9.20.2008

question about canadian polls

In this country where polls are taken every five minutes, I have a question about their true meaning.

How do public opinion polls correspond to seat projections? If 30-something percent of Canadian polled say they prefer the Conservatives, does that correspond to the same percentage of seats in the House of Commons?

Everyone is running around muttering "Conservative majority, Conservative majority". But where do the polls show that?

Here's the current seat projection from DemocraticSpace. It's disturbing, but the Liberals have gained ground every day, and there are still weeks to go.

The public opinion polls we keep hearing about show the Conservatives ahead, and show the Liberals steadily gaining ground. But they do not show a Conservative majority. I know precious little about statistics, but I do know how to add, and I know a majority requires at least 51%. Where do you see that?

Now, I don't believe we're going to have a Conservative majority. I know this is not the general opinion, but a lot of general opinion is formed by people hearing what other people say, then repeating it with great certainty, as if they know something.

This election is not just about the popularity of St├ęphane Dion. It's a referendum on the past 31 months. And I do not think a majority of Canadians* loved the Harper Government so much that they want a steaming second helping with a side of unchecked power.

* Of course the true popular vote doesn't really matter, what matters is how the votes are concentrated within any given riding. Antiquated, unfair and undemocratic, but consider this shorthand for now.

30 comments:

L-girl said...

Clicking around at DemocraticSpace, I saw this. I thought it was a joke headline, but apparently not!

Scott M. said...

What I think you're getting at is the fact that you don't need a majority of the public support in order to get a majority of seats (and a quasi-dictatorship).

In fact, a "majority" is generally acheived at 41% national support.

If you want to see the seat projections for most of the polls that come out, check out the amazing Hill and Knowlton Election Predictor. You can pump the results of the polls automatically into it by choosing "Display predicition" beneath the poll.

Or you can use "Start Predicting" to play around yourself, swinging the 2006 vote hither thither or pumping percentages into the regions. It's great fun!

L-girl said...

In fact, a "majority" is generally acheived at 41% national support.

Oh. That's the answer to my question.

Not good.

I've seen that Hill & Knowlton Predictor, but really didn't know what to make of it. But maybe now I do.

John F said...

Our current voting system is a great argument in favour of proportional representation. The group Fair Vote Canada (http://www.fairvotecanada.org/eng) makes the case far better than I could.

L-girl said...

Yes, I agree. That's why I belong to Fair Vote Canada and frequently post their information. Click on the wmtc category "proportional representation" to see.

John F said...

Just how did I miss that? Probably the same reason I confused Ezra Klein with Ezra Levant - caffeine deficiency!

L-girl said...

I could use a cup myself, but it's way past my cut-off hour. I love coffee, but I also like to sleep at night.

PeterC said...

Something to keep in mind...

The last several polls I've heard are about those who have decided how to vote, which is typically less than half the people polled. The other half are "swing" votes. I guess this is why the polls about who has the bestest chin strength or whatever makes a good leader are so often quoted as well.

I think the conservative voter would end up overrepresented in any such poll as they seem to have a core of support behind just one party.

The only poll that counts is the last one on Oct. 14th.

L-girl said...

The only poll that counts is the last one on Oct. 14th.

This is my new mantra. I am going to repeat it to myself and to everyone who says the words "conservative majority" in my range of hearing.

Thank you!

James said...

Deriving seats in Parliament from general polls is a lot like deriving Electoral College votes from polls. Because there isn't a set and constant number of voters per seat / per EC vote, you can't map it directly from a nationwide poll -- you have to work from more localized polls based on how those locales get represented.

Charles said...

If I'm not mistaken Canada elects MPs using a first past the post system like the UK. That means that in any particular constituency which ever candidate gets the most votes (though not necessarily a majority) is elected. In the UK elections almost always result in majority governments though I don't think any party has ever actually gotten a majority of the popular vote in recent history. In the last election, in 2005, Labour got a Commons majority of 66, on a dismal 35% of the popular vote nationally.

People in the UK who live in marginal constituencies have gotten very good at tactical voting which means voting for a party that's your second or maybe third choice, in order to keep out the party which you do not want to form the government. So in Canada that might mean that if you're an NDP supporter but the Liberals have the best chance against the Conservatives in your riding, you would vote Liberal.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

You can't project seats based on national polls. You just can't. You need regional polls to do that, and even that's iffy.

M@ said...

Just one thing to point out here -- Chretien won all of his majorities with less than 50% of the popular vote. They crushed the incredibly unpopular PCs in 1993 (as well as the brand new Reform and Bloc parties), winning 177 seats with just over 41% of the popular vote.

However, the history of majority governments in Canada is different from the situation we have now. The electorate is regionally fragmented in a way we have not seen before. The CPC wins a vast majority of seats in the west, but cannot make significant inroads in Ontario or Quebec, and will probably lose ground in the Atlantic provinces. The regional votes in the west give Harper a boost in the popular vote but the number of seats are limited, so he cannot benefit from those additional votes.

I guess what I'm saying is that the Liberals' 41% in 1993 was spread nation-wide; 41% in 2008, for any party, may still not guarantee the election for them.

Incidentally, I would recommend electionprediction.com as being worth a look -- their predictions have been quite accurate in recent years.

L-girl said...

James, it would seem the EC is much easier to predict than seats, no? Each state has a certain number of points, and all but a few states can be predicted. Is that generally true for the HoC?

Thanks IP and M@, much appreciated.

Charles, yes, Canada has FTTP, and people do vote strategically. If I'm missing the point of your comment, please let me know.

L-girl said...

I guess what I'm saying is that the Liberals' 41% in 1993 was spread nation-wide; 41% in 2008, for any party, may still not guarantee the election for them.

This is helpful when looking at the different breakdowns on DemocraticSpace or ElectionPrediction. Thanks.

James said...

James, it would seem the EC is much easier to predict than seats, no? Each state has a certain number of points, and all but a few states can be predicted. Is that generally true for the HoC?

I couldn't really say how much harder one is than the other -- I've never really delved into the matter -- but you may well be right. For EC votes, you only need state-level polls; for HoC seats, you could need finer granulation than that, right down to ridings if you want to be really definitive. Certainly urban vs. rural ridings can go very differently.

L-girl said...

For EC votes, you only need state-level polls; for HoC seats, you could need finer granulation than that, right down to ridings if you want to be really definitive.

Many Canadians (not you, obviously) think that electoral votes correspond to ridings. But the US equivalent of ridings are congressional districts. There's no equivalent to electoral votes - anywhere - as far as I know.

Charles said...

Charles, yes, Canada has FTTP, and people do vote strategically. If I'm missing the point of your comment, please let me know.

I guess I was just trying to make the point that in this type of electoral system you quite often get majority governments that the majority of the people do not want. You can get surprises too. In this case let's hope for a good surprise.

L-girl said...

you quite often get majority governments that the majority of the people do not want.

Very true. It can be very undemocratic. In the US, it's even more so. If you are a Republican in New York, or a liberal in Texas, for example, your vote is entirely meaningless in federal elections.

JakeNCC said...

You'll never believe what I heard on the CBC tonight. In discussing the campaign and the growth of the Greens Keith Boag said that many now think that it will only take 35% not the usual 40% for the Tories to win a majority. Why in the world can the left be so divided? Four freaking parties on the left and only one on the right. Until that changes we are going to be stuck with the Tories. I'm voting NDP as usual because the Liberals don't really have a chance in my riding and the NDP hold the seat.

I really can't stand the thought that Stephen Harper could win a majority with 35% of the vote and forever change our country. Please everyone get out and campaign, canvas or whatever it takes to prevent a Conservative win in your riding.

L-girl said...

In discussing the campaign and the growth of the Greens Keith Boag said that many now think that it will only take 35% not the usual 40% for the Tories to win a majority.

That doesn't make it so. You do realize that, right?

Why in the world can the left be so divided? Four freaking parties on the left and only one on the right.

Four parties on the left? The Liberals are not left. They are left of Stephen Harper, but they are a business-oriented, centrist party. They campaign further to the left, but they govern centre and centre-right.

I think it's obvious that without the existence of the NDP, the Liberals would have no reason to pay attention to left-leaning voters, and would continually court the centre-right.

You are usually very concerned about Canada not becoming like the US. This is one of the most stunning examples of how Canada can become the US: dissolve the multi-party system into a two-party system. End up with the Democrats - a party that has taken the left's vote for granted for nearly 50 years, and moved continually to the right, until there is no left-leaning opposition at all anymore.

Strategic voting is important and smart. But "the left is so divided" is the mantra of "turn Canada into the US". The NDP is not the more liberal branch of the Liberals.

L-girl said...

Four freaking parties on the left

Also:

The Bloc is not necessarily "on the left". The Bloc represents interests that are sometimes aligned with the left, but not always.

The Greens are also not a left party. Many of their policies are quite conservative.

James said...

The Greens are also not a left party. Many of their policies are quite conservative.

Sure, but they're not actually likely to split the conservative vote.

L-girl said...

they're not actually likely to split the conservative vote.

Yes, that's true.

redsock said...

Four parties on the left? The Liberals are not left. They are left of Stephen Harper, but they are a business-oriented, centrist party. They campaign further to the left, but they govern centre and centre-right.

Not to mention the fact that people like to vote for a party that is in line with their world view. In fact, we are looking forward to it!

On some issues, the Liberals and Conservatives are more alike that the Liberals and NDP. So are the Libs and Cons splitting the vote on that issue? No. They are two separate and distinct parties.

L-girl said...

Redsock makes a good point.

I do believe in strategic voting. If my riding had a risk of going Conservative and the Liberal had a better chance of taking the riding than the NDP candidate, I'd vote Liberal, to stop the likes of Stephen Harper.

That to me is just being smart and making your vote count as much as possible.

But I still think it's either disingenous or a bit ignorant to think of the Liberals as a party of the left.

James said...

But I still think it's either disingenous or a bit ignorant to think of the Liberals as a party of the left.

They're a "party of the left of the Conservatives", and sometimes that's all that matters. :)

L-girl said...

They're a "party of the left of the Conservatives", and sometimes that's all that matters. :)

Depending on the particular Conservatives and the Liberals, this may or may not be true. In this case, it is!

JakeNCC said...

I like a multi-party democracy, I just wish the right had two or three options splitting their votes. I saw Jack Layton on CTV's Question Period yesterday and he makes so much sense I wish the left-centre would rally around him.

L-girl said...

I just wish the right had two or three options splitting their votes.

Yes, wouldn't that be nice. In the US, I always dreamed of the far-right breaking away from the Republicans and splitting that vote. But no...