BTC: Democracy is hard


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.


BTC: Democracy is hard

  1. “So two more questions. To what extent is public polling merely a reflection of what the public is being told?”

    Very much so. That is why Dion has been doing so poorly in public opinion polls. The entire punditry spent the past two years mocking and deriding Dion all the while praising Harper as some sort of political genius.

    “And at what point does what the public sees for itself override what it has been told?”

    That “point” was the debate. What Canadians saw didn’t match the picture painted for them by the media. Dion was not the imbecile they were told and Harper was grossly overrated.

    More importantly, this election demonstrates how out of touch Canada’s political “elite” truly is with the average canadian.

  2. Stockholm Syndrome.

  3. I think the Wall St collapse and now the TSX going down is the most important explanation for changes in polls. Seems to me that people have a tendency to want to throw out the government if economy is in trouble regardless of the circumstances.

    Debates have little affect.

    “To what extent is public polling merely a reflection of what the public is being told?”

    Little correlation I think. People vote for any number of reasons but few of them are heavily influenced by evening news. I think Boudica has it backwards on this one. Some people bought into the Dion is weak leader meme because that fit their impression of him and many didn’t for similar reasons. There are also loads of people who vote for the same party over and over and msm/polls have little affect on them.

  4. History proves you are absolutely correct JWL – if there is any threat to the economy the PM pays the price that is the nature of our system I have seen this many times and dire4ctly in the polls like the next day – Personally I amazed we Conservatives are doing as well as we are. But then again not all that surprised as the LPC has a strong brand can anyone imagine if either Iggy was leader or Dion had never bought up the subject of a Carbon Tax! … then us Conservatives would be very worried and probably lokking at a LPC majority so when all is said and done not only will Stephan go down as the best legislative friend Stevie ever had but the best running mate as well. Irony of ironies. Keep up the good work Stephanie!

  5. I believe that Harper broke his own fixed election law for two reasons:
    1) They could see the economic storm coming and hoped they could “make it to port” before it hit.
    2) As the summer wore on, with no daily question period hammering Harper and no parliamentary committees digging into unsightly scandals, Harper thought he could count on the summer somnolence to squeak one by us. (He called the shortest campaign possible.)

    Fortunately during the campaign, as voters started to pay attention, they decided they liked and trusted this nerdy but principled guy a lot more than the stage-managed thug.

  6. People are simply becoming more engaged in the election since it is now a week away. Most Canadians don’t have the time to follow every little blip in the polls and all the detailed media coverage throughout the full campaign (unlike the journalists, bloggers and people posting comments on this site… including yours truly). People are, well, busy making a living, taking care of their families, worrying about their employment, mortgages, etc.

    Now that people are paying attention, they are finding the Conservatives lacking in empathy towards voters’ everyday concerns and they see that Harper doesn’t have a coherent long-term plan for the economy, unlike the Liberals. In my opinion, that’s why the Conservatives are currently losing support.

  7. D,

    if you would ask the average person on the street in what aspects the Liberals differ from the Conservatives you will get one answer that has been drummed into people for years: Harper is Bush.

    I would challenge you to go back over the debates. During the debates, Mr.Dion, Mr.Layton and Mr.Duceppe invoked Bush’s name (and BIG OIL) as often as they took the time to explain their own party policies.

    Harper on the other hand, during the debates had not once, not once, invoked the names of any foreign leader to compare the other leaders to. Harper was the only leader around that table who took the conversation to be about Canadian politics and economics. Was that reported on? No.

    I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Like I said, go back over the debates and listen for yourself. Canadians are so used to this sort of debating style (invoke the name Bush, neo, and big oil when at a loss of what to counter productively)that they don’t even notice it anymore. Sad. This is even sadder:

    For the past few weeks when going to the gym, or stepping into the elevator, I would ask people at random who they would vote for in the upcoming elections, and when Harper comes up, the word Bush is uttered instantly. Always. Everytime. When I ask them what the differences of policies are between the parties in Canada, none have an answer. So much for being Canadian and thinking about ‘Canadian’ elections. Oh, and by the way, I live in western Canada. I can’t imagine what the random answers must sound like in the rest of Canada.

    Here’s another goody!

    Here we have a leader of a separatist party, Mr.Duceppe, who has climbed as far as he has during this election, on the back of very minor cuts to the arts,(which in reality have not been cuts overal, but then who really notices or cares, right), who on top of it all has been able to recruit on of our finest Canadian writers to back his separatist party, because, like Ms.Atwood puts it: who else is there to vote for?, all the while conveniently forgetting that in 1995 this country Canada whined and whined about the possible break-up of this country.

    Bleeding souls? Our Canadian souls aren’t bleeding; our collective Canadian intelligence has sky rocketed off the charts!!

    There are millions and millions of Canadians who are given the impression by opposition parties, now and ongoing, that the PM of Canada can actually turn the national and international stockmarket into a positive upswing. Single handedly, supposedly. Tomorrow, if you firmly believe them.

    You want to know why the polls are shifting so much? Plain and simple. Some parties in this country know how to play, and play very well, into the tumbling intelligence of the average Canadian voter. And we call that leadership? I’m quessing we do.

    Canada has huge potential. But each and everytime we come close to biting into that potential, we let the Quebec aspect within Canada set the trend of how to tone it all down. It seems we’ve plateaued once again. All the way down for re-runs from here on in.

  8. I’d just like to make this point again, because I don’t think I was precisely clear last time, and it was disputed by another commenter.

    The results in the CBC “X Challenge” are somewhat misleading. Together with Harris-Decima, they selected what they hoped to be a representative sample of voters. The pre-event voting intentions of the audience were not, as far as I understand, collected on arrival, but instead were provided by Harris-Decima in the form of the most recent polls for the area that show targetted.

    So instead of asking each member of the Economy debate audience, as they arrived, who they’d be voting for, they instead took the latest Harris-Decima poll of Ontario and assumed that it represented the intentions of that particular audience. This is in spite of the fact that the audience for that show was, specifically, salespeople. Those pre-show voting intentions displayed on the screen were those of all Ontario voters, not just salespeople in the GTA.

    At the end, when the final tallies were in, they were compared to those Ontario-wide numbers. The same thing was repeated in the Environment debate in Vancouver – the audience was specifically “self-described polluters” who could make it to a downtown Vancouver studio, but the pre-show numbers were for BC-wide voting intentions.

    I’m not saying that the debates weren’t useful, but if Adrian Carr gets 40% of the vote on October 14th, I will print this message out on some nice white paper and eat it.

  9. I don’t think this exercise is trying to forecast how people will vote on Tuesday. I think that rather they are trying to go beyond soundbytes, and see how people react.

Sign in to comment.