Sunday, September 14, 2008

Election 2008 week one rant

After one week of the election here in Canada, I can't help but notice a rather disturbing pattern. The parties did what they had to do out of the gate, and some of the nastiness was to be expected. What I didn't expect was the press to do was claim it had been a bad week for the Liberals and a good one for the Conservatives. It was really the opposite but the press is only concerned with the opinion polls and personalities. And that says so much about a dying medium that chooses to rely on tracking polls that sample only 300 people a day -- way too small a sample to track the mood of 20 million plus voters.

Time was, and I'm young enough to remember that time, that elections were about issues and personalities took a back seat. Certainly you had the odd character who engaged citizens but the voters were usually able to look past a person's flaws or flamboyance and consider the issues at stake. If an incumbent or rather the incumbent party's candidate was in trouble it was over the issues and not personality.

Up until the 1988 election which was fought over free trade with the United States, this continued to be the case. The leaders of the then three main parties (the Liberals, New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives) may have profoundly disagreed with each other on policies but they left their disagreements there. They were quite civil with each other, friends even. Compared to some other countries debate was calm and reasoned.

So what changed? Well, a few things which fit in rather comfortably with each other. The first was the arrival of 24 hour news in Canada. It was actually supposed to begin that fall of 1988 but the election pushed the arrival of CBC Newsworld to the following summer. Before, news came in two waves, the morning and evening broadcasts. Party leaders had the time to mull things over before putting out reasoned responses to their opponents. With around the clock coverage came the need to respond quickly, often times within the hour. To pack that much news in for a short attention span, leaders were often quoted out of context. The average soundbite which had been about 30 to 40 seconds was chopped down to about 5 to 7, and lately 3 seconds or less. Just as one example, a news editor would rather put someone on that says "tough on crime" rather than "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." (So I'm not accused of plagiarism, that was Tony Blair.) The reason is those editors don't want crime to go down. They want it to go up so that news that sheds blood is the lede of a broadcast and people are driven to make irrational decisions at the polls.

(Americans had three election cycles starting in 1980 to get used to this concept thanks to CNN so it was old hat to them. Reagan was the first master manipulator of this short quote phenomenon but would by no means be the last -- in fact Clinton would have been impossible without Reagan. And it's gotten worse. Crime overall has gone down, but reportage on crime has sky-rocketed and people think things are getting worse. This is anything but a noble lie -- it's a mean spirited one.)

The second was the leaving from the scene of passionate but reasoned party leaders with ideologically driven ones mixed with strong personal characters. That's not to say a leader shouldn't have an ideology -- of course they should. And it's not necessarily a bad thing to have charisma, it's just how one uses it. But even if the leader has fine personal ethics and remains pragmatic overall he or she is bound to attract people who have even harder ideologies and is less open to hear alternative viewpoints.

You only have to consider the following election, 1993, to prove the point. By that time the Progressive Conservatives were in major trouble despite a strong new leader in Kim Campbell. Many still wonder if the choice had been the younger Jean Charest if the election that year may have been closer or if the PCs would have avoided the humiliation of losing official party status in the Commons. I do think it would have been closer and the Liberals held to a much tighter majority or even a minority government. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway because thanks largely to constant bombardment by Newsworld there were only two leaders that mattered -- Preston Manning and Jean Chrétien. The former a lay evangelical leader who assumed the mantle of a western protest movement then went national, the latter a battle-worn warrior of the Pearson and Trudeau eras and not ready to give up by any means. While on the surface they both targeted Campbell in reality they were fighting each other and starkly different visions of Canada.

For me, the nastiness in Parliament didn't begin with the Darrel Stinson incident (his being called a racist by Liberal John Cannis was uncalled for but Stinson's angry reaction -- the SOB epithet -- was just as much also) but rather a few weeks before the 1995 referendum in Québec. When Manning asked if fifty percent plus one was the margin needed to win one way or the other, Chrétien fired back with a negative response then accused Manning of wanting to give up on Canada without a fight. He ended by saying, "You might. I will not, Mr. Manning." The correct answer generally -- except that Chrétien referred to Manning by name, an absolute no-no in a parliamentary debate (unless a member is retiring and being paid tribute to, one never refers to a member by name, only by his or her district). Making it personal didn't answer the main issue -- how to address Québec's concerns about the Constitution and overall its place in Canada.

It was around that time that the Internet -- the third Factor -- started to become a force. Originally the domain of the US military then a virtual hangout site for university professors and students, the development of the Web by CERN in 1994 (the same people running the Large Hadron Collider that went online last week) gave anybody with a computer a chance to vent on virtually anything. This included political parties. Now it wasn't a question of replying within the hour but often by the minute.

It's a good thing that the press is finally catching onto the fact that there is a world beyond the rarefied atmosphere of the Fourth Estate. But we've moved beyond them and that's bad news for them. While some may still rely on the traditional sources of newspapers, radio and television and have their opinions shaped maybe by one of each (and often times owned by the same company) those of us who are "tech savvy" can find a variety of traditional and alternate sources instantly. More importantly, some of us (not me, at least not yet) are original news sources and can get ahead of the press.

Thus don't rely too much on polls. Many people only have cell phones nowadays which don't show up on polling companies' auto dial lists. They're also more engaged in the process than the "conventional wisdom" may have the masses "believe." While not a big issue in the past missing such a huge part of the population in the sampling game could be disastrous in the future.

Remember that way back in 1936 a magazine called Literary Digest conducted a mass poll that predicted that Alf Landon would beat Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. The sample size was unreal even for that era: 10 million were contacted and 2.3 million responded. (Here's a link to the article that made this opinion poll failure). Nowadays, a sample approaching a census would be a real snapshot of reality. Not back then. The magazine's mistakes: First, they relied on their subscription list which was already more affluent than most because they were able to keep affording magazine subscriptions. Second, they searched automobile registration records and phone book directories. Also, people with automobiles and telephones were better off and they tended to vote for the GOP. This process had worked for the elections in 1916 through 1932. By 1936, however, with most people just scraping by, the magazine just didn't get it.

Humiliated, Funk and Wagnalls eventually sold the magazine to Time which incorporated it and had the effect of turning the latter into a more general interest publication. Meanwhile, a tiny little company called Gallup sampled just a few thousand and corrected predicted a Roosevelt landslide.

What does it say though that a whole group of people are being missed now? It says the polling companies and the press don't get that we live in a new world too. It's not the world of the 1930s or even the 1980s. Many of us are tuned out. Those of us who are tuned in have issues and concerns the press don't care about.

What does it say that we're looking for God in a proton accelerator on the French-Swiss border but can't be bothered to look for the souls of people who have something to say but are not listened to?

If the press wants to believe that the Conservatives are headed for a majority, four weeks out, that's fine. But there's an undercurrent of people who don't like the nastiness, who don't much care for the press or politicians period, and will vote how they want; even outright lie to a pollster if phoned. Watch for the little guy that the MSM misses. They make the choices, not the media. To prove the press doesn't get it and keeps making the same mistakes, don't look to Dewey Defeats Truman but rather the 1945 election in Britain.

Nearly all the pollsters predicted Churchill would win off the coattails of victory in Europe. Only one (oddly enough, also Gallup) looked for what the others were deliberately missing and nailed down the real issue: The people on the home front were war weary, and as it turns out so were the soldiers who voted absentee (as they still had not come home from the battlefronts). Battered by the Great Depression and then a horrifying war, the people wanted a new social consensus. The win of Clement Attlee of Labour was a shock to the press but not to the people who knew better.

It's a brave new world nowadays, and I think what happens on October 14th may be a huge surprise. Frankly, I don't think any of the major firms here -- even the venerable Gallup -- understands the undercurrents going on. So if the mainstream media wants to redeem itself, they need to cover the issues and not the personalities. They also need to say what a party's actual stance is on an issue, not let their opponents get away with repeated lies and misrepresentations. This applies across the board. The press also needs to drop their bias and let the people decide. Elections would be so much more substantive if they were based on what the people want and offering solutions for them.

The polling companies also need to look beyond the preconceived notions of what we believe and look for what we actually believe. If they did that, that would also help shape the debate in positive ways. "Accentuating the Positive" is actually cool for most of us.

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Mr McKinnon said...

Excellent post. I too am bothered by such small samples sizes and the major range of all the polls lately. I also agree that the week was not that bad for the Liberals and worse for the Conservatives. The fact that Dion is standing after 2 years of character assassination through unprecedented advertising is remarkable. I'm certain that things will change dramatically over the next weeks!

penlan said...

Great post!

The one problem regarding the polls is that there is a large proportion of voters who only get their news from the MSM & they hear the polling results & do not realize how wrong they could be. They buy it. Plus all the negatives in the headlines & sound bytes.

Like you I can't believe that Harper good week, Dion bad week. Dion had a good week but wasn't covered enough. And interestingly, when I heard Rob Russo on Politics on Fri. say "Dion sounded strident" I almost fell off my chair.

I realized how deeply the "Dion is not a leader" "Dion is weak" ads that have been playing for a good year & half has become entrenched in the minds of these reporters, never mind the electorate.

Where I see Dion being "assertive", it's being interpreted as "strident". Ridiculous!

The Libs need to start getting their ads out on T.V., radio, etc. Harper had his sweater ads out before the election even began & that impacted as well.

Hopefully the coming week will improve.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post! (Ditto above).

I don't know if anyone even listens on the national campaign level, but here is the email I just fired off to the Liberal party. I think the Liberals are campaigning by checklist and need to get out in front of the media in a bold way.

I strongly believe that if the Liberals do not quickly shift into a more aggressive mode, the narrative current will drag them into an eddy they won't escape during this vital election campaign.

I would very much like the Liberals win this election.

But everyday in this campaign I see distortions or outright lies from the conservatives going unanswered.


Why is the Liberal campaign allowing opportunities to respond forcefully against the conservatives slip by again and again?

It is fine to introduce policy during the campaign, policies which are quite good. I also love that Dion is going about the country talking with key groups of voters.

However, in the everyday world in which most people live and work, the Liberals are non-existent is selling their vision and agenda through the media - free or advetised. They are NOT responding on issues that come up from the other parties, particularly Harper. The Liberals are losing the major media battle because they aren't even showing up. There should be a response issued directly to the media on every major news report covered in this campaign. Thus far, the Liberals are just sitting on their hands while the conservatives use the free news media to spin their tales.

A response requires not only "press releases" but hands-on involvement of prominent Liberals in front of cameras and on the record with journalists.

Why has there been NO response to Harper's prominent promotion of his mythology that Canada is a more conservative country? Why has there been NO response to Elizabeth May's aggressive pointing out of a suppressed government study supporting the concept of a reasonable carbon shift strategy? Why has there been NO attempt to re-introduce Dion boldly to the electorate? Why has there been NO direct confrontation of the conservatives on their poor record and soiled vision for the direction of Canada?

By all appearances in the daily world of most Canadians, the Liberals are simply plodding from day to day - "campaigning by checklist." PLEASE WAKE UP and start engaging the greater Canadian electorate in this vital election campaign - in the living rooms where voters live!