Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Poll narratives

There have been some puzzling narratives weaving their way through the Canadian punditry and amateur punditry in the last few weeks, stemming from a sort of pre-election fever and fuelled by almost daily polling. I won't link to specifics, but we've all seen them. They go sort of like this: The Liberals/NDP/Bloc are in such big trouble that they're in danger of never winning another election/disappearing from the political scene entirely/rendering the sovereigntist movement irrelevant. And we've only got about two seconds to figure out why, so instead of actually sitting down and analyzing the situation, we'll just blame it all on Stéphane Dion's/Jack Layton's/Gilles Duceppe's obvious complete failure to resonate with Canadian voters.

To make things worse, each version of this narrative always focuses on one of the above possibilities, conveniently ignoring the parts of the picture that don't fit with the way the storyteller wants to view the world. Partisan Liberals will talk about how the NDP is hemorrhaging votes because Layton has dared to negotiate with the Taliban Tories on climate change legislation, partisan Tories or New Democrats will talk about how the Liberals are in freefall because they picked the wrong leader, and all sorts of people will look at the Bloc's numbers and gleefully declare sovereigntists permanently pacified by Harper's big-ticket gifts to Quebec. A reality check suggests that they're all a little bit right about the details...and yet without looking at the big picture, the overall conclusions are completely wrong.



This chart, which shows all of the various polls that have been conducted so far this month (Decima March 1st, Angus Reid March 2nd, Ipsos Reid March 3rd, Decima March 8th, and Strategic Counsel March 15th) shows a pretty even picture with a couple of blips here and there. There's no obvious trend upward or downward for anyone. And if you compare the averages to the 2006 election results, the Liberals are down a bit over a point, the NDP is down a bit over two, and the Bloc is down a bit under two. A bit troubling for partisans of any of those stripes, certainly, but hardly Titanic material, and certainly not evidence that they're all on the wrong track with leaders who need to be thrown overboard at the first available opportunity. And if you consider the fact that the Tories (who according to these same narratives are supposedly eyeing a majority again) are actually doing no better than they did in January of 2006, well, there's just not a lot to get all that worried about. Far from being in freefall, the Liberals seem to be holding their own under their new leader. The Bloc had their dip, but they're holding steady now, too. And as for the NDP, well, with only slightly lower numbers, a tonne of money in the bank, a terrific new ad campaign, and a national strategy conference this weekend, they're certainly not going anywhere.

So if none of the supposedly dying parties are actually dying, then what's really going on? Well, I don't have any hard data on this, but from talking to Green voters, I have some ideas. I don't mean the partisan Greens, who are as smug and arrogant with their 9.8% as the Liberals ever were at 45%; I mean the people who make up the couple of percentage points each that the Greens have taken from the other parties. These people aren't looking in that direction because they hate Dion's accent or Layton's moustache or Duceppe's little bonnet--they're doing it because they actually like the idea of the existence of a Green Party. They don't actually know much about the party, mind, but the idea of the party resonates with them. To these people, the Greens are a brand-new party that wasn't there before and is totally untainted by actual, you know, governing experiences, and that's kinda neat. Now, whether this vague "kinda neat" factor will be enough to bring them the kind of success we're seeing in these polls in an actual election (or for that matter, whether they will get any seats) is still an open question. But even if it isn't enough, there's no denying that there's a new kid on the political block. And this means that the old, lazy narratives of "the Liberals/NDP/Bloc have gone down a couple of points and so Dion/Layton/Duceppe must be doing a crappy job as leader" simply don't work anymore. It's a new game board.

The real story here--and one I haven't seen a single pundit or blogger try to tell yet--is that a new party is being added to the political scene and yet none of the old parties are actually disappearing from it. The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc have all sacrificed a point or two to the Greens' surge, but there's no single party that the Greens can be seen to be replacing. The three older left-wing and centrist parties may trade some of their soft support with each other every now and then, but the vast majority of their support is actually quite firm, and not going anywhere despite the emergence of the Greens as a new force. Before our eyes, we're watching the Canadian political scene transform itself from a four-party system into a five-party one. And that's pretty extraordinary.

14 comments:

Greg said...

Finally, a reality-based poll analysis. Thanks IP.

Andrew said...

If someone could make all of these polls stop, I'd be a much happier man. They distract from the real issues, and cause stupid levels of speculation.

Kenn Chaplin said...

The polls drive me crazy, the usual pithy analysis moreso. Thank you for taking the time to make some sense of what's been going on and giving partisans a little hope that we're not just pissing in the wind; that policy, not betting on horses, just might shape our country.

The Jurist said...

I don't mean the partisan Greens, who are as smug and arrogant with their 9.8% as the Liberals ever were at 45%...

Great line, and indeed great post. Now if only there were any real likelihood of the punditocracy (particularly at the professional level) acting on it...

Goodwin Ginger said...

The other thing to keep in mind is that if you total up the center left vote it is over a majority of Canadians. Clearly, Canada is a center to left country.

It is pity we appear headed to a right of center victory. PR anybody?

janfromthebruce said...

Great way of putting numbers or a month time span into 'what it means.'

bigcitylib said...

You don't think the Greens pull from the CPoC at all? That's the only part of your story I might question.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

goodwin ginger,

Well, yes, you're not going to get me arguing with that conclusion! But what we don't seem to be headed for is a right-of-centre majority victory. We're pretty much headed for another parliament that looks much like the one we have now, with a few seats shifted around here and there and possibly a seat for Elizabeth May. Kinda makes you wonder what the point is of all this election stuff, eh?

bigcitylib,

That seems wrong to me, too, honestly, but that's what the numbers seem to suggest, so I didn't try to suggest otherwise. I think it's possible that the Greens only pull from the Conservatives when their soft support is unhappy with Harper, and that hasn't been the case in the first few weeks of March.

Josh Gould said...

Before our eyes, we're watching the Canadian political scene transform itself from a four-party system into a five-party one. And that's pretty extraordinary.

Well, strictly speaking we're going back to a five-party system as between 1993 and 2003. My theory - probably not unfounded - is that a good number of former Progressive Conservatives have gone Green since the PC-Alliance merger, much as some old school Reform/Alliance supporters in BC of the populist bent have returned to the NDP.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Josh,

Oh, that's a nice thought, isn't it? I hope the old Red Tories can find a political home there.

Greg said...

I think Josh is right to a degree. The old PC part and the alliance together had numbers in the low forties. The Liberals don't look like they have picked up much support, but the Greens are up a bit. It makes me wonder too.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Josh and Greg,

It fits with some of the Greens' rather conservative positions on various things, too. But there's something that makes me doubt it--the two party cultures are not just very different, but pretty radically opposed. The Greens are all about bright-shiny-newness and cocky adolescence, while the PCs were sort of the greybearded elder statesmen. It would certainly be a bit of a clash.

Josh Gould said...

jnTrue... it's certainly not the whole story. Where Green support is coming from is one of the mysteries of the last several years in Canadian politics. I think a not insubstantial component may be disaffected Liberals - are they simply new voters?

Paulitics said...

I keep a pretty detailed rolling five-poll avereage of every poll conducted since the 2006 election on my site and my data would, at least insofar as the month of March is concerned, more or less jive with your analysis.

However, one point of disagreement, my polling resource has shown a not insignificant jump for the Liberals with the latest two polls, as well as a statistically significant drop for the Bloc since late February.

If you're interested in my numbers, you can check them out here:

http://paulitics.wordpress.com/polls/

or, for my provincial/regional breakdown, you can go here:

http://paulitics.wordpress.com/polls-provincialregional-breakdown/