09 December 2014

Decisive Moments in Politics #nlpoli

The NDP are down five points,  the Liberals are up two and the Conservatives are up three, according to the latest Corporate Research Associates poll.

Voters are abandoning the New Democrats who are down by one third from 15 points to 10.  The Liberals and the Conservatives picked up those disaffected former New Democrats, with the Conservatives actually doing better than the Liberals.

Small problem:  that’s not what happened.

What’ve you actually got here is one of the finest possible examples of how the way CRA presents its own numbers can mislead people who want to figure out what is happening with public opinion.

To get closer to the rights of it, you have to look at the party choice numbers as a share of all responses, not by excluding all the undecideds and so forth. 

There’s actually been a change of 11 percentage points since the last CRA poll.  The NDP dropped two and the undecided, won’t answer, don't know people fell by nine percentage points.  The Liberals went up by seven and the Conservatives went up by four.

Bit of a difference, eh?
q4 - 2014

This chart shows the adjusted poll results since the 2011 general election.  There’s a minor change in the results from the third quarter of 2014 that were the result of a math mistake.

For the Conservatives, the results put them where they were earlier in 2014.  The New Democrats are even lower than they were.  The big drop for the NDP came late in 2013, but there was a slide even before that, going back to the earlier part of 2013, according to the CRA numbers.  The Liberals are up seven points, which is the biggest climb they’ve seen in a year.

The real story in the CRA poll is the nine point drop in the collection of categories that make up the so-called undecided.  What they should be called is “won’t tell you” because that’s what they really are.  The respondents in this lot actually have an idea of what they will do:  they just won’t tell the polling firm.
Anyway, they’ve dropped nine points since last poll.  That’s the largest change up or down in a single quarter since the last general election.   It’s almost as though people were hanging on to see how the Conservative leadership would work out.  After a couple of months of experience, and with the cast of political characters apparently settled, they made a choice.  The Dippers were the losers and the whole of the shift split between the other two parties, two to one, in favour of the Liberals.

That two to one pattern is consistent with the overall breakdown, where the Liberals lead the Conservatives 42 to 20.  That’s a wee bit better than two to one, but you get the idea. 

The most worrisome number for the Conservatives has to be the gap between support for Paul Davis as Premier and that for Dwight Ball.  With 26 (Davis) to 46 (Ball), that’s the largest gap in the leader choice in the past year.  Go back to May 2012 and you’ll find the last time the Conservatives and another party leader were in the same kind of gap.  Back then,  Kathy Dunderdale was ahead of Lorraine Michael by more than 20 points.  Those days are gone and, despite having a new leader, the Conservative situation is actually worse under Davis than it was under Kathy Dunderdale or Tom Marshall.

There is an idea floating around that, as political scientist Kelly Blidook put it,  Dwight Ball will wind up as Premier because he was merely the right guy in the right place at the right time.  It’s akin to the Conservatives’ idea that the Liberals are hollow,  that they have no ideas.

What we are seeing in these polls is the result of a series of decisions by different people in the three political parties over time.  The Liberals didn’t just luck out.  Anyone who has been paying attention – and Blidook clearly hasn’t been – would realise that the Liberals have been slowly, steadily building their organisation over the past two years.  At the same time, the party has been fund-raising.  And while all that has been going on, they have been finding candidates and conducting a highly successful leadership contest.  They’ve been doing exactly what a political party needed to do in order to gain public attention.

The reason people are looking to the Liberals and not the other parties isn’t some sort of magic or default.  It is the result of conscious choices by the leadership in the New Democrats and the Co0nservatives to follow different courses of action from the Liberals. 

The schism in the NDP was about election readiness.  Those who wanted to capitalise on the success from the 2011 election were at odds with those backing Lorraine Michael.  They clearly were not interested in organising a successful political party.  They have neglected everything from fund raising, to organisation, to candidate recruitment.  The only goal the group had was to keep Lorraine as leader.  In that objective, they have succeeded brilliantly.  Meanwhile, everyone else in the province was looking for a potential Premier. 

In the Conservative Party, they have had a more complex situation.  The Conservatives know what power is.  They like it and they want to keep it.  Unfortunately, they have been unable to understand what they have to do in order to make that goal a reality.  The problem is a bit more complex than that the caucus members only know what it is like to be incumbents.  Even those sorts of people, in other places, at other times, have managed to figure out that connecting with voters is the key to electoral success.

The Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador have a different idea.  There is no accident that both Charlene Johnson and Danny Williams dismissed by-election defeats five years apart with the  same sneering arrogant claim that voters were simply ungrateful.  Rather than connect with voters,  Conservatives believe they are entitled to be in office.  Voters are obliged to vote for the Conservatives not because they have worked hard to earn trust and confidence, but merely because they are Conservatives. Since 2009, the Conservatives have had countless chances to change. They have had the chance to even make it look like they were changing.  Every single time,  they have steadfastly refused.

Sure,  Steve Kent is travelling around the province running consultations.  Paul Davis keeps telling people he is listening.  The problem is not that the Conservatives haven’t heard the publics’ views on everything under the sun. The Conservatives just don’t do anything in response.  They believe, apparently, that in their hearts and souls they are the heart and soul of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Voters are  of another opinion.  The result is that the voters have abandoned the Conservatives.  While the Liberals were still sorting themselves out,  the voters went first to the NDP.  The turned in 2011 in a series of hotly contested seats in the general election.  The media missed it as did all the pollsters but the highly competitive election in those seats still happened.

Support for the Conservatives continued to erode, even if CRA didn’t accurately record it.  The first decisive political change came in 2012, during the filibuster over Bill 29.  While the Liberals ran that filibuster,  the public perception was still that the NDP were the better choice to replace the Conservatives.  As MQO polling showed, voters flocked to the NDP in droves. The NDP didn’t follow through, though, and over time, voters started looking again. They noticed the Liberals. The second decisive political change came in late 2013 as the Liberals reaped the reward of their public, open, and highly successful leadership. 

The next general election might not appear very competitive.  The Liberals will likely sweep to power.  Casual observers might mistakenly think that elections in this province aren’t competitive. The  truth is that local politics is competitive.  The thing is, political decisions don’t always happen during an election campaign.  That’s a political lesson a lot of people need to learn. How they missed the lesson given the number of times it happened in the past 15 years is a whole other story.