08 March 2005

Polls and the stuff they tell you - amended

Undoubtedly there will be much comment today on the latest quarterly survey by Corporate Research Associates showing the Williams government with support of 86% of those surveyed.

The CBC radio story is already up, but there isn't anything on the CRA website [as of the original posting] which is a shame. There's a story on VOCM and another in the Telly. CRA's original news release actually shows the detailed responses compared over the past four quarters, which can be useful. [You can find the CRA release linked from the CBC story.]

That said, here are some early morning observations on the CBC report. I'll update this if something more interesting emerges from the CRA release itself.

1. The high approval rating for the Williams administration is hardly surprising. I wouldn't be surprised if the government's own private polling shows numbers much higher between November and January. They had a popular issue driving public support and virtually no opposition or critical comment coming from anywhere, including the opposition parties.

2. The rating reflects an upward trend for the past three quarters as reaction to the budget faded away. The budget and the government's early poor performance was something that wasn't likely to last anyway. As with Tobin and the school reform issue, the Williams administration capitalized on an issue that was framed to appeal to a wide segment of the public. They handled the file well politically and the CRA polling numbers reflect that.

Let's see what the numbers are like after the budget and let's see how government handles the budget in a couple of weeks. I suspect we will not be seeing a continuation of the budget restraint promised last spring. Politicians like big positive polling numbers.

3. Williams personal numbers are back up in the range he has enjoyed for most of his time in politics. Again, the drops last year were linked to another specific issue - namely the budget. It isn't surprising that his personal numbers are back up in the wake of the offshore deal.

4. The PC gains have come primarily at the expense of the Liberals. PC voter preference is at 74%. NDP support is down three points, well within the poll's margin of error; Liberals dropped from 28% to 17%.

5. The poll should be a wake-up call for Roger Grimes personally and for the Liberal Party. For the party, their overall lacklustre performance is reflected in the CRA polls over time. Their jump last year was not linked to their performance as much as it was to dissatisfaction with the government. If the Liberals wanted to hang on to those numbers then thy needed to earn them. They could have earned them by presenting a credible alternative government and by mounting sharp focused attacks on the Williams administration.

If any political opposition waits around for a government to self-destruct, they are in for a long wait. Just ask Danny Williams and the Tories. The Liberals have been working 11 individual districts strategies instead of an integrated strategy designed to present themselves as a credible alternative to the government. They have also been working a strategy based entirely on "rural" Newfoundland and Labrador based on some vague theory of the local electorate. The theory doesn't hold water, especially since it ignores where the majority of the people in the province actually reside physically and philosophically.

For Grimes himself, it is time to exit gracefully from the political stage. I have known Roger for almost 20 years and while I respect him a great deal, I have to give him that advice publicly and honestly.

The trending in the CRA polls (and in other polling) is bad; there's no up-side. There is virtually no chance Grimes can achieve ratings numbers as high as the ones he got last year short of seeing the Premier parading down Water Street in a bra and panties and babbling about the voices in his head. Even then, in the absence of a credible alternative, voters will still pick the raving loonie. Even then, Roger's numbers will be determined by someone else's actions, not his own. No politician can win anything when his support depends on other people's failures.

Pick a moment, Roger. Move on and hand the party over to a new leader, preferably one outside the ranks of the caucus.

6. For Williams, he needs to look beyond the polling peaks and troughs. He who lives solely by the polls, like Brian Tobin, dies by them as well. Lasting political support comes from principle, consistency and accountability.

Let's look at some of the numbers a bit more closely. CBC compares Williams to the Clyde Wells high rating (86% approval) achieved after the 1993 election. The Wells' number is party support; the Williams' one is satisfaction.

The Wells Liberals hit that number after four years in office, ongoing budget restraint, long after Meech Lake and after a hard-fought election campaign. In fact if you look closely you'll see the number was in November 1993, when the general election took place the previous spring! Even at this point, Williams' Tories are 12 points shy of that mark when comparing party support to party support.

I don't have the records in front of me, but I do recall that Wells personally hit a high number in the same range during Meech, but apparently CRA doesn't have personal approval numbers before 1992. Williams personal approval is the highest for CRA's data set.

More importantly, though, over the course of his administration, public support grew and remained at relatively high levels for an incumbent government in hard times.

Wells didn't get there on his own. He consistently emphasised the real team of Liberals in government. The Liberals also didn't get there with staged events and mounting campaigns with messaging framed on the basis of polling. That's Tobinesque.

Wells followed his principles. He articulated his principles. He stuck to his principles. He communicated openly and thoroughly, telling people frankly what was going on: he was accountable.

In 1990, the provincial government signed the landmark Hibernia deal but there was a simple ceremony at the hotel based on the premise that the story didn't need hype to be sold convincingly. Res ipsa loquitor. He would never have sanctioned any advertising for it.

I won't draw a bigger trend out of it but it is important to look at the Williams' administration campaign "events after the January deal was signed. Look even more closely at the reaction of Williams supporters in places like the Fair Deal website to the $200, 000 ad campaign. That's the kernel of the consistency and accountability thing. The ad campaign was hype on top of hype and ran counter to the messages of restraint government has been carrying. The public was consistent in their acceptance of keeping a tight reign on spending; Williams was interested in something else and a gap opened up.

It's not a big gap, but it could be indicative of how this government might begin reacting more to the sprinting needed to boost opinion polls rather than running the marathon called governing.

Any idiot can pop an opinion poll through the roof once or maybe twice.

Try keeping strong support over a long haul, in hard times and then popping the numbers up to the sky.

7. CRA polls can be skewed. CRA has been in the public eye for a long time and has a well-deserved reputation for reliability.


Everyone knows when they are in the field. Therefore governments tend to position their good news to occur when the pollsters are calling. ( Could it be that the timing of the signing and the advertising campaign were designed to skew CRA's polling?)


this poll took place over a three week period, compared to say the two or three days used by national polling firms. This tends to give numbers that are more reliable snapshots of opinion since they are focused in time. It's easier to relate the polling numbers to events in the public at the time. It is also possible to ask questions designed to probe deeper than the three questions CRA uses.

For news media, they could use that type of polling to increase the sophistication of their reporting. It is available and at a competitive cost from several polling companies, but for some reason, local media have preferred to stick with the tried or with the tried and crude than take research that holds up.

SES Research , for example, keeps talking about starting a quarterly survey in Atlantic Canada. When they do, let's hope it gets wide coverage in detail. I suspect you will find it much more useful, much more informative than what you have been getting.