When polls matter, pigs will fly

Promising polls, paper leads, then another promising poll


Adam Goldenberg is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He was chief speechwriter to Michael Ignatieff and a senior aide in the McGuinty government.

The people, it seems, have spoken.

A new national survey gives Parliament’s second-place party “a national lead of 37 per cent to 30 per cent over the Conservatives.” Another puts them at 44 per cent in Ontario. “That’s a 13-point lead over the Conservatives, who now sit at 31,” CTV’s Craig Oliver declares.

This is bad news for the party in third place; most of their rivals’ rise has come at their expense. Half of those surveyed disapprove of their performance, and nearly a quarter of their own supporters say that they would cast their vote for the other left-of-centre option. One pollster declares that “the situation is dire,” as the third party’s partisans begin to doubt their ability to overcome the country’s newfound affinity for the novice Opposition Leader’s distinctive facial hair.

His eyebrows, that is.

Yes, these promising polls were published in March and April 2009, a few months after Michael Ignatieff moved into Stornoway. Those were heady times for Liberals—and dark, desperate ones for the NDP.

So what happened?

In the spring of 2009, so-called “vote suppression” tactics—later made infamous by the Conservative “robocalls” scandal—were already afoot. The first negative ads were already on the air. The new Liberal leader was the target. But it was Jack Layton, not Stephen Harper, who had put them there.

The radio ads urged left-leaning Liberals to abandon their party for refusing to vote against the Harper government’s budget, which would have forced an early election. Having found a gap between Mr. Ignatieff and his supporters, Mr. Layton’s team sought to exploit it, to demoralize would-be Liberal voters and keep them away from the polls—or, better yet, to convince them to consider an orange alternative. It was textbook vote suppression, and it worked. Two years and millions of dollars of attack ads later, NDP strategists told reporters that they planned to profit from Mr. Ignatieff’s declining popularity; they intended to target past Liberal voters who were, by then, warming up to the NDP leader—a voting demographic they described as “Layton Liberals.”

Vote suppression does not have to be illegal to work. Mr. Layton understood that political success means motivating your own supporters, while alienating your opponents from theirs.

His successor makes the job easy.

Thomas Mulcair won his party’s leadership not on a tide of enthusiasm from his fellow partisans, but rather as a concession to “electability.” Mitt Romney can say the same.

He leads a party whose social democratic traditions he does not share—witness his call to delete socialism from the NDP constitution.

He got his start as a lawyer for the Alliance Québec, an Anglophone organization founded in opposition to Bill 101, Quebec’s cherished Charter of the French Language. He became a Quebec Liberal minister, and quit the Charest cabinet only when faced with a demotion. He very nearly took a job working for the Harper Conservatives before he entered federal politics. None of this will inspire NDP supporters in Quebec—many of whom also support sovereignty—to get out and vote.

He is, by the way, still a French citizen. Rightly or wrongly, that remains a liability.

For now, all is calm. The NDP has been pacified by promising polls. Ottawa journalists have yet to find the leaky faucets among Mr. Mulcair’s MPs—and would rather write about who is not running for the Liberal leadership, in any case. On a per-capita basis, this has been the least scrutinized Official Opposition in recent memory.

But three years remain until the next election. The NDP was polling where the Liberals are now three weeks before the last one. A Quebec provincial election could yet split the party, with NDP MPs supporting the sovereigntist side. Or Mr. Mulcair could finally be forced to explain his many mortgages—any, all, or none of which could be a scandal in the making.

Or perhaps both the Conservatives and Liberals will simply self-destruct, and Mr. Mulcair’s team will glide into government. These days, as they lead on paper, one can hardly blame them for expecting to do so. I know we did.

But wait! A new poll, out Monday, suggests that Justin Trudeau would instantly lead the Liberals to first place, 10 points ahead of the Tories, and 19—19!—ahead of the NDP. Does it matter? Let me close, as one does, with Shakespeare:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d



When polls matter, pigs will fly

  1. “Vote suppression does not have to be illegal to work.”

    Slow down. The NDP tactics you’re describing are commonly referred to as “wedge politics.” You may find them distasteful, but they’re not inherently unethical.

    Vote(r) suppression may encompass more than outright election fraud, but it’s absurd to apply the term to Layton’s or Mulcair’s political manoeuvrings.

    • I agree…trying to show voters why they shouldn`t vote for your opponent, sound the alarms, someone is being nasty. It`s all rather ridiculous, and even some of the assumptions made in this article (I`ve never heard anyone trying to find out how many mortgages Harper, Rae, Ignatieff, May, Duceppe, or any other recent political leader in this country may have had) are rather disingenuous.

      • That doesn’t mean that no reporter looked into their mortgages: it may simply mean they haven’t remortgaged 12 times. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?

    • Not only is it absurd, it damages the case against the CPC in the minds of the public. A common tactic of theirs is to exclaim “Well everybody’s doing it!” as if that makes it perfectly fine. The last thing we need is supposed liberal supporters bolstering that argument.

      Voter suppression is doing things with the intent of keeping people from the polls regardless of whether or not they want to vote. That is miles away from doing things with the intent of changing their mind about who, if anybody, they want to vote for. The former is illegal, the latter is politics.

      Further, I’d suggest it is polemics like these that enabled the CPC and the NDP to push forward the idea that Liberals are self-entitled twats, that they do not care about the substance of governing at all, and all they really know is how to scream about supposed scandals.

      In other words, Mr. Goldenberg.. STOP HELPING. They’d be better off if you did.

  2. Is Macleans trying to sabotage the Liberal party with its choice of party columnists?

    • I could be wrong, but I think Goldenberg was the idea wizard who persuaded Ignatieff to go all evangelical and yell “rise up” during the election. Very American-style, and kind of awkward-making for the typical traditional Liberal. Yeah, you are right: maybe Goldenberg IS an NDP/Conservative plant.

  3. This is a bizarre post.
    Goldenberg ostensibly is arguing that polls don’t matter because overtime political conditions and voting intentions change either by chance or as a result of strategy. OK. That is the most pedestrian and obvious point one could possible make. A poll from two years ago was not necessarily irrelivant, wrong or uninformative, all we can say today is that it is two years old.
    Is today’s poll going to predict election results three year’s from now? Of course not. Does anyone sensible make that argument? But today’s poll might tell the public or a political party something about how they are doing *today*, which, if the poll is done right and interpreted right, might be useful.
    Along the way Goldenberg offers all kinds of backhanded advice in the form of attacks and attacks in the form of advice to pretty much all parties. What’s he getting at? Then ends with a cliche Shakespeare quotation (as all Shakespeare quotations are).
    As I said. Bizarre.

    • the last sentence reads like someone trying to do an Ignatieff parody (like the CPC did for a year or so), which is doubly odd considering the source.

  4. This argument is—on its face–absurd.

    The failure of the Liberal Party of Canada to stand for anything is not a form of voter suppression. It’s indication of how far the Liberal Party of Canada has fallen, having shaken off all its supporters except for a few power-hungry lawyers more concerned with pulling the levers of influence than with taking a stand.

    The hints of xenophobia are a nice touch.

    Goldenberg, your querulous words are nothing more than a last grasp, yanking on that limp noodle of Liberal power.

  5. It’s absurd to suggest the NDP were mainly responsible for Ignatieff’s downfall, who had a surge of popular support when he first became leader. For one, it had a lot to do with Ignatieff himself, who was a victim of foot-in-mouth disease. Second, the Harper Cons engaged in their sleazy and slanderous “Iggy is an American” attack-ad propaganda campaign. Third, the Liberal party was fool enough to not fight back and let the Cons define them.

    Jack Layton, however, should be commended for being a grandmaster at political chess. His defeat of the Liberals and the Bloc was as unprecedented as it was unthinkable. He invented the invisible attack ad during the election campaign: seemingly lighthearted jabs at Ignatieff were politically devastating yet he came across as having a positive message.

    (Some claim Harper is a grandmaster at political chess. But given his crass moves are all too transparent and he’s a leader Canadians neither like or trust, nothing could be further from the truth.)

  6. I’m looking forward to Mr. Goldenberg’s defense of the dual citizenship held by certain Liberal MP’s, including the Israeli passport held by a former cabinet minister.

    The twisted and selective logic of this article is just more evidence of why the LPC has failed so miserably. Boasting about being a speechwriter for a campaign that was a complete failure? Some people just don’t get it,

  7. So, according to Goldenberg, “textbook voter suppression” involves convincing people who one voted for a different party (Liberals) to vote for your party instead (NDP).

    Actually, Goldenberg puts that second to a deliberate attempt to keep people who voted liberal away from the polls. While that does constitute voter suppression, there was nothing about the NDP offensive against the Liberals that I took to be an attempt to stop people from voting. Actual voter suppression (which includes keeping your rival’s voters from the polls, threatening voters – covertly or overtly, undermining people’s trust in representative democracy so that they don’t vote) is a more effective strategy when you know a majority won’t vote for you, so you do your best to keep them away. In the case of the NDP, they (rightfully) understood that they could get Liberal voters to vote for them instead. That’s not suppression, that’s politics.

    He then says that because Mulcair has baggage (what leader doesn’t?) then the Liberals and Conservatives will be able to suppress (read: convince) NDP voters to vote for them instead. Because of that, polls don’t mean anything, yadda yadda.

    Well, actually polls do matter. Parties wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on internal polling and focus group testing policies if they didn’t. Parties and leaders’ fortune rise and fall, but it isn’t random and not wholly blameable on external forces.

    Blame for the Liberal decline on NDP attack ads is a very selective reading of history. Liberal support took a nosedive in Fall 2009 after Ignatieff’s ill-advised “Your time is up” moment, which had nothing to do with any voter suppression campaign (imagined or otherwise).

  8. This is a very strange column that stretches the definition of “voter suppression” beyond all recognition. Also, pretty sure that Ignatieff’s calamitous drop in the polls involved just as many (or more) Liberals switching to the CPC as Liberals switching to the NDP.

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