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Can we get beyond poll-driven political coverage?

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Mark Twain used to fulminate against "lies, damn lies and statistics."

Political actors and commentators, these days, might similarly rant about "assumptions, damned conventional wisdom and excremental opinion polls!"

Or, as the current Conservatives' second-most favoured forerunner, John Diefenbaker, put it: "...dogs know best what to do with polls."

How the pollsters became the political oracles of our time is more than a bit of a mystery.

After the disastrous results for pollsters of the most recent elections in Alberta and British Columbia – not to mention the pretty mediocre results in the last Quebec election -- one wonders why so many otherwise canny and intelligent folks take the emanations of those faux oracles so seriously.

It may be for lack of any real political news, but of late we have had more than a few seasoned commentators on the political scene penning earnest analyses of the notional rise in public esteem of young Justin Trudeau and the corresponding -- again largely notional -- dip to relative obscurity of Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair.

There have, indeed, been a fair number of polls, going back a year, that seem to show the Trudeau-led Liberals to be in the lead.

Those seemingly scientific demonstrations have many commentators arguing that Justin Trudeau's amiable, if inexperienced, persona is winning the day over Tom Mulcair’s more hard-edged, if more experienced and competent, image.

One columnist even noted that the public impression of Mulcair as sharp-tongued and maybe a bit too angry may be getting "baked in."

To the conventional wisdom mongers in the commentariat, Trudeau may not be much good at the parliamentary parry and thrust, but he is proving to be a master of so-called "retail politics."

The evidence for that is only partly empirical, based on seeing the Liberal leader in action. In larger measure, that conclusion is based on the one degree removed or meta evidence of the opinion pollsters.

It is all part of a mode of political reporting that focuses not on events -- policy pronouncements, debates in Parliament, deliberations of committees, speeches to citizens' groups -- but on a kind of meta-narrative.

This type of reporting creates an over-arching horse race (in the present circumstance, given the date of the next election, more of a horse marathon) narrative and fits everything that happens into that narrative.

Who's up? Who's down? Who's winning? Who's losing? Who's got the wind in his/her sails? Who's in trouble?

The evolving putative public image of each leader is a key element of this meta-narrative. And the key to evaluating that battle of the images is -- that's right -- opinion polls.

Right now, the meta-narrative is not so good for Stephen Harper.

There is a lot more than fickle public opinion at play in Harper's case, however.

The Senate scandals, the mismanagement of files such as fighter aircraft, and policies that significantly hurt key constituencies (on temporary foreign workers, for example) all play a big part in the Conservative government story.

At the same time, the same meta-narrative also has it that Tom Mulcair is not doing much better than the Prime Minister.

In this latter case, though, the evidence is not in the NDP leader's performance in the House (generally assented to be very good), nor any specific policy pronouncements (beyond Mulcair's unfortunate allusion to an illness associated with the Low Countries to describe the lack of a polluter-pay approach to the tar sands).

The evidence is almost exclusively based on what the polling oracles have to say.

Because the polls seem to show Trudeau up and Mulcair down commentators feel impelled to find reasons for those numbers, and have come up with the contrasting images of the two opposition leaders as the key to their meta-narrative.

Some have even taken the NDP and its leader to task for lack of policy.

True, the Official Opposition has not unveiled a full program two years before the next election.

NDPers are not self-destructive fools.

They know the Opposition's main job, until we get much closer to an election, is to hold the government's feet to the fire, which Mulcair and his colleagues have been doing with singular focus and diligence.

And when it comes to specific policies, perhaps media commentators were looking the other way when Mulcair and the NDP pledged to roll back the cuts to Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, to raise corporate income taxes, to re-visit the Conservatives' harsh refugee measures, and to re-institute a good many of the environmental commitments and programs scrapped by the Harper government.

Anyone paying attention to Parliament since 2011 would have garnered that much information, and much more.

When you are focused on the meta-narrative, however, the quotidian details of political life are of little import.

In any case, however compelling the commentators' story may be, the polls on which it is based, may, in fact, be unreliable and chimerical evidence -- mere shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.

The most recent polls show the Liberals slipping somewhat, especially in Quebec.

These polls may be no more reliable than those that preceded them.

But if other polls come out showing similar numbers, you can bet we'll hear a new meta-narrative, and those who tell it will not even blush at the thought that their previous story was based on very little.

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