Sunday, September 27, 2015

Election polling: Plenty of noise, not much signal

This has also been posted at iPolitics.

Nate Silver became an overnight sensation as a polling guru early on in the 2008 Presidential when he contradicted the conventional media interpretation of the race for the Democratic nomination. The pundits were promoting the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton nomination victory. An early supporter of Barack Obama, Silver shrewdly distinguished between good polls and bad, and early on anticipated the Obama presidency. He went on to write a widely-read book, The Signal and the Noise, about statistical probability and prediction.

What we see in Canada is desperation to figure out where the election race is headed with endless parsing of the smallest nuance in the latest poll. There is an abundance of statistical and media noise, but little in the way of clear signals about where the overall election race is headed.

As the Oct. 19 election date approaches, the outcome will likely become clear enough. Meanwhile the media should be patient and allow the public to weigh their choices. They could assist by emphasizing and clarifying policy choices facing the electorate, as well as asking some tough questions about how the polls are conducted.

Instead as we see a headline across the top of an inside page in in the Globe and Mail, “In Quebec, Trudeau Aims to Connect”, a piece of poll-driven mush (the NDP are slipping/ is Trudeau catching up?), while consigning an Employment Insurance announcement from Thomas Mulcair to a capsule at the bottom of the page under the heading: Election Digest. Unemployment and the impact of EI premiums on the economy, is that an issue?

Meaningless analysis of political psychology compared to a key policy announcement. The editorial choice is clear.

This week we have completely contradictory polls from two of Canada’s most respected polling companies. EKOS Research, which just released a survey giving the Conservatives a clear lead. The daily Nanos Poll releases the past two days suggest a completely different picture, a continuing tight race with NDP second, the Conservatives third. A new Forum poll says no to both of those – the Liberals and Conservatives are tied, the NDP is in third. You get the picture.

Polling is having a hard time these days. The media, with news budgets cut by internet competition, won’t pay for much of the polling that is reported (Ekos/iPolitics and Nanos/CTV are exceptions). However, most pollsters pay for and release their own polls simply as a means of promoting their market research business, so there is no shortage.

The media helps out by reporting every number available, mostly without context, but the polls are suffering from a lack of respondents. Response rates to polls as Nate Silver puts it “are dismal these days”. The growing public resistance to answering poll questions may partly explain the polling fiascos we have seen in recent years.

A good example was the 2013 B.C. election where polls and the media anticipated a significant NDP victory. Instead majority victory went to Premier Christy Clark and her B.C. Liberals. Another part of it may be new polling technologies and methods.

The polls were wrong in this year’s UK election. As Nate Silver noted “polls of the U.K. election — most of them conducted online — projected a photo-finish for Parliament instead of a Conservative majority“.

Polling technologies and methods ought to be placed under the media microscope – instead their results are treated as just another poll. One new technique is a variation on the traditional telephone poll. Interactive voice response (IVR) surveys – essentially computerized robots – dial your number and ask questions in an electronic voice. This technique is used by Forum and EKOS among others.

There are several online pollsters (including Leger Marketing , Ipsos and Angus Reid) that conduct surveys via the internet with samples drawn from previously recruited panels, which can number into the hundreds of thousands. The panel is supposed to represent Canada as a whole and act as a substitute for randomly selecting respondents from the whole population. The media should be asking how big the national panel is, and how big are the panels in the provinces and regions reported in the polls.

Are these smaller panels an adequate substitute for the population of smaller regions and provinces? What matters in determining seat counts is regional support so the issue is important. We should also know exactly how these polls are conducted.

What do their reported margins of error mean? Surely all the margin of error tells us is how confident we can be the sample is representative of the panel, but is this really comparable to a telephone poll that could call any landline or cellphone anywhere in population. We should also get information and analysis from the media on whether polling companies contact both cellphones vs landlines and what that means.

Some polling firms are more transparent about their methods than others, but there is nothing to stop pundits and media from asking pointed questions about this vital source of campaign information. One friend who formerly worked in market research said in her company there were problems with response rates for the online polls, another issue the media could investigate.

But polls can also be quite accurate. There is randomness to the order of things. It is entirely possible for a poll not to be done well, but still be accurate. Even hamburger polls have been right. I am not aware of any burger polls this year and I lament their passing – I like hamburgers. A burger poll at the Pacific National Exhibition in 1972 correctly anticipated the demise of B.C.’S Social Credit dynasty. In the 2003 Ontario provincial election the Lick’s Hamburger Poll outperformed one of the commercial pollsters that year. Now there is a media polling story I would love to read in 2015.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Ethnic Vote in 2015

This has been cross-posted at iPolitics

Waves of immigration throughout Canada’s history have made ethnic sub-populations key targets for Canadian election campaigns. Historically this has benefited the federal Liberals; the party supported mass immigration while governing Canada for two thirds of the 20th century, making ethnic voting a staple of Liberal politics. Challenges have come in recent years, notably from the Conservatives — who achieved considerable electoral success in immigrant ridings in 2011 — but also from the NDP.

It’s largely forgotten now but at one time Canadians of British origin were openly suspicious of immigrants’ politics. In 1924 one prominent Winnipeg businessman said of newcomers: “We welcome all good citizens from foreign lands but if they do not believe in the Christian religion, nor intend to keep our laws, they should be asked without delay to return from whence they came.”

Let’s look at some constituencies where there are large concentrations of Canadians from various ethnic backgrounds.


Many of the immigrants that Winnipeg businessman was talking about came from Eastern Europe, particularly the Ukraine. Most came prior to World War I and settled on margins of the good farmland in the Prairie Provinces. Based on the 2013 redistribution, in 2011 the top five federal ridings with the highest concentration of ethnic Ukrainians would have elected Conservatives, all but one by comfortable margins, all in Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Alberta. Most of this population is made up of Ukrainians whose families migrated to Canada prior to World War I or shortly thereafter and no longer speak the language.

(Data on the ethnic composition of electoral districts comes from the 2011 National Household Survey, which replaced the long form census.)

The federal Liberals were successful at first with this vote, winning strong Ukrainian ridings in the twenties, thirties and forties. But the Liberals were displaced on the Prairies by the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker in the 1950s.

Harper has made support for the Ukraine in its struggle with Russian-backed secessionists a key symbolic foreign policy priority — no doubt partly for its domestic political benefit, even if many diplomats remain unimpressed. However, in 2015 Conservative support has slipped even in the party’s strongholds — and that includes ridings with significant Ukrainian populations. Four out of five of these ridings would be retained by the Conservatives today, but current polling suggests one (in urban Winnipeg) could go to the NDP. Note that this constituency, Elmwood-Transcona, is about 21 per cent Ukrainian heritage. A majority voters are from other backgrounds. Ethnicity is not the only influence on voting behaviour.


Large numbers of Italians settled in Ontario and Quebec after the Second World War, mainly in Toronto and Montreal. They reliably supported the Liberals. That may be changing.

The example of Toronto’s designated ‘Little Italy’ neighbourhood is a good illustration. The neighbourhood is located in University-Rosedale, a constituency with the 46th-largest Italian population in Canada (7.6 per cent). But many Italian-Canadians have long since moved to the suburbs. The two constituencies with the highest concentration of Italian voters are relatively prosperous GTA ridings just north of Toronto (both King-Vaughan and Vaughan-Woodbridge rank among the top 25 most affluent constituencies in Canada). Both would have elected Conservatives in 2011. Current polling suggests the Liberals could win back one of the two (and also pick up an NDP seat in Montreal). And the northern Ontario riding of Sault Ste. Marie, which elected a Conservative in 2011, is likely to go NDP.

South Asians

More recent years have seen large-scale immigration from Asia. The Conservatives targeted these ridings in 2011 and achieved significant but not universal success. Again, using the redistributed vote we find that half of the top ten South Asian constituencies would have elected Conservatives in 2011, although the NDP would have won four and the Liberals two. With the considerable improvement in Liberal support during the current election it is likely that the Conservatives would retain just a third of these constituencies; the NDP would drop two and the Liberals would make significant gains.


We see a similar pattern among constituencies with substantial Chinese populations: considerable Conservative success in 2011 with likely large-scale losses, mainly to the Liberals but also one to the NDP, anticipated in 2015.

Over time, new Canadians become more integrated into Canadian society. As they do, their ethnic identities become less important in determining how they might vote. As second, third and fourth generations replace the original immigrants they develop political views they share with others outside of their ethnic sub-groups. Whether they are environmentalists or social justice advocates, free traders or anti-tax conservatives, their ethnic identities have progressively less influence on how they vote and view politics.

Although the Liberals continue to do well among ethnic minority voters, political support from Canada’s minorities has diversified. The efforts made by the Conservatives in 2011 met with considerable success and the NDP has made its own gains. The days of monopolizing the immigrant vote are over, and the political importance of ethnic identity clearly fades over time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Would the Senate tangle with a Prime Minister Mulcair?

This has been cross-posted at iPolitics.

There was a time when the Senate would sleep from one election to the next. Although it has the same legal authority as the House of Commons (except that it can’t introduce money bills), its non-elected status means it has little moral authority to interfere with the elected House.

Or so you might think.

In its early years, the Senate was still active in amending bills; that role faded when the Liberals came to dominate the chamber in the mid-20th century. The Senate briefly woke from its long slumber after Brian Mulroney became prime minister in September 1984. In early 1985, during Mulroney’s political honeymoon period, the Senate’s Liberal majority delayed a borrowing bill (it was a parliamentary issue — governments are supposed to table spending estimates before raising money).

This action was widely viewed as impudent meddling by the remnant of a discredited ancien régime, and it drew hostile reactions from government representatives, pundits and members of the public. An angry Prime Minister Mulroney threatened to launch a constitutional amendment to strip the Senate of almost all its powers (he backed off, eventually).

The Liberal Senate House leader who provoked Mulroney’s ire was former Trudeau minister Allan MacEachen. At the time I was putting together a documentary on the Senate for the CBC centred on this episode, and I followed the issue closely. MacEachen was a legendary political character — a wily House of Commons tactician and a key cabinet minister in the governments of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. When we interviewed MacEachen for the documentary I got a strong impression of someone who had been publicly humiliated — and who was unlikely to forget the experience.

MacEachen did not have long to wait for an opening; the Mulroney honeymoon was over by early 1986. The Liberal-controlled Senate began to hold up bills on a wide variety of topics: transportation, drug patents, refugees, copyright and energy incentives. My impression was that MacEachen applied pressure on measures where there was public support for the Liberal position, and where Liberal MPs gave their consent for the Senate caucus to act.

This amounted to a non-constitutional — but very real — change in the Senate’s role. A Senate controlled by partisan opponents of the government can bide its time for a while after an election, read the polls and pick the right moment to oppose the government on issues where it has the public is on its side. It’s a recipe for periodic deadlock.

The most notable development in the mid-1980s came when the Liberal Senate refused to proceed with legislation authorizing the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement until after a federal election. The Progressive Conservatives did go on to win the 1988 election and the Senate passed the deal — but confrontation between the chambers didn’t end there. In autumn 1990, the Senate started holding up the legislation to create the GST.

The Liberal grip on the Senate was suddenly broken when Brian Mulroney used an arcane constitutional provision that let him appoint eight extra senators, two for each region, bringing the PCs a majority.

The new Progressive Conservative majority in the Senate did not forget their party’s treatment at the hands of the Liberals. When the Chrétien Liberal majority swept into office in late 1993, Conservative senators didn’t hesitate to exercise their authority.

Early on, the Conservative Senate blocked Liberal legislation that would have cancelled the Mulroney government’s initiative to privatize the Pearson airport. They held up the bill for several years; the issue only died when the government reached a compensation agreement with the Pearson airport developers. The Tory majority also blocked a Liberal bill to suspend and change a redistribution of seats in the House of Commons then underway, and delayed several other pieces of legislation.

The Harper period has been somewhat different. The Conservatives had a majority in the Senate by the end of 2010, before they won a majority in the House of Commons. Prior to gaining full control of the chamber the Senate Conservatives, using a procedural manoeuvre, killed an NDP climate change bill supported by the Liberals. The bill had been pushed through the House of Commons over the objections of the minority Conservative government.

Even if the NDP was willing to fill all 22 vacancies in the Senate (it says it won’t but, eventually, it might be forced to do so by the Supreme Court), it would be many years before the party could achieve a Senate majority. The same problem would not face the Liberals. Just by filling existing vacancies a Liberal government would regain effective control of the Senate. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Senates controlled by the opposition showed how it could thumb its nose from time to time at the elected House of Commons. It could happen again.

The current Senate is likely to feel some restraint in the short run, given its tarnished reputation. But that won’t last. Simple hostility on the part of a chamber controlled by Conservatives and Senate Liberals could create legislative gridlock and an unprecedented legitimacy crisis for Parliament.

That might fuel the NDP’s push to abolish the Senate — but unanimous provincial approval isn’t likely any time soon. If there is a Thomas Mulcair government, expect to see at least a new version of the selective delays and vetoes that bedevilled Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien in the last century.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Campaign 2015: the story so far, poll by poll

This post has already been published at iPolitics. 

Most elections experience a moment where the campaign gels — a point where political ideas and forces come into focus, framing the likely outcome. It can happen when a party or candidate departs from the pack on a key issue: think of Tim Hudak's pledge to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs early in the 2014 Ontario provincial election. It could be a major stumble by a leader — such as John Turner's "I had no option" exchange with Brian Mulroney in 1984, or Jim Prentice's unfortunate "math is difficult" crack in the recent Alberta election.

When the moment happens, you know it; twists and turns may follow, but the campaign itself is suddenly on a track going in one direction.

The issue of Europe's refugee crisis may turn out to be 2015's moment. Soon after that shocking photo of a drowned 3-year old Syrian boy made its way around the world, the campaign narrative instantly turned to foreign policy, with Stephen Harper's Conservatives largely on the defensive. The Nanos Poll released September 6 was conducted the weekend after the issue arose, and it reported a dip in Conservative popularity that continued into the next day, dropping the incumbent party to third place.

It's still too early to tell how the refugee issue will affect the remainder of the campaign. We've been at this for 40 days now, but polling on national public opinion has changed little since the campaign began. Regional numbers tell a different story.

If we compare the average of the national polls released since August 2 to the July numbers, we find just a slight change: the Conservatives are down just over two points, the Liberals are up just over two and the NDP is up less than one, holding a narrow lead.

Monthly National Polling Averages

For all this apparent precision, there is wide variation in reported poll results. For example, in Ontario different polls have reported support for the Conservatives ranging between 40 per cent and 21 per cent since August 2.

Campaign Polls in Ontario since August 2

Ontario has the most seats, so this variability is something to watch.
The campaigns at the level of individual provinces and regions differ greatly; every party holds a lead somewhere. When it comes to individual ridings, it's the vote share in the provinces that determines wins and losses. Let's break them down.
In Atlantic Canada the Conservatives are down about four points since the campaign started, and we see a corresponding increase for the Liberals. This appears to represent an early election-related shift.

Atlantic Polls

In Quebec, NDP support has grown significantly since the campaign began at the expense of the Conservatives and the Bloc, while the Liberals have held steady but far behind the New Democrats. Decisive polling shifts are always unmistakeable; the dramatic shift during the Alberta election was a striking example. Compared to the first three months of 2015, Quebec now looks dramatically different. The NDP has gained over 14 percentage points in support since then from all of the other parties — including six points in just the first month of the campaign. This implies a repeat of 2011's 'Orange Wave'. Has the campaign in Quebec already gelled?

Quebec Polls

In Ontario we've seen a small apparent shift away from the Conservatives, more to the Liberals' benefit than that of the NDP. However, given what we know about variability, it is not clear that a shift this small is significant. Along with its size, Ontario's apparent indecisiveness will make it the key target for leaders touring the country.

Ontario Polls

When we move west to the Manitoba/Saskatchewan region we see a clear pattern of movement away from the NDP, which appears to be a partial fading of the NDP surge following the Alberta election. It peaked in July here and in B.C. The 2015 campaign appears to have had not much of an impact to date.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan Region Polls

The Alberta pattern is similar to that of Manitoba-Saskatchewan, with a slightly greater drop happening sooner here for the NDP. There has been a gradual improvement in Conservative fortunes here.

Alberta Polls

In British Columbia the NDP's upward trend preceded the Alberta election, but the Alberta outcome did give it an extra bump. The NDP's losses have gone more to the Liberals than the Conservatives. Polls here are notoriously volatile and variable, reflecting B.C.'s many political microclimates.

British Columbia Polls

The race may be a dead heat nationally; at the local level it's a different story. Given that polling is intrinsically variable, the post-Labour Day campaign is moving into a political climate of high uncertainty.