When polls matter, pigs will fly - Macleans.ca

When polls matter, pigs will fly

Promising polls, paper leads, then another promising poll

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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
.