It has certainly been an interesting couple of days. On Wednesday I published a blog which argued that for the first time in post-confederation NL history, the upcoming provincial election in 2015 would be wide open race between three parties.
With mostly luck on my side, the very next day the Evening Telegram plasters along their front page some shocking poll results from Environics showing with the NDP and PCs statistically tied (38% and 35% respectively), with the Liberals trailing not too far behind at 26%.
NDP – GOVERNMENT IN WAITING?
Some who read Wednesday’s blog and then got swept away by the poll release on Thursday pointed out to me that I’d been too hard on the opposition parties; clearly the NDP are now the government in waiting… right? Depends on how you define it, but my personal view on it is that a party gets that distinction if an election were to be held today, and in all likelihood they would win. Is that true right now for the NDP?
Ehh.. I’d still stop short of saying that for now (reasons coming below), but there is no doubt NDP partisans, staffers and politicians should be doing a happy dance right now. Of course, there’s the obvious reason for why they’d be happy – they’re #1 in the polls! But there is another reason which most haven’t realized, polls (especially ones which get the press this one has gotten) can actually influence voters.
So while the NDP sit at 38% right now, there’s a possibility of an increasing returns dynamic occurring where that support snowballs. According to leading political scientists Andre Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil and Neil Nevitte polls affect voter decisions in two ways:
1) Strategic Voting – “A vote cast for a party that is not the preferred one, but motivated the intention to affect the outcome of the election”
2) Contagion Effect – “Occurs when polls affect expectations about the outcome of an election, and these expectations then affect preferences or evaluations”
Given the fact that the notion of three distinct competitive parties is a new thing for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, I’d suspect that strategic voting is not a significant factor, at least not yet. In my Wednesday blog I pointed out that a minority government is very possible after the 2015 election if things keep going the way they’re going. These polls are certainly a further indication of that. If a minority situation happens, that would produce the environment conducive to strategic voting (as we have seen in federal voting).
Whereas strategic voting isn’t likely a big factor, the contagion effect could happen in Newfoundland.
I’m currently in the process of writing a paper for possible publication which argues that the polls (in conjunction with various other factors) are a key factor in the “orange wave” in Quebec during the 2011 federal election. I can’t help but see some possible similarities in Newfoundland.
In Newfoundland, the NDP have historically not been seen as a viable option. There used to be notion of “oh, a vote for them is a wasted vote”. That was the case in Quebec initially, hell, they don’t even have a provincial NDP. But as the federal NDP started doing things which impressed people (Jack Layton’s performance on the popular Quebec TV show “Tout Le Monde En Parle” for example), some people started warming up to them. As they rose in the polls, the media started to pay attention to it. Then BAM, a poll out of nowhere says that the NDP are in the lead in Quebec, the media went wild and things just took off from there as the contagion effect takes hold. Sounds familiar huh? That potential exists for the provincial NDP in Newfoundland. I’ll bet you there were people watching the news last night and once they saw the numbers thought to themselves, “y’know what, I might vote for them if they actually have a chance to win”.
This is why the NDP have another big reason to be happy: the Telegram, CBC, and NTV just aired a more effective political advertisement than anything they could have manufactured themselves and it didn’t cost them a dime.
There are some out there who see such massive changes in voting intentions, and wonder if it’s a “rogue” poll; in other words, a fluke poll which portray phenomenons which aren’t actually occurring. Gilles Duceppe blamed a rogue poll during the 2011 election for the NDP rise and BQ fall in Quebec. While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with poor ol’ Gilles, since these things do happen, I asked political scientist Dr. Kelly Blidook (who happens to teach Memorial’s Political Science quantitative methods classes) if he thought this poll was “rogue”. Here’s his response verbatim:
“I think there have been a lot of problems for the PCs that have piled up – fish plants [closing], health cuts, S&R inquiry, etc. – and I think all these have counted. The CRA poll that came out in early June showed some notable slippage, and more issues such as Access to Information have added to that since. I don’t think the poll is “rogue” because I think it is likely an accurate reflection of actual support at the time it was taken, but it is possible that as these issues pass the support levels for the PCs will return to something closer to what they used to be. If things don’t start going well for the PCs though, then this might be the way things are going to be, and in that sense, the poll probably accurately reflects that the PCs need to do better to be popular.”
Here’s another reason to doubt the truth of this poll: it had a great sample. It’s sample size was 1000. To put that in perspective, political scientists across the country use the “Canadian Election Survey”, which has a sample size of about 3600 if I remember correctly, which is taken as representative of roughly 30 million Canadians. Therefore, a sample 1000 to represent the NL population of roughly 500,000 is more than acceptable.
Blidook makes a very important point in his point above; note he feels the poll is an “accurate reflection of actual support when [the poll] was taken”. This poll represents survey data taken from June 19th to June 29th.
Hmm… what was happening around that time? Anything big?
OH YEAH! That whole Access to Information controversy, the political bomb which was nearly universally hated across the province. The opposition parties filibustered the government’s bill and it was an absolute political nightmare for the PCs. This was all over the news provincially and nationally, and trust me, it resonated. I was sitting in the public galleries at the House of Assembly at 11 PM as they debated the closure of the debate on the bill, and miraculously, there was something like 30 other people there. Some of whom, excuse the language, were downright pissed off. Twas fun to watch.
Why does this matter? To put it crudely, this poll is on anti-PC steroids. The questions were conducted at a time when respondents were primed by media, word of mouth (or my new favorite word, contagion) to not be pleased with the PCs. So as Dr. Blidook said, it won’t be surprising if the numbers normalize a bit, or go closer to “what they used to be” as things cool off. With that said, the ATIPPA controversy was so prominent that it will stick in people’s minds, so the general trend of falling PC support could still be happening, even if the next poll indicates a slight improvement. In fact, I’d go as far to argue that if the next poll has the PCs falling even further then they’re in a complete and utter free fall, if they’re not already.
As I’m pointing out how these polls confirmed things I said in the Wednesday poll, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out how they point to me being completely wrong on something. On Wednesday I wrote about what I perceived as NDP blunders (Michael’s racism rant/the Corner Brook unions bit). While I still don’t think they were wise political moves, I greatly over-estimated to what extent they mattered – which now appears to be very little if at all (so that lady who sent me the nasty comment can take solace in that ) While they may still have been blunders, the blunders on the part of the PCs were so much more massive, the NDP can still capitalize.
WHAT ABOUT THE LIBERALS?
As I write this I’m catching myself make the mistake many others are making as they look at this poll; I’ve largely ignored the Liberals up until this point. The Liberals should be about as happy as the NDP are. The Telegram quoted Liberal leader Dwight Ball pointing out that the Liberals had the biggest gains of anyone (going from 18% support to 26% compared to the NDP going from 33% to 38%).
While I took back some of the things I said on Wednesday about the NDP, I still stand by everything I said about the Liberals. While the Liberals made significant gains, I don’t think they actually did anything to garner it. Shannon Reardon, who just recently stopped working for the provincial Liberals, publicly tweeted that the Liberals are “spinning their wheels”. Whether that’s an example of a former staffer’s scorn or a true reflection remains to be seen, but I’d agree with that sentiment. The PCs are bleeding support, and it isn’t all going to turn into “undecideds”. The reality is that in from 2000 to 2003 then to 2007, a lot of people who did vote Liberal started voting PC. Given the terrible performance of the PCs of late, I think this is some of that support going back to the Liberals.
Many are still uncomfortable with supporting the NDP (the comments sections in the Telegram and the POV responses on CBC’s Here and Now are glimpses of that), and that leaves the Liberals as the prime beneficiaries. Scholarship points to this sort of dynamic in many different instances, but the distinction between “durable” and “flexible” partisans is especially apt here. The distinction all started with Clarke in 1979, but Blais et al described it well in their book “Anatomy of a Liberal Victory” (federal Liberals, that is). According to Blais et al:
“To qualify as durable partisan, voters had to identify fairly or very strongly with their party, identify with the same party at both federal and provincial levels, and report identifying with the same party across time. Voters who failed to satisfy one or more of these criteria were classified as flexible partisans” -pg 115 in Anatomy of a Liberal Victory
In the late 90s and early 2000s, many Newfoundlanders voted Liberal in both federal and provincial elections, leading one to believe there were quite a few “durable” Liberal partisans during this period. Given the interesting dynamics of the Danny Williams versus Stephen Harper affair, there were very few “durable” partisans by the standard definition during the Williams years, and there likely still aren’t. What’s left are flexible partisans, and those people who used to vote Liberal when it was popular, and then switched the PCs when it was popular, are likely now beginning to switch back to Liberal again as it’s a more natural fit as the PC’s continue to demonize themselves.
Professor Blidook would be proud, I decided to wipe the dust off of the ol’ SPSS icon on my desktop and look at the last Canadian Election Study, and found that 31% of those polled who would have voted PC in a provincial election in 2011 voted Liberal in the 2011 federal election, and logic suggests that figure is larger for 2008 (sample of 61 people though, so be cautious). The Environics poll suggests the possibility that some flexibles are moving back into their roots of constant Liberal voting. That’s both good news and bad for the provincial Liberals. The good news is that they have a solid base to build on. The bad news is that their current performance probably isn’t doing any of the aforementioned “building” yet, so they’ll have to hold their hands before patting themselves on the back. Their upcoming leadership convention will mark a huge opportunity, one where they should be able garner more support.
THE URBAN/RURAL SPLIT
What’s not so great for the NDP in this poll, and very nice for the Liberals is the matter of the urban/rural split in NL. Here’s the graph Environics released:
Something to keep in mind here is that when you start splitting up poll data like this, the poll data becomes a little less reliable; so that %3.2 margin of error is likely greater here.
There are some marked differences to be pointed out here. If an election were to occur today, it looks like the NDP would sweep or almost sweep St. John’s and area. The problem for them is that they’ll need more than that to win (as far as I can tell, the best they could do with these numbers is a very slim minority government). There are a lot more seats beyond the overpass in rural NL + Corner Brook than there are in the NE Avalon alone, but dominating 20-25% of the electoral districts is a hell of a start. If the federal NDP are to be used as a measuring stick, urban voters are more prone to make the switch to the NDP (young voters too). Rural voters are a tougher sell for the NDP. The “contagion” effect I spoke about earlier won’t have the NDP’s desired effect if it doesn’t sprawl into rural NL, as it appears any increasing returns would only lead to even bigger numbers in the already dominated Northeast Avalon area.
If the Liberals can improve their performance they have a very real shot at winning the next government by continuing to lure back the flexible partisans and doing damage in rural NL. The Tories, despite their freefall, still have good numbers beyond the Northeast Avalon, so they can still save themselves yet (but it will be incredibly difficult I think). To be sure, the quest for the rural voter will be an absolute dog fight as taking into account the margin of error, the non-Northeast avalon is nearly a three-way statistical tie.
By now you can probably see why I’m still hesitant to call the NDP the government in waiting in NL. For one thing, this is just one poll, and do only have 5 seats right now. While the trend lines are positive, this poll is distinctive. Anyone who followed the most recent Alberta election knows that we must be careful before jumping to conclusions.
I would say the federal NDP are the current government in waiting, and that’s for a plethora of reasons I’d have to dedicate another blog to (though some earlier blogs speak to it), but the provincial NDP have more work to do to garner such a distinction; particularly more inroads in rural NL.
In the end, I’ll repeat what I said in Wednesday’s blog because this recent poll confirms it. The 2015 election should be historic, with it being the first real three-way race in NL’s post-confederation history (unless you’re counting Smallwood’s reform party). Plus, there’s real potential for a minority government. On top of that, there’s a decent possibility for the government to be led by the NDP; a party who had only 8% support not that long ago.
There’s one thing we can say for certain, the PCs are in big, BIG trouble. With Muskrat Falls still looming like a dark cloud, they’re going to have to make sure they either do a really good job of selling it, or just not go ahead with it at all as that represents the next political landmine they’ll have to meander around. Further, if oil prices keep going the way they are, the next provincial budget will be an absolute nightmare for Dunderdale and co. This will give the NDP and the Liberals more prime opportunities to attack. Thus far, the NDP have been the clear winners in taking advantage of such opportunities. However, the Liberals are within striking range and if they get the expected boost from a leadership convention and start performing better in the Fall, they’re a legitimate threat.