Jay Currie advises casual poll watchers to pretty much ignore the polls at the moment. Yes, those same polls the TV talking heads and the deep-thinkers at the major newspapers spend so much time “analyzing”: they are probably the least useful form of information in a Westminster-style election campaign like ours. A poll of a thousand “representative” Canadians doesn’t tell you anything about how the voters in any given riding are likely to vote, and that’s where the election is decided. I’ve been joking with my family that, based on the appearance of signs in our Whitby riding, the likely winner on October 19th will be the window cleaning firm “Men in Kilts”.
Here’s why Jay recommends just ignoring the “horse race” media coverage:
Canadian mainstream media knows only one way to cover an election: it is always a horse race with polls coming out weekly or even daily in which one party or another edges ahead or falls behind by less than the margin of error.
Polls are funny things: they give a particular picture of the race at a particular time without providing much by the way of explanation. And, in Canada, the most reported “national” polls measure a race which does not exist. We don’t vote nationally or even province by province: we vote riding by riding.
The bright boys in the Conservative and NDP war rooms know this and, apparently, someone has been kind enough to explain the rudiments to the geniuses surrounding Trudeau. The fact is that the election turns on, at most, 100 ridings scattered across Canada. Amusingly, these are not the same ridings for each party.
With less than a month to go to election day, but with a month of campaigning and polling behind them, each of the parties will be able to focus its efforts on a) marginal seats where that party’s sitting candidate may lose, b) competitive ridings where that party’s candidate might win a riding previously held by another party.
Talk of the Blue Wave or Orange Crush is like the English pre-WWI talking about rolling the Huns up by Christmas: now we are in trench warfare. And now, small differences are all that matter. Exciting as it may be for the Greens to run 5% nationally, they are running more or less even in Victoria which would up their seat count to 2 and knock an NDP held seat off Mulcair’s search for a plurality of House of Commons seats. And there are ridings like this across Canada.
At the same time, the trench war is influenced by the perception of who is actually winning the overall election. Political scientists talk about bandwagon effects. Here Harper has the huge advantage of incumbency. For every Harper Derangement Syndrome voter out there, there are at least one or two voters who, while they don’t love Harper, prefer the devil they know.
Canadian election analysis used to be pretty easy:
- How many seats are there in Quebec? Give 75% or more to the Liberals.
- How many seats are there in Alberta? Give 90% to the Progressive Conservatives.
- How many urban blue collar seats are there? Give 50% or more to the NDP.
- How many remaining seats are there in Ontario? Split the urban seats 65% Liberal and 30% NDP and the suburban and rural seats 55% PC and 35% Liberal.
- Finally, count out the few dozen remaining seats and guess which way they’ll go (and history matters … a seat that’s been in NDP hands since the CCF years will probably stay there, while a seat that flips regularly every election will probably flip again).
I’m joking, but not by a lot. However, that was then and this is a very different now. All those “rules” have been thrown out the window in the last decade and each party probably has a colour-coded map of the country which shows where it makes any political sense to expend time and resources to retain a friendly seat or steal an opposing seat. (Spoiler: those maps are nowhere near as accurate as the various parties are hoping.)
You (as a federal party official) don’t want to obviously give up on any seat, but you also don’t want to have all your heavy-hitters showing up for events in a riding you don’t have any realistic chance to win: not only is it a waste of time and resources, it can make you look desperate and that’s a very bad way to appear during an election campaign.
I’m not making any predictions about how the election will turn out … I don’t even know who I’ll be voting for on the day, but the folks in the expensive outfits on TV don’t know either. With the national polling being so close and no definite signs of a bandwagon forming, it could go almost any direction. Last time around we had the Crooks, the Fascists, the Commies, and the Traitors. This time the parties are not quite as mired in scandal, so we’ve got the Nice Hair Guy, the Bad Hair Guy, the Beardy Guy, and everyone else (let’s not pretend that the Greens or the Bloc are going to form a government this time around). You drop your ballot and you take your chances. See you on the other side.