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Augury, omen and prognostication: Divining the Canadian body politic

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Canadian political haruspicy.

As the countdown continues towards the October 19, 2015 federal election (Doomsday or Bastille Day depending on your perspective), what political signs do we divine? How are the parties faring? How rise and fall political fortunes? Is a message reaching the electorate? Are there omens that portend the future?

For a tantalizing glimpse at the entrails of the Canadian political ewe-nion (a 'liver die' proposition, at least for the sheep), below are some tentative forays into contemporary political haruspicy

Haruspex: Probing the political entrails

The most beloved tools of political prognosticators are opinion polls, and they emerge from various sources with dizzying regularity. Canadian political divinatory extraordinaire, Éric Grenier, the statistical mind behind ThreeHundredEight.com, provides regular encyclicals. His most recent insights (as of December 19, 2013) show the Liberals leading across Canada with 34.3 per cent support, followed by the Conservatives at 27.1 per cent, the NDP at 23.3 per cent, the Green Party at 7.0 per cent, and the Bloc Québécois at 6.4 per cent (Grenier's data is a weighted average of a number of preceding polls).

A more interesting and incisive divination is Ekos Research's most recent (December 19, 2013) political report, Political landscape freezes with winter cold. As usual, Frank Graves and the Ekos political gurus provide much insightful grist for the mills, some of which (such as metrics on the direction of the country and direction of the government) I have touched on in previous articles (see: Progressive Canadian politics: Co-operation or cannibalism?). In this context I'll confine myself to two measures, Tracking federal vote intention, and Federal vote intention itself.

Tracking federal vote intention

In the case of the former, illustrated below are the changes in federal voting intention since October 2008. Notable since the last election is the steady and almost unceasing decline of Conservative support since the May 2, 2011 federal election from 39.6 per cent to the present level of 26.2 percent -- a 13.4 per cent drop in support and well below what some pundits (yours truly included) considered the rock-bottom threshold of the Harper nation.

It also illustrates the remarkable rise in fortunes of the federal Liberal party (at the expense of both NDP and Conservatives) from a level of 18.9 per cent in the spring of 2011 to their current standing of 32.1 per cent, a 13.2 percentage point increase. This must surely be coupled to the ascendant popularity of current Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau.

After rising to surpass the Conservatives in the spring of 2012, NDP support has fluctuated significantly over the past 1.5 years to the current level of 22.9 per cent, down from 30.6 per cent at the time of the last election. The Green Party has experienced a slow but steady increase in support from the 3.8 per cent they polled in 2011 to a current level of 9.3 per cent, more than doubling over the past 2.5 years -- coincidentally reflected by the recent doubling of their caucus when independent MP Bruce Hyer joined the Green Party on December 13, 2013. Meanwhile Bloc Québécois fortunes have remained largely unchanged since the 2011 federal election (6.0 per cent in 2011 to 6.3 per cent at present).

However, if we've learned one thing over the past several years in regard to political polling, it is that electoral results do not always mirror the picture presented by the polls. In particular, there were significant variances between polling projections and electoral results in the 2011 federal election, chiefly because young people voted in significantly smaller proportions than did older ones (see Frank Graves' insightful study Accurate polling, flawed forecast for a thorough analysis of this phenomenon).

Federal vote intention

Once bitten, twice shy. Consequently Ekos has factored this variance into their projections as illustrated below. If one factors categories of respondents with the likelihoods of those voters actually turning up at the polls, a more accurate haruspicy emerges, namely that, if an election were to be held tomorrow, Liberals would be apt to receive the support of 29.1 per cent of those voters who turned out, Conservatives 28.5 per cent, and the NDP 27.2 per cent -- effectively putting all three parties in a neck-and-neck race since the margins of error in this polling are +/- 1.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20 (the Green Party would draw 7.1 per cent of the vote; the BQ, 5.8 per cent). The tiered pyramid (on the left) of party support that emerged in the 2011 federal has vanished to be replaced by a relatively flat-roofed edifice 2.5 years later.  What this illustrates is that when it comes to 2015, everything is still up for grabs.

Public profile: Media and website attention: Cracks in the tortoise test

OK, so let's try some tortoise shell divination instead.

An important activity of political parties between elections is getting out the message, bringing attention to political policies and accomplishments, and building the profiles of the political actors. How are the parties doing in this regard? What metrics can we examine that might cast some illumination on this? 

To take a stab at answering this I selected a dozen high-profile government portfolios and the people who occupy these ministerial positions, and their NDP and Liberal shadow cabinet critics. Focusing on these 36 politicians, I then conducted advanced Google searches restricting the output to Canadian media and websites and narrowing the time interval from September 1 to December 31, 2013 (i.e., most recently and after any cabinet/shadow cabinet shuffles). The intent is to examine how effectively the three political parties are getting their message out through seeing how often these key ministers and critics are mentioned in the press and in discussion on Canadian websites and blogs.

[Note: these is certainly some chaff within this wheat since there are some spurious references to these political figures, and there is no indication as to whether the references are of a positive, negative or neutral character. Distinguishing between these would involve examining over 491,000 web documents, a task somewhat beyond the scope of this current undertaking. Nonetheless, it is a useful metric of the degree to which party messaging is getting out, and media, bloggers, and Canadians are tuning in to the respective political channels.]

So, how are the parties doing? Unsurprisingly the government receives significantly more attention than do opposition parties. They are, after all, the government. Announcements by government ministers, who have programs to roll out and whose policies, priorities, and ideas directly affect governance receive more attention than critiques from their opponents -- indeed on average 2.65 times more than the combined attention that their opposition colleagues get. That said, amongst these key cabinet ministers, there are only four portfolios that really soar: Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, and Health Minister Rona Ambrose. Ministers in other portfolios average only slightly more (i.e., 1.1 to 1.7) times the attention of their combined opposition colleagues. Even Stephen Harper (208,000) only receives 2.18 times the cumulative total of Thomas Mulcair (48,900) and Justin Trudeau (46,600).

In one instance, government House Leader Peter Van Loan (1,120) significantly trails his opposition colleagues, with NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen (3,230) having almost triple the public profile of Van Loan, while the Liberal's Dominic LeBlanc (1,810) has 1.6 times the profile of Van Loan.

What is more instructive is to examine is how NDP and Liberal parties are doing relative to one another in terms of establishing themselves as credible alternatives to the Conservatives.

In these 11 portfolios (party leaders are treated separately below), the NDP leads in six, while the Liberals lead in five. The very large profile of Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Marc Garneau is somewhat misleading, since examination of the references shows that, even to this day, a significant number relate to Garneau's historical role as an astronaut, and not to his role as a Member of Parliament or portfolio critic. Noteworthy (beyond Garneau's high profile) are the significant attention that Peggy Nash (NDP Finance critic), Paul Dewar (NDP Foreign Affairs critic), and Nathan Cullen (NDP House Leader) have been able to achieve, particularly Cullen. House Leader, while an important political position, is frequently one that garners little public profile (reflecting the fact that it is a largely an internal parliamentary role). Cullen has, nevertheless used his work in this portfolio to bring significant attention to the NDP, second only to that of party leader, Thomas Mulcair.

In regard to party leaders (and here we can include Green Party leader Elizabeth May), despite the public love affair with Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair (48,900) edges out (by 5 per cent) Trudeau (46,600) in terms of media and public attention. Elizabeth May trails far behind with 9,410 references in the media, websites, and blogs, 19 per cent that of Mulcair.

In general, per parliamentary member, both the NDP and Liberals appear to be relatively evenly matched in their public reach to the Canadian populace (and their media resonance). However, with almost triple the number of Members of Parliament (100 versus 36) at present, the NDPs cumulative reach to Canadians would clearly be significantly greater. [Quantifying this would involve extending this statistical exercise to all 136 MPs.]

Per shadow-cabinet portfolio, the NDP critics have a slight (3 per cent) edge on their Liberal colleagues, perhaps consistent with the NDPs position as official opposition. Both opposition parties have shrewdly used their caucuses to maximize opportunities for public exposure. All 36 Liberal MPs have critic portfolios, as do 57 of the NDP's caucus of 100 MPs. Besides providing valuable political experience for the MPs involved, such shadow cabinet positions can serve the members as springboards to increase their public profile and that of the party. In contrast, the Conservatives have only 38 cabinet positions (and 13 are junior Minister of State positions) within their 162-member caucus, leaving a mammoth 124-member caucus of backbenchers who have little political profile outside of their individual ridings.

Overall, the 2.65-fold per portfolio advantage of Conservative ministers (over the cumulative total of both opposition critics, i.e. a 5.3-fold advantage over each party) confers a significant political advantage.

Social media: Shells and bones in the fire

There's one other avenue of divination we can employ for a perspective of how the political parties are faring -- social media. Public profile is one valuable metric, but as noted above, it provides no indicator of whether this profile is laudatory, damming, or indifferent. Social media, like Facebook in which "friends" self-select to follow a politician, provide some indicator of the strength of public support.

[Note: as a metric, social media is somewhat skewed towards a younger demographic since, overall in Canada there are age-related differences in Internet usage. According to Statistics Canada data, 94 per cent of those under 45 use the Internet, and 80 per cent of those 45 to 64 do so. However only 51 per cent of those 65-74 do so, and a meager 27 per cent of those 75+ are Internet users (see Social Media: Who Uses Them? for further information).]

Examining these numbers yields a very different picture. With the exception of Justice Minister Peter MacKay whose Facebook followers (6,310) edge out NDP Justice critic Françoise Boivin (5,254), no other Conservative Minister does better than their shadow cabinet rivals. Indeed, in most instances they are in third place behind their NDP and Liberal critics. NDP critics lead in eight of the 11 positions (party leaders are discussed separately below) and Liberals lead in two. As noted previously, NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen with 12,914 followers surpasses everyone else, notably his counterparts Peter Van Loan (Conservative) and Dominic LeBlanc (Liberal). Megan Leslie (5,509) in the Environment portfolio, Peggy Nash (9,189) in Finance, Libby Davies (5,960) in Health, and Alexandre Boulerice (5,254) in Labour all significantly surpass their partisan rivals. Amongst Liberals, Joyce Murray (2,601) in the National Defence portfolio has a slight edge on Jack Harris (2,244) of the NDP, but both greatly surpass Rob Nicholson (277) of the Conservatives. [Note: Numbers for Liberal Fisheries critic, Lawrence MacAulay, are not available and Conservative Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver appears to have no Facebook presence.]

When it comes to party leaders, however, the picture is much different. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau towers above his rivals with 135,330 Facebook followers, surpassing even Steven Harper's sizable following of 96,706. Green Party leader Elizabeth May shows surprising strength with 41,822, and trailing the pack is Thomas Mulcair with 23,896.

How significant are these measures of social media support? On the one hand they are an index of "likeability" since Facebook followers voluntarily elect to follow these figures. This speaks to their popularity across the country in contrast to election results which only reflect a politician's support within their own riding. By the same token, they may therefor have little bearing on a politician's electoral prospects.

Overall, the very low popular support of key Conservative cabinet ministers, who have only 45 per cent that of their NDP shadow cabinet colleagues, is surely an indication of the lack of popularity of these figures, perhaps also reflecting that their political support comes in large measure from an older demographic, information we also know from other sources (see Accurate polling, flawed forecast). This data would appear to indicate that the NDP have built a very solid team of rivals to their Conservative counterparts.

On the other hand, Thomas Mulcair's low standing by this metric, particularly compared to Justin Trudeau's enormous following (Trudeau has a 5.66 fold lead on Mulcair) is surely not a good sign for Mulcair. Despite what media commentators, pundits and analysts agree was stellar and content-rich performance by Mulcair in the fall parliamentary session, with his prosecutorial interrogations of Stephen Harper, particularly when contrasted to Trudeau's flaccid, gaff-prone and content-thin performance, Mulcair's anemic Facebook standings would appear to mirror perceptions that while Canadians may admire Mulcair, they haven't found reason to "like" him yet. Trudeau is certainly wildly "likeable," however whether such sentiments are any reflection of what will determine ballot box decisions in 2015 remains to be seen.

Parting portents

Will Mulcair's lack of "likeability" prove an obstacle, or will policy content and dynamic parliamentary performance be a deciding factor? Will the solid NDP team prove to be a decisive advantage, or will the electoral contest focus primarily on "leadership?" Will Trudeau's likeability evaporate before 2015, or will he surf the Trudeaumania 2.0 wave to victory? Will he roll out detailed policy positions, or continue to stay with content-lite and uplifting? Can the Green Party hold onto its growth in popular support and will this translate into parliamentary gains, or will it melt away in a cold sweat in the ballot box? Will the Conservatives continue to slide further, and into oblivion, or is Stephen Harper capable of one more divide and conquer thrust up the middle of Canadian constitutional democracy to yet another Conservative victory?

Hmm … let's throw another ox bone onto the fire, shall we?

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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