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.