Thursday, February 21, 2008

Polling mysticism

So today's poll has the Tories "flirting with a majority." Now wait... didn't yesterday's poll have them in "a dogfight" with the Liberals?

Apparently, yesterday's competitive Liberals are now suddenly today's underdogs fighting even to stay above historic party lows (of which their reported 27% would certainly be). The NDP, whose 12% in today's poll put them well below their 2006 support levels, were just two weeks ago at 19% and apparently well-positioned to make gains. Back then, the Greens found themselves at 7%, a standing barely above their 2006 election result and far short of their apparent rapid ascendance to 13% in the latest poll.

As political observers, we all ooh and ahh at each new horse race figure that's printed in the papers, trying to read into the numbers some sort of truth about who's ahead and who's behind and who's going to be sorry and who's going to be rewarded. The art of poll watching has taken on an almost mystical quality, with its high priests quick to ascribe some dramatic trend or, in some cases, validate the various notions and myths their particular political tribe feels a need to hold on to (which includes partisan false bravado).

For political junkies, prognosticating election results after every poll makes for fun exercise, but it's fairly pointless, for a number of reasons:

  • First, most of us who read about polls regularly know some of the reasons that poll numbers jump around: sampling (± a certain percentage, 19 times out of 20) and various sorts of non-sampling errors, and the way survey questions are asked (debates continue about what question wording best replicates how voters are likely to respond upon arriving at the polling booth, something that Blackberry Addicts were never exactly shy about raising).

  • Second, polls taken in between elections are often more about party brands than they are about the true competitive standing of each party relative to one another. It's what I often call a "parking lot" effect, in which poll respondents instinctively "park" their vote in between elections. Asked by a pollster who they'll vote for and they'll tend to blurt out whatever party brand they roughly associate with or that happens to be top of mind. The Liberals and Greens tend to be beneficiaries of this tendency in most parts of Canada.

  • Third, pre-election campaign polls don't take into account party organization, finances, gaffes or infighting, strategic positioning, the name recognition of incumbent "star" candidates, media exposure, and party messaging, all of which play a huge role in that complex game of chess that plays itself out in each election campaign.

For these reasons, the hype that follows most polls tends to be pretty hollow. A better analysis might take into account some of the above factors.

The Greens, currently buoyant in most polls, have considerably less ground organization, campaign experience, cash resources, star candidates, or media exposure than the other three national parties and will almost surely sink when the next election campaign goes live. Nik Nanos, of SES Research, suggests that the Greens typically drop 1/3 of their vote from the last poll to the actual election. That's after the deflation of the Green balloon that's likely to occur during the campaign itself.

The Liberals, in their current state of endless infighting, fundraising difficulties, mass retirement of MPs and loss of valuable potential candidates, to name just a few of their problems, had best shape up and fast if they expect to hold the 27% to 35% the polls currently peg them at.

Worse for the party is the unenviable position they keep backing themselves into: critiquing the government but then doing all they can to make sure it isn't defeated. For them, voting to defeat the government in a confidence motion means risking catastrophic losses in an election (for some of the reasons noted above), yet supporting the government or abstaining from confidence motions means branding themselves as a "weak" opposition that has little alternative agenda to that of the government.

A weak, indistinct, vision-less Liberal Party is one that's going to find itself wedged in an election between the Conservatives and the NDP when centre-right Liberals find they have no reason to vote for a "me too" Liberal rather than a Tory and when centre-left Liberals find that the alternative vision they're looking for lies only with the NDP. Is it any wonder, then, that the Tories and NDP are literally trying to goad the Liberals into an election, while the Liberals are finding ever new and interesting ways to contort themselves in an attempt to avoid just that?

We live in very interesting times.

Photo: a map of the 2006 federal election results.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

New software does not an urban vision make

I was at the Winnipeg Chamber function on Friday for our Worship's annual State of the City address. About 1,000 folks were in attendance, which is a pretty spectacular turnout, I think.

In the opening moments, I chatted with a few people at my table about the issues or debates Katz would likely raise in his speech. I thought he might touch on some of the big debates going on now, such as Asper's proposal for a new football stadium, the Upper Fort Garry heritage park plan, or Katz's own water park pet project.

I thought Sam might even take a leap forward and provide us with some vision of what our city could be: a glimpse of a new, more environmentally conscious city, perhaps; a proposal for rehabilitating our declining transit system into something many of us could use and be proud of; some vision of Winnipeg as a centre of urban Aboriginal culture and pride; or even his seemingly forgotten promise of enhancing our network of neighbourhood community centres so that kids everywhere can take part in recreational and sporting opportunities. I was to be sorrily disappointed.

Katz's entirely-memorized teleprompted and very slow-spoken address began with a whole lot of name dropping, thanking each city councillor by name, as well as the new police chief, Keith McCaskill, and a host of other folks. He later again thanked each councillor at least two or three times, perhaps trying to emphasize that city council is all one happy family these days.

While I wasn't really expecting to be moved one way or the other by the mayor's speech, I was completely flabbergasted by the huge amount of time he spent yakking about CrimeStat, the city's one-year old software program for monitoring crime trends by neighbourhood. The audience was treated to explanations of how the system works, PowerPoint slides showing real crime statistics for the St. James neighbourhood, and scenarios of how such data might allow for quicker police responses to crime trends.

It's fine to mention the new techniques for monitoring crime, but I'm astonished with the amount of hot air that was spent on what amounts to a software purchase and a cool website page. I have no problem with a system that allows police to better monitor crime trends -- it is, in fact, part of their job to do just that. But should it be such astonishing mayoral speech-level news that the police are given an upgrade on the tools they use to do their job? What's going to be the highlight of next year's address: how Excel formulas helped improve the city's accounting workload? How city vehicles slid around less after being installed with winter tires?

The problem with Winnipeg's political leadership continues to be one of narrow vision. While other cities guide their projects with visions of what their urban space should look and feel like, Winnipeg confuses one-off projects with vision by continuing to tinker with the accessories: a park or a downtown shopping mall or a redesigned bus shelter or a software program don't equal a vision. These are things that should be guided by vision. Where is Sam's vision? Where does Sam see us in ten years? In twenty? What will or should life be like for Winnipeggers? How will or should non-Winnipeggers view our city? Sam? Hello, Sam?

The real crime is that of hopes and opportunities lost: what might this city look like had we had fewer vision-less mayors? What kind of Winnipeg might yet be possible?

Photo: Portage Avenue, near Hargrave Street, in 1920.