After each debate last week someone would ask me who I thought “won” and I would say what I honestly believed to be true: “I have no freaking idea.” I’m actually not convinced anyone did. It’s near impossible to predict the general impressions of several million people you don’t know to what is essentially a nationally televised family argument. You can’t know how every one-liner and facial tic will be interpreted. All the more so, when the people responsible for forecasting winners (columnists, reporters, TV pundits) have such a different relationship to the politicians—at least to the extent that they see them every day and have heard most everything they’re going to say, and you might be getting your first real chance to see who these people are, how they behave and what they claim to believe.
Nonetheless, the columnists and pundits file their instantaneous opinions and then everyone waits to see what the polling says, at which point most of the columnists and pundits realize that they were completely wrong. (Writing for a daily newspaper is, in many cases, rather unfair.)
All of which might explain why so many around here seem thoroughly bewildered by the latest poll numbers.
Someone put it to me this way the other day: what would we be saying about this campaign right now if there were no poll numbers, if we hadn’t seen a single numerical survey of the parties’ respective standings this month? Who would we say is winning? Why? And how would we know?
Previous to this week, were the Liberals running that bad a campaign? Were the Conservatives doing that well? Two weeks ago we were talking about a Conservative majority government? Now we’re looking at the possibility of a Liberal minority? What changed?
If the answer to the last question is the economy, why? Didn’t the polls tell us that Harper was seen as the man best suited to handle that issue? Wasn’t he considered the better leader? And didn’t he “win” the English debate?
Have the Liberals run that much better a campaign over the last week? (Nope.) Are the Conservatives having that many problems? (Not really.) So is this really because the Prime Minister hasn’t appeared sufficiently emotionally distraught at the plight of the stock market? (Maybe, but that seems rather ridiculous.)
It’s tempting to go back to that CBC experiment, so maybe we should just go ahead and do that. They locked a representative sample of Ontario voters in a room, made them listen to the positions of the four major parties on the economy and then asked the audience to vote again. And what was a 38-33 advantage for the Conservatives suddenly became a 52-29 advantage for the Liberals. Now, granted, Scott Brison came be a charming guy. But he’s not that charming. And he still had to advocate for a plan that’s supposedly terrible.
So two more questions. To what extent is public polling merely a reflection of what the public is being told? And at what point does what the public sees for itself override what it has been told?
I have answers to almost none of these questions.