrey Simpson. Inevitably all this foretold gloom for the NDP did lead to a counterpoint from Aaron Wherry.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair
TC's view is that the Nova Scotia defeat will, if anything, be beneficial to the federal NDP.  We live in era of slow growth-induced fiscal pressures on Canadian governments, pressures that result in a dampening of the popularity of incumbent governments when like the Nova Scotia NDP they cut spending and increase taxes.  Even though many have recovered to win elections, we should remember that incumbent governments including those in Ontario, B.C., Alberta and Manitoba had to come from behind to do it. Fumbles by their opponents played critical roles in the final outcome (let's not forget the contribution of Michael Ignatieff to the Harper majority in 2011).

There is an overlap between the federal and provincial political spheres that often causes political grief for the federal cousins of provincial administrations when the latter get into trouble. None of the columns cited above have taken that into account.  Let me give a few examples of this impact, both good and bad for the NDP, from history:
  1.  The only one-term government in Manitoba's history was that of Tory Sterling Lyon, who ruled as a prairie Thatcher from 1977 to 1981. In the 1980 federal election, the NDP won half the Manitoba seats (7 of 14). Mr. Lyon's unpopularity contributed significantly to the outcome.  
  2. Further back a poor showing for the NDP in the 1974 federal election in B.C. (just 2 seats) can be attributed in part to mid-term blues on the part of the NDP Dave Barrett government.  However, the impact of the wage and price control issue was likely more important (the threat of controls pulled union votes toward the Trudeau Liberals).  By 1979 and out of office provincially the NDP bounced back, taking 8 constituencies, more like their long-term normal. 
  3. In the 1988 federal election the NDP had enormous success in both Saskatchewan winning, 10 of 14 seats, in no small measure because of the profound unpopularity of the PC government of Grant Devine, and B.C., winning 19 of 32 seats, where Premier Bill Vander Zalm was on his way to destroying the B.C. Social Credit party, a provincial cousin to the federal Tories. The 1988 election was the previous high water mark for the NDP when they won a record of 44 seats, not exceeded until 2011, including 10 ridings in Ontario. 
  4.  In the 1993 election by contrast the NDP was decimated in Ontario losing all their seats.  The austerity program of the Bob Rae NDP Ontario government (most prominently the social contract) played a part in this. Similarly in B.C. the NDP lost all but 2 of its 19 seats where, with the NDP Mike Harcourt government in office in Victoria, the political implications of provincial incumbency reversed the effects felt in 1988. The NDP did win 5 of 14 seats in Saskatchewan where an NDP government elected in 1991 and beginning what would be 16 years in office was still holding its popularity.  (Its own austerity program could be blamed on the previous PC Devine government.)
So Thomas Mulcair faces 2015 with an almost clean slate provincially. Only in Manitoba where the incumbent Selinger government has recently been taking a beating in the polls does trouble beckon. As it is the NDP holds just two federal ridings in Manitoba currently.

Not being in office provincially has in the past been and is now an asset for the federal NDP not a liability.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Nova Scotia Election - Why did the NDP lose?

NS Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil
As TC suggested in his last pre-election post the Liberals did win big in the Nova Scotia election meaning that Liberal leader Stephen McNeil will soon take over as Premier of Nova Scotia.

There is an interesting analysis in the Halifax Chronicle Herald today that provides some clues as to why the election turned out the way it did. TC thinks that while such articles tend to focus on the 'clever' campaign strategies of the winners, the story of the election is less about how the Liberals won and more about how the NDP lost.

While the Dexter government crowed about its balanced budget, that accomplishment came at a considerable political cost including a "broken promise not to raise the HST", which Dexter hiked by two points. The budget also required austerity and spending cuts. As the article notes: "Program cuts take their toll on any government, and the teacher’s union spending tens of thousands of dollars on advertising to protest education budget trimming had an effect."

But the Dexter government also spent foolishly, especially on corporate giveaways, which might not in and of themselves been fatal, but looked especially bad in the context of austerity. One large giveaway was a $260 million forgivable loan to Irving industries but there were others. There is a comment below the main Chronicle Herald story worth quoting that illustrates the problem:
Raising the HST by 2% and breaking a promise really stunk, but for me as well as many others, I accepted it as Graham Steele explained that it was necessary to deal with the province's finances. But when the big handout to the Irving's came into being that reason for raising the HST suddenly hit home that they were using that added money for other reasons and not dealing with the finances, and went on a spending spree. Suddenly every single thing the NDP spent on gave the optics that they raised taxes to support their spending habits. They lost our trust. In the weeks leading up to the election call, we were deluged with spending promises. And despite reporting a "balanced budget" to make it appear that they were being conscientious financially, the public didn't believe them.
A good lesson for any government here, the electorate has a long memory when it comes to raising taxes and breaking promises. And it looks even worse when you start spending our money to further your agenda. Good decisions or bad decisions are part of the job, but you have to keep the public's trust first if you want them behind you in whatever you do.
The NDP's loss also stemmed from an unambitious program in 2009 that did not a include a signature
Darrell Dexter
equality-promoting commitment. In fact, it reads like a program that almost any party could run on: more jobs, reduce health care waiting times, fix rural roads etc.

Fundamentally, however, the NDP's loss had its origin in a bad economy over which they had little if any control. That can be seen in the data TC generated from a Statistics Canada CANSIM series on employment. In Nova Scotia employment has been stagnant since the Dexter NDP took office. The table I generated is dense with data (can't link directly to it) but here are the two key figures:

Total Employment in Nova Scotia June, 2009: 410,423
Total Employment in Nova Scotia June, 2013: 408,818

A provincial government in Nova Scotia can't do all that much to have an impact on employment levels in the context of a globalized economy and the biggest economic downturn since the thirties. In this context one can understand the desperation that led to corporate giveaways.

The impact of the global economy on the Nova Scotia will be just as important for the incoming Liberals whose fates will depend on external events every bit as much as those of Dexter's NDP.

TC noted that the central Liberal promise in this election is to reduce electricity rates by introducing competition for the private monopoly electrical utility Nova Scotia Power. What Sir Humphrey Appleby once said in an episode of Yes Prime Minister I think applies here: "Prime Minister, it is the most courageous policy that you have ever proposed."

Monday, October 07, 2013

Nova Scotia Election - If the polls are right the Liberals will win big

I made an adjustment on my normal forecast model for Nova Scotia (won't go into details but it is to take account of the large increase in Liberal support).

If the polls are accurate, which I think likely in Nova Scotia as they have all been traditional telephone polls (unlike the many online polls in B.C.), the Liberals will win a large victory in the October 8, 2013 election. It will be their first victory since 1998 when they eked out a bare plurality in the popular vote and a minority government supported by the PCs that was gone a year later.

I project the seat distribution based on an average of recent polls as:

Liberal - 35
NDP - 10
PC - 6.

The last incumbent government in Canada to be decisively ousted was in 2010 in Nova Scotia's neighbouring province of New Brunswick. The one-term Liberal government of Shawn Graham in New Brunswick was defeated by the Progressive Conservatives led by current Premier David Alward.  Interestingly the most recent Corporate Research Associates poll puts the New Brunswick Liberals way ahead of the PCs with 47%, with the NDP in second at 24%, trailed by the PCs at 23%.  It appears that a likely one-term NDP Atlantic government in Nova Scotia will potentially be followed by another one-term administration in New Brunswick. Alward is scheduled to face the voters in September 2014. By this time next year we could see two Liberal provincial governments in Atlantic Canada.

Atlantic provinces have struggled with public finances in recent years because of the global economic crisis, making either unpopular budget cuts or tax hikes. While several multi-term incumbent governments further west have been re-elected since 2011 (most recently the B.C. Liberals but also governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario), the pattern seems to be different in the big provinces in Atlantic Canada. The smaller provinces of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland have a long-term pattern of electing multi-term governments.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Recent Ipsos poll consistent with summer long trend

The poll released by Ipsos Reid on September 27 is essentially consistent with other polls released this summer. Translated into an election it would produce an indecisive result.

Perhaps less obvious but just as true generally for all polls since the start of summer is that there is a relatively consistent pattern across the country of vote losses and gains.  The chart below compares the Ipsos poll to the May 2, 2011 election.

The Liberals are up everywhere, more in some regions, less in others.  The Conservatives are down everywhere including in their areas of strength such as Alberta, sufficiently so that they would lose seats in Alberta if the poll accurately projects an election held today. It is possible that federal Liberal strength in Atlantic Canada is assisted by the unpopularity of the provincial NDP in Nova Scotia (if current provincial election polls are to be believed).  Perceptions of party brands normally spill over between the two orders of government. Nova Scotia accounts for about 40% of the votes cast in Atlantic Canada. Would the federal NDP benefit in the longer run from a loss by their provincial cousins in Nova Scotia?

The poll also includes some valuable data on issues.  One nugget that emerged was that there were two economic categories that respondents cited among the list of most important issues: the "Economy" and "Jobs and Unemployment".  No surprise there. However, there is a difference when one looks at additional questions about which party is best able to manage issues.  We find that while the Conservatives have an enormous advantage over other parties when in comes to managing the "Economy", but that disappears when the issue is "Jobs and Unemployment".  That category is essentially split three ways between the three major parties.

Here is a quote from the press release:
The Conservatives are perceived as the best economic policy managers among those who think the economy is the most important issue, but Liberals and NDP are more competitive in most other areas.
Economy: Conservatives (45%), Liberals (28%), NDP (14%), Green (2%), Bloc (1%)
Healthcare: Liberals (31%), NDP (25%), Conservatives (24%), Bloc (5%), Green (3%)
Jobs/Unemployment: Liberals (31%), NDP (23%), Conservatives (21%), Green (3%), Bloc (2%)
This is interesting: if the economy is viewed as an abstraction, the Conservatives are clearly ahead, but conceived of in terms of its practical impact on jobs they fall to third place. That strongly suggests that Stephen Harper does not have exclusive ownership of economic issues.

Another questions asks: "Which Federal Party and leader best understands the pressures on middle class families today and is most likely to come up with the best policies for them?"  The answer: Thomas Mulcair and the NDP lead with 38% followed by Justin Trudeau and the Liberals at 30% and Stephen Harper at 26%.  What seems to be a slightly different version of the same question has the same order of finish but the Liberals just one point behind the NDP. See this table pages 7 & 8. 

Politics is traditionally viewed in rigid perceptions and categories: Conservatives best on the economy and crime, NDP on healthcare, Liberals on national unity, etc. However, it is important to recognize that public perceptions of parties and issues are more complex than is often assumed, and perceptions of relative strengths likely much softer.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The current state of play in Canadian poliltics

The current state of Canadian politics has been the subject of many columns emerging from Ottawa.  The absence of a parliamentary sitting has led many to conjecture on the current state of our politics.  One topic that has attracted some attention is the by-election race in Toronto Centre between Liberal Chrystia Freeland and New Democrat Linda McQuaig (both appear to be highly capable candidates) where it is presumed there will be a race that turns in part on a debate over inequality. More on this later.

Overall one impression left by the surge in Liberal support following the selection of new leader Justin Trudeau is that there is something of a return to pre-1993 normalcy in Canadian politics. Commentator and journalism professor Andrew Cohen explicitly endorsed this idea recently:
Is Canada creating a new political realignment, which looks an awful lot like the old one? Is it returning to a three-party system in which the Conservatives and the Liberals hold power, alternating with each other, while the New Democrats languish on the margins? Perhaps.
What is striking about the resiliency of the Liberals under Justin Trudeau is less their lead over the Conservatives, which may or may not hold up through the next election. It is their lead over the New Democrats, who have fallen from second to third place.
Looking at polls, you could think we have returned to the way things were in Canada before we elected a multi-party Parliament in 1993, when the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois erupted as regional powers. Now we have become essentially a three-party country again (the Greens and BQ notwithstanding.) While they may shift positions with each other, the story is about the Liberals and Conservatives.
What has not changed much in recent months is the growing marginalization of the New Democrats. It may be that this fall from grace is temporary, reflecting Trudeau's highly publicized arrival. But you have to think the New Democrats are worried with the emerging narrative.
Another assumption on the part of Ottawa journalists such as Lawrence Martin is that renewed Liberal strength in Quebec signals yet another return to the status quo ante.

I have averaged the seats estimates generated by my forecast model from polling released over the summer and found the following:

The NDP total, while down significantly from their 2011 total of 103, is nevertheless 21 seats higher than the party's previous record high in 1988. And the party, despite ground lost since 2011, is still getting significant support in Quebec, enough to win many seats. All is not quite as it was.

TC views the current situation this way:
  • First, if this is a high point for the Liberals as a consequence of the Trudeau honeymoon (perhaps it is a plateau from which we will see more gains) then we see a Liberal Party still gravely weakened from its setbacks of recent years.
  • The combined total of Liberals and the NDP is 176 seats, a comfortable majority - something that was not the case after the 2006 and 2008 elections. Coalition efforts by the two parties in 2008 required the acquiescence of the pro-Quebec independence Bloc Québecois, one factor in the successful efforts by Stephen Harper to stymie them.  
  • All projections from recent polls have an NDP-Liberal majority.  Discussion of two party cooperation has so far focused on pre-election cooperation. These numbers, if they resemble the 2015 election at all, suggest the parties will need to think about their post-election positioning. They had best start thinking carefully about it now. 
  • It is clear from these numbers that the Conservative Party has dropped a long way from 2011 for various reasons including the Senate scandal, and is highly unlikely to repeat its majority victory (although winning a plurality of the seats is quite possible).
Trudeau and Mulcair
Although the polls are not as favourable for the Liberals as the pundit class thinks, you can see that they are already seeing them as permanent and aiming salvos at Mulcair (some of which are justified) due to his declining poll standings. The problem is that too much of our journalism is windy, empty and poll-driven. If you are down in the polls you become a target and the criticism of Mulcair is an example. See, for example, this summary of a Toronto Word on the Street panel discussion by Liberal blogger Jeff Jedras. If Trudeau drops off in the polls it will happen to him too (whether he deserves it or not).

Trudeau and Marijuana
Partly because his polls have appeared to be strong, Justin Trudeau largely received a free pass on marijuana legalization. The issue has been lightly treated by the media in substance, and discussed largely on the basis of whether or not it has helped Justin Trudeau politically. In fact it raises some thorny issues.

For example, I doubt that many denizens of Ottawa have seen the excellent CBC Nature of Things documentary, The Downside of High, but it should be required viewing. Anyone can view it online at the Nature of Things web site. See a promo here. To summarize, it "tells the stories of three young people from British Columbia who believe - along with their doctors - that their mental illness was triggered by marijuana use. All three spent months in hospital psychiatric wards, and still wage a battle with their illness. Today's super-potent pot may be a big part of the problem."  (To be fair Trudeau has mentioned regulating the THC content of marijuana.) 

But there are also other health issues associated with marijuana consumption. TC's view is that all drugs should be dealt with as health issues, and not through the criminal justice system. The Liberal discussion of marijuana to date has been completely inadequate. Ironically, Trudeau's own mother appears to have suffered from mental illness as a consequence of smoking marijuana. So it seems amazing this has not figured into Liberal discussion of this issue.

TC's harsh appraisal of Trudeau as Liberal leader at the time of his selection remains unchanged. He does seem to be terminally shallow.

The By-Elections in Toronto Centre and Bourassa
The impending by-elections in the Liberal held seats are being touted as a "test" for Justin Trudeau. However, these were ridings held by the Liberals in 2011 at their lowest point ever. If the recent polls mean anything at all the Liberals should be in a position to easily retain them. I think this will be true of Toronto Centre, where the latest numbers would put the Liberals twenty-five percentage points ahead.

Bourrassa in Montreal needs to be assessed differently. The 2011 election completely upset previous voting patterns in Quebec and created a new party system. This means there is greater uncertainty about what the future holds. Nominally the Liberals would be forty points ahead but it may be that while Denis Coderre could hold the seat against the orange tide in 2011, a by-election could well be different.  Certainly that is the calculus of the NDP, which is targeting the riding. TC's hunch is that this may be the NDP's better bet despite the numbers, if they nominate a strong candidate. But we should be under no illusion about how large a shift from 2011 it will take for the NDP to win.

In Toronto Centre in 2015 there will be new electoral boundaries that will make the NDP much more competitive in the constituency if not favoured (you can look up one estimate of these impacts here). The more northerly affluent parts of the riding will be moved to another new district. What the NDP needs to do in this by-election to be successful is to win in the more southerly poorer reaches of the constituency rather than winning the by-election outright. Toronto Centre's class divisions do make a debate on income inequality highly appropriate here. Hopefully this will just be the start of a discussion that will carry on for some time to come.

Boundaries of the Existing Toronto Centre

Likely boundaries of Toronto Centre in 2015

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Nova Scotia Election - Can the Liberals Win?

The Nova Scotia campaign is underway and the Liberals have a clear lead in the one poll released just ahead of the election call by Corporate Research Associates. The poll has the Liberals ahead with 41% followed by the NDP at 31% with the PCs at 25%.  However, the Liberals have been ahead in every CRA poll since September 2012, Liberal leader Stephen McNeill is preferred as premier by 30% of the electorate compared to 19% for Darrell Dexter and more Nova Scotians are dissatisfied with the NDP government (45%) than satisfied (42%).  So should we conclude that we are looking at a probable Liberal government?
Not necessarily. The most important point about this is that voter preferences are usually quite soft, softer than the bare numbers in any survey indicate. And as we know from B.C. and Alberta recent polling in provincial elections has not done a good job of helping us accurately anticipate the result.  That said, I was favourably impressed by the analysis of polling methods offered by Don Mills of Corporate Research Associates in this interview with 308, particularly the following:
308: While other firms have moved to online panels and IVR polling, CRA continues to use live-callers. Why have you stuck with this methodology?
DM: The methodology has stood the test of time. Our industry standards do not allow the use of margin of error for online research which are considered samples of convenience. Many companies violate industry standards in this regard. We agree with that standard.
308: What do you consider the strengths of telephone polling with live-callers compared to other methodologies?
DM: Its ability to produce random representative samples is still the biggest strength in my opinion.
Simple but to the point. Many of the surveys in BC and Alberta were online polls. Such polling should always be distrusted but particularly so in a small province such as Nova Scotia where the size of the online panel must be quite small. I hope we don't see any.  
There has been a seat projection from 308 based on this survey which says a 10 point Liberal lead would give the party just a two seat advantage over the NDP.  His numbers are Liberal 22 seats, NDP 20 and the PCs 9.  TC thinks the Liberals would actually do much better in seats with these poll numbers.  I have it as the Liberals at 28 seats, the NDP 15 and the PCs 8.
But their performance depends on running a successful campaign and make no mistake about it, the election campaign will matter. My impression from afar is that Stephen McNeill has been the type of opposition leader who tries always to take a position opposing almost everything the government does or says.  He may have difficulty offering good reasons to vote for the Liberal Party (something he must do) during the campaign.
The NDP has governed cautiously and conservatively (and did not have an ambitious platform in 2009). They have focused a great deal on austerity and budget balancing, meaning they inevitably took measures that were unpopular to get to the balanced budget they projected in the spring.  This included previously raising the HST by two points, something they now promise to cut. One can understand why they have encountered political difficulties.

However, the recent record is of most incumbent provincial governments winning some sort of re-election. Since 2011 this includes Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I., Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. (Quebec in 2012 was an exception). This suggests we should not be the least bit surprised if the NDP wins again, although to do so I have little doubt it means coming from behind.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Two items on Syria worth reading

One blog post by Juan Cole includes the following:

...Obama’s own intelligence links cast doubt on whether President Bashar al-Assad had actively ordered the chemical weapons attack of August 21, which seems more likely the action of a local colonel who either went rogue or made an error in mixing too much sarin into crowd control gases. The Ministry of Defense seems to have upbraided him....

It is remarkable how important the Iraq experience has been in the debates on Syria, and how decisive. Even if the US goes ahead with the strike, it is likely to attempt to keep the action narrow and symbolic, and to avoid troops on the ground, and indeed, generally to stay out of the conflict thereafter as long as no more chemical attacks are launched. Whether it is possible to bomb Syria and then walk away like that isn’t clear; but it is the maximal Obama plan.
If Cole's speculation about what happened is true there is little point in attacking Assad's regime.

The other is from Bernard Avishai:

Anticipating Kerry's speech, I checked in again last night with my friend Charles Glass in London, a reporter who knows Syria and Lebanon as intimately as any American. A graduate of American University of Beirut, he's covered the region for 40 years; he was once held hostage by Hezbollah, accompanied the invasion of Iraq, and reported from Aleppo last year. He was preparing to fly to Damascus as we spoke.  
And I came away from our conversation believing what Kerry surely understands, that there are essentially two strategic choices for the US, the first diplomatic, the second, significant armed intervention. ...

Short of taking down Assad's regime, then, the only serious strategy is diplomacy and Putin is the only serious partner. Once the smoke clears from the "limited attack," this portion will be, at best, what Obama and Kerry are left with.
At this point an all out attack would appear to be imprudent, and possibly without proper justification; it may be better to put new effort into diplomacy, which would mean engaging with the Russians, if the real goal is to end the suffering.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Ontario By-elections: a strong result for the PCs

The title of this post is at odds with the received wisdom about the by-elections. That is simply because the five by-elections went 2 Liberal, 2 NDP and 1 PC.  All five had previously been held by the Liberals but the PCs thought they could win as many as four of the five so gaining just one seemed a disappointment.

PC Leader Tim Hudak
However, when we look closely at the voting and I apply my reverse vote estimation model we get a different story.  The model essentially takes a single by-election and tells us what it would mean if blown up (by a mathematical conversion) to apply to the province as a whole. While the results should be taken with a grain of salt, I think they do give us some insight into current trends.

In the case of every constituency, the projection from this model would mean a PC majority: a Tim Hudak government.

If we do a simple average of the province-wide vote estimate including all five ridings, we get the PCs with a huge lead in vote share:

Liberal PC NDP GP Other
Average Vote Projection 22.4% 40.9% 29.7% 3.9% 3.2%

This would give us the following outcome in terms of seats:

Liberal PC NDP GP Other
Average Seat Projection 12 65 30 0 0

The PC vote share average is driven up by an exceptionally strong showing in the riding they won: Etobicoke-Lakeshore.  However, in every other riding their result is quite consistent with the 34 to 36 per cent they have been getting in provincial polls. The projected PC majority is clearly a product of the vote splitting between the Liberals and the NDP and has echoes of the 2011 federal results in Ontario when the Harper Conservatives won over 70 seats in Ontario.

Here is a table of the overall vote shifts from 2011:

Party Shifts from 2011
August 1 2013 Byelections
London West-29.8%3.3%20.2%1.8%4.5%
Ottawa South-6.5%5.2%0.9%-0.1%0.5%

The by-election results were actually very bad for the Liberals, despite their two victories.  These were Liberal held seats, and most had voted Liberal by substantial margins in 2011. The Liberal Party lost ground everywhere. In two seats, London West and Windsor Tecumseh, there was clearly a huge shift from Liberal to NDP, while the PC vote share remained relatively stable. The NDP also appears to have gained significantly from the Liberals in Scarborough-Guildwood.

Note that there was the appearance of a large shift in vote share from both the NDP and Liberals to the PCs in Etobicoke-Lakeshore where Doug Holyday, a long-time popular Etobicoke municipal politician, captured the seat for the PCs.  However, one can never know for sure in any election whether there could be a double shift happening where, for example, some NDP voters switch to the Liberals at the same time as Liberals are switching to the PCs. In terms of vote share Etobicoke-Lakeshore was the best Liberal result, and their second smallest vote loss, so it seems at least a possibility that something like that happened here: a polarization that led to NDP losses to the Liberals, partially offsetting significant Liberal to PC vote shifting.

Of the five seats it appears that two, Etobicoke-Lakeshore and London West, where New Democrat Peggy Sattler vaulted the NDP from third place in 2011 to first, strong local candidates played a critical role in determining outcomes (one reason why the vote projections above should not be taken too literally). Windsor-Tecumseh was a big win for the NDP.  It continued a long-term trend in the motor city from Liberal to NDP.  In Ottawa South and Scarborough Guildwood, despite winning, the Liberal party registered a loss of vote share from 2011.

The by-elections also continued the trend of shaky polling results.  This 308 blog post sums up the situation well.

The by-elections may predict a change in the next provincial election but they are not a completely reliable indicator.  In October 1978 there were fifteen by-elections across Canada following a decision by Pierre Trudeau not to go to the polls (among the victors in those by-elections was a young Bob Rae). Taken at face value the overwhelming message coming from the 1978 results suggested an impending large PC majority. Instead in 1979 the Joe Clark PCs, while victorious, secured only a minority government. Among the PC winners in 1978, five would go on to lose to Liberals in 1979.

The Kathleen Wynne Liberals should be considered down but not out.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Green Vote and Strategic Voting in the 2013 BC Election

The May 14, 2013 BC Election created an unusual circumstance that allows us to make an assessment of the potential of strategic voting.  The circumstance was the universal perception that the NDP was going to win - the consequence of the inaccurate polling and punditry (see TC's three previous posts). This post will analyze the Green vote in this election and look at the strategic implications.

Even if Green voters thought that the NDP was preferable to continued governance by the Liberals (a majority of New Democrats and a plurality of Green supporters made the other party their second choice in this poll) this unique context meant Greens had no reason not to support their first choice given the expectation that the NDP would win without any help. There was nothing to hold back Green performance in this election with the exception that the party did not run a full slate of candidates, something they did do in 2009.

On its face the Green performance in BC was little different in 2013 from 2009.  The Green share of the popular vote actually declined slightly from 8.21 % in 2009 to 8.13 % in 2013. Nevertheless, the Greens and most observers saw the election result as a triumph because they elected their first member to the legislature, Andrew Weaver in Oak Bay-Gordon Head.

Andrew Weaver - Oak Bay-Gordon Head

In fact, the Greens performed better in the popular vote than might seem to be the case at first glance. If we look only at the Green share of the vote in the ridings they did contest, we find the party capturing 11.2 % of the popular vote, a significant improvement from 2009, when the Greens won 8.5% of the vote in the same list of constituencies. This showing is second only to the 12.4% of the popular vote overall the Greens garnered in the 2001 election in the context of collapsing support for the NDP.

The question arises then: what impact did the absence of strategic voting on the part of Green voters potentially have on the election outcome.  I ran a number of scenarios to analyze this. Scenario one: if we absolutely take away all Green votes and give them to the NDP while leaving Conservative votes in place the NDP would have won 46 seats to the Liberals 38 (the actual result was Liberal 49/ NDP 35). This suggests a purely hypothetical maximum for the NDP in 2013 but is not realistic.

A more realistic way of looking at the potential of strategic voting is Scenario two: take one third of Green votes and deliver them to the NDP, as it is highly likely that only a minority of partisans would vote strategically.  In this scenario the Liberals would have led the NDP 45 seats to 39 compared to the actual (in this scenario the Green seat goes NDP). If we add as a parallel shift one third of Conservative votes to the Liberals the margin increases to 47-37.  These are hypothetical projections, but it is clear that Green voting combined with the flawed polling did not cost the NDP the election. The failures of their campaign accomplished that.

There was some evidence of strategic voting by BC Conservative voters.  Early in the campaign, the party was at 11 to 13 % in the polls (without forgetting their doubtful accuracy) and had been over 20% during part of 2012.  The attack ads aimed at the NDP by the BC Liberals no doubt had an impact in bringing these voters home (most were previous BC Liberal voters). The Conservatives ended up with just 4.8% overall (they averaged 7.3% in ridings where they had a candidate).

Strategic voting potential, however, was there. TC heard anecdotal evidence of a willingness on the part of some Green supporters to switch to the NDP. Would the Greens have finished closer to 8% if there was a context to motivate strategic voting? The question will remain unanswered.

Perhaps better described as tactical voting, this type of second choice voting is a fact of life in Canada and likely to be of increasing consequence in future elections, providing polling companies can do a better job of measuring vote intentions.

SMALL ADDENDUM: One observation I made in looking at Green voting is that in general Green and NDP support overlap geographically: both parties are strongest on the coast, Vancouver Island and the lower mainland.

In my next post, I will comment on the Ontario by-elections. I have come to some conclusions about the results, some of which may seem counter intuitive.