12 November 2015

Invention #nlpoli

The provincial election campaign is barely a week old and already we have seen certain themes and interpretations emerging that are the product not of fact and observation but of invention.

The most striking one is the imagined explanation for the massive Liberal lead revealed through two polls released at the start of the campaign.  Already we have  commentators in local media connect the Liberal lead to the recent federal election.  They call it the “Trudeau Effect.”

Political scientist Amanda Bittner told a CBC audience on Tuesday night that because the poll came on the heels of the federal election “it’s hard to say what is going on there.”  She then talked in the abstract about what potential impacts the poll results might have on voters.

This is a bizarre comment on several levels.

For one thing,  the polls tell us what voters have decided.  They are not wandering about in a state of confusion, mulling over a set of three equal options. They will likely not be discussing with their friends and neighbours the potential need for change and the need to engage in the entirely fictional practice of “strategic voting.”


This is not the federal campaign where, for all but the last couple of weeks poll after poll reported the parties within a few points of each other. This is the provincial campaign. The Liberals are clearly ahead of both the Conservatives and the New Democrats by almost eight or nine or 10 times the margin of error. The implications of the poll results aren’t abstract or hypothetical.  They are concrete. 

Bittner’s comment is also bizarre because the poll results are not a surprise.   The polls released last week confirm the general trend established by polls going back the better part of two years.  Take a look at an SRBP post from last March. It shows the results of polls by three different firms, dating back to November 2014. Adjusted to enable accurate comparison, you can see the Liberals consistently at double the support for the Conservatives over the period. Go back further still and you will find Abacus research that looked at voter intentions compared to how they indicated voting in 2011.

You can go back over a longer period and use data from different polling firms to paint a picture of voter intentions back to 2011.  SRBP did it in June.  Even CRA’s quarterly omnibus shows a shift to the Liberals in 2014 that has expanded since early 2014.

Just to make sure there is no confusion about this, let us look at the graph supplied by Abacus Data with its release last week.  abacus horse race

You can see quite clearly that Abacus’ own research has had the Liberals running at up to double the support for their nearest rival going back, in this chart, to the late summer of 2014.  The Conservatives meanwhile, are on an unmistakeable downward trend.  The new Democrats were moving upward in the poll taken earlier this year.

The sudden jump at the end appears to be related to the recent campaign.  But beyond that, the “Trudeau Effect” some people  talk about is irrelevant to the provincial campaign.

How we got where we are

You can go back to 2010, as SRBP has already done already and trace the shift in voter intention over time.  The Conservative decline began in 2011.  This is unmistakeable in the 2011 election result.  Turn-out was among the lowest in history, even allowing for the near total collapse of the Liberal vote.  The Conservatives won with the smallest share of eligible vote of any majority party in the past 45 years.

The New Democrats managed to win seats in the Conservative base in metro St. John’s.  They came very close in a number of other seats.  In metro, that NDP growth could only have come if folks who had typically voted Conservative had switched to the NDP.

The Conservative decline continued into 2012.  The public rejection of Bill 29 was unmistakeable.  It showed itself in polling by MQO that put the NDP in first place in June 2012.  Voters looking for an alternative to the Conservatives went to the NDP.  The Liberals did not appear ready to form a government but the NDP had momentum at that point, coming out of 2011.

By the end of 2012 and into 2013, the NDP had done little to capitalise on their success.  Polling by MQO traced an unmistakeable decline in NDP support.through 2012.  At almost exactly the same time, the Liberal leadership brought the party very forcefully and very broadly into public view.  The campaign was everywhere and so were the candidates.

Voters shifted to the Liberals from the NDP. The Conservatives, meanwhile, did nothing to reinvigorate their party.  By the fall of 2013,  internal cracks were starting to show within the NDP.  The cause of the friction was election readiness, exacerbated by the cult of personality around Lorraine Michael..

Since Ryan Cleary’s split with the party, we have seen confirmation from Cleary that he was implicated in the internal divisions sufficiently that the federal party disciplined for his actions.  Other sources indicate his actions were not just public comments but included other conversations that happened privately up to three months before he was disciplined.

By that time,  the vote switching to the Liberals was well underway. The Liberals had also begun to win a string of by-elections that culminated with the defeat of Danny Williams himself in Virginia Waters.  Those by-elections revealed that the NDP was  - as many New Democrats had said – woefully unprepared for an election.  They lacked candidates and apparently lacked organization, especially outside a handful of seats in St. John’s itself.

The Liberals,. by contrast, had a party organization coming out of the election that was demonstrably able to identify voters and get them to the polls time after time after time.  The party demonstrated an unmistakeable ability to raise money.  Cleary something was resonating with voters, even if it was nothing more than the competence of running highly organized campaigns.

It isn’t hard to see what’s going on there, at all.  In fact, it’s quite easy to understand the choices that voters have already made.  You just have to look at the evidence and read it.  You can build a persuasive explanation of the most recent poll results and trending that goes back four years.

Not hard.

Not a mystery.

Quite easy.

Invented narratives

Instead of a simple explanation based on observation of events,  some people have substituted an imaginary set of explanations for what is happening in local politics.  This invented narrative has come in a variety of forms.

One form has been the call for the Liberals to release policies in advance of the election. They did not make the same demand of the other parties. This call included the suggestion that the Liberals might be able to win a majority government by some sort of magical process in which they did nothing at all.  By implication, the Liberal victory would be illegitimate.

The Trudeau Effect is another version of the same basic narrative that suggests the Liberal standing in the polls is odd, bizarre, strange, or simply wrong.

Another version of this narrative is “Invisible Dwight” or “inferior leader.” This version starts with the premise that  Newfoundland politics is about strong men.  None of the current leaders looks or acts like genuine  - that is popular  - leaders like Joe Smallwood, Brian Tobin,  Brian Peckford or Danny Williams.  Hence, the inferior party cannot enjoy genuine political success. 

The most obviously partisan variations on this line hold that the current Liberal Liberal standing is due solely to the absence of a real Conservative leader. Proponents of this view will often say things like “if Danny came back” or “the current mess is Kathy’s fault.”  They ignore the evidence that Williams remained a dominant force in the party after his resignation in 2010.  They also ignore the Virginia Waters by-election in which the Liberals defeated the Conservative Party led – in all but name only – by Danny Williams.

In another sense, this “inferior leader” argument relies on a very narrow definition of leadership and political success that flies in the face of evidence.  The organizational difficulties evident in both the Conservatives and NDP are a direct result of failures of leadership.  Liberal problems between 2006 and 2013 were similarly a function of leadership problem within the party.

By the same token,  current Liberal success would be attributable to leadership that has set a course for the party that has produced demonstrable results.  This interpretation has a number of advantages, not the least of which is that it is built on observable evidence.  The “magic leader” thesis, by contrast relies on an proposition that is not supported by any evidence, including public opinion polls.  SRBP has discussed this issue before in a discussion of the lack of connection in polls between “satisfaction” or “best leader” with party choice.

Another  variation of the partisan narrative emerged in the federal campaign.  This is the dirty tricks or “black ops” line.  According to this view,  the Liberals succeed because they cheat.  We have not seen this yet in the provincial campaign but it is there as a possible line.

The last variant of the invented partisan narrative is the “strategic voter.”  This version contends that New Democrats lose because of voters who opt to vote for the Liberals instead of for the party they would “normally” or “naturally” support or the party they really want to support.

This interpretation does not hold up to much scrutiny.  In the federal campaign, for example, it does not explain why people switched from the New Democrats, who led the polls at the start of the campaign, to the Liberals.  This interpretation denigrates voters by presenting them s simpletons. And, of course, the argument also denigrates the other political parties.

There’s no evidence that “strategic voting” actually exists. In fact, in the recent federal election a more obvious explanation for the result would be that the Liberals ran a better campaign than the NDP.  In St. John’s, the NDP  suffered particular local problems – over confidence, for example – that led it to make poor choices. .This explanation has the advantage of being simple. .It is based on observable evidence and it is logical.   By contrast,  “strategic voting” sounds like a contrivance that relies on the existence of behaviour that cannot be readily observed.. You cannot readily prove or disprove its existence. 

You will likely hear some variant of those narratives between now and the end of the campaign.  Understand though that the interpretations have nothing to do with what actually occurred during the campaign.  They all serve another purpose.

The lure of fiction

In 2011, the local media relied heavily on opinion polls for their coverage of the campaign. That became the substitute for actual knowledge of what was happening in each of the parties. Their narrative was that the winner was pre-determined but that the only thing to figure out was who would make up the opposition party.

The result of this approach was that the conventional media missed entirely the most significant development in the election, namely the shift from the Conservatives to the NDP.  They never really adjusted their interpretation to accept that perspective even though the Conservative loss in 2011 drove subsequent developments within the Conservative and New Democratic parties.

In this election,  the media are faced with a fait accompli for the Liberals.  This is an unattractive proposition for businesses that need a compelling story to attract an audience that will allow it to earn money. Conflict and controversy are always compelling.  Done deals aren’t.

What will be interesting to see in the week ahead is whether the media will take up an evidence-based narrative of the current campaign or if they will rely on a largely fictional narrative that will, if nothing else, at least sustain the fiction that the outcome of this election is something mysterious or potentially controversial.