Thursday, November 4, 2010

Geek Fight 2 - The Re-Geekening

Over on The Pundits’ Guide, Alice Funke has taken me to task (again) for what she sees as some of the errors in my analysis of and projections for the by-elections that will be taking place at the end of the month.

Personally, I think she’s a little jealous - she only gets to work with dusty old numbers, while I get to work with shiny new numbers.

But let’s get down to business.

First, Alice says that by-elections, by definition, have no incumbents, so using previous general elections as a starting point is incorrect.

Obviously, there aren’t any individual incumbents, but there are incumbent parties. About 70% of by-elections that have been held since 2000 were retained by the incumbent parties. Certainly that is no coincidence, and rarely do incumbent parties lose by-elections by huge margins.

But, in any case, we have no other point from which to start. There are no riding polls, and there are very, very few regional polls, and most of them can’t be used with any level of precision.

In 2009, only the by-election in Montmagny-L’Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup had a radically different outcome than the 2008 general election (or 2006 election for Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley), and even then it was only because of a swap between Conservative and Bloc Québécois voters. While that was going on at the top, the Liberal vote share fell by only 2.2 points and the NDP vote share by 0.7 points. In New Westminster-Coquitlam, the Conservatives gained only 3.1 points. The Liberals lost one point, and the Greens 2.9 points. In Hochelaga, the Bloc gained 1.5 points, the Conservatives lost 0.9 points, and the Greens lost one point. Those are pretty consistent results, demonstrating that previous general elections are a good starting point.

My analysis and projection was based on the differences that occurred in those four by-elections as compared to what would have been expected, based on regional changes in opinion polls. Thankfully, my projection model was in full swing in November 2009, which gave me a consistent basis of comparison for a uniform swing of voting intentions for the by-elections in 2009 and the ones taking place this year.

So rather than just using the 2008 general election as the starting point, I also used the rate at which parties managed to increase (or lose) their vote in 2009 as compared to what we would have expected with uniform swing. And as the 2009 and 2010 by-elections have some similarities (no real ‘star’ like when Bob Rae was elected, no local uproar like when Thomas Mulcair was elected), it was a good set of by-elections to use as a basis of comparison, along with being the most recent.

But I also stretched it back further to the by-elections that took place in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Along with some consistency for the other parties, they showed a more consistent ability by the Conservatives to grow their share of the vote in by-elections over and above what we would expect based on uniform swing. In 2008, the Conservatives averaged 23% more support than would have been expected. It was 24% in 2007.

Alice also brought up the lack of regional polling, and the complete non-existence of riding polls.

While, in Canada, we are not blessed with a lot of polling, we do have a decent amount. And my projection model is designed to get the most out of the polls that are released. I was not using an average of two or three polls for my analysis, I was using the projected vote my model gives me, which takes into account a plethora of factors and includes more than 30 of the most recent polls.

As for riding polls, there is nothing to be done for that. Either I can try to come to some reasonable conclusions with what is available, or I can do nothing at all.

Alice was also concerned that “the projections have not taken one single other factor into account”. That is not entirely true – I took a long look at voting behaviour, going back to the 1950s in one case. Those historical voting records support my claim that the Conservatives and New Democrats will hold their seats in Manitoba.

I could have attempted to take more into account, but it would have required the development of new projection models that don’t yet exist. They will – before the next federal election I intend to have a riding projection model in place that will take into account every factor that can be incorporated.

For now, I wanted to use a one-size-fits-all methodology for the sake of consistency. Adding a few points here because of a large aboriginal population and a few points there because of a candidate’s history would have been, at this point, arbitrary. I wanted to keep my own subjective view out of it.

Alice also said that “obviously they know nothing about the Liberal candidate Kevin Lamoureux”. I can brush off the slight, particularly because I know quite a bit about Mr. Lamoureux.

I will admit that if any one candidate can shake things up in these three by-elections, it is Mr. Lamoureux. But I’m not sold. We all remember the “star” candidates who turned out to be duds.

Remember Svend Robinson in 2006? He cost his party 700 votes in Vancouver Centre. How about André Bachand in 2006? He lost about 2,400 votes for the Conservatives in Sherbrooke. Marc Garneau in 2006 cost his party 4,000 votes in Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Even Michael Ignatieff earned 600 fewer votes in 2006 than the Liberals had gotten in the 2004 election in Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

There is no reason to believe that Mr. Lamoureux is immune. His provincial riding of Inkster (which he lost as an incumbent in 1999 when the rest of the party was punished) only occupies about 1/4th of the riding of Winnipeg North. And his renown (he was first elected to the legislature in 1988 and ran for leadership of the provincial Liberals twice) did not help him in 2000 at the federal level, when he actually lost more than 500 votes for the Liberals compared to their 1997 performance in Winnipeg Centre. That was a slightly worse rate of loss than the party suffered as a whole in Manitoba. Since he is as much of a stranger to 75% of voters in Winnipeg North as he was in Winnipeg Centre, I think his drawing power has the potential to be far less than people think. By-elections are not just about local candidates and provincial voting intentions can't be transferred over to the federal level completely.

Mr. Lamoureux received 3,899 votes in the 2007 provincial election. There are more than 52,000 eligible voters in Winnipeg North. That’s a big gap, and he will need all of those votes again, as well as a good portion of the voters who elected provincial NDP candidates at the provincial level elsewhere in the riding, just to get to 20%. While there is a chance that my projected 9% will be a little low, I’m confident that I will be within spitting distance which, after all, is my goal. And as I brought up in my article, the Liberal vote collapsed in 2008 because people stayed home. Motivating them to go out and vote again in a by-election after a municipal election just finished will not be an easy task.

Alice also brought up that “nor did they mention the murders that took place in” Winnipeg North. No, I didn’t – I’m not sure why I would have. Will that be changing people’s vote? If anything, it will help the tough-on-crime Conservatives or the NDP’s Kevin Chief, who works with youth in the riding. But Winnipeg has always had a relatively high murder rate - so I'm not convinced that anything will change.

Now on to Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette. Alice says that “the Conservatives are rated much too high at 66% for a riding that has two provincial NDP cabinet ministers and is one-quarter aboriginal.”

The provincial New Democratic government is not at its highest level of popularity at the moment. The latest polls put the government down about ten points from their 2007 election, and finance minister Rosann Wowchuk, one of those cabinet ministers from the region, has been a target of criticism of late.

As to the proportion of aboriginals, I’m not sure how to take that into account. Have in-depth studies been done of aboriginal voting behaviour? Are they a monolithic group that can be counted upon to vote a certain way? The Conservatives have managed to be elected with well over 50% in the riding in the last three elections despite its high proportion of aboriginals. And the last poll I've seen of the voting intentions of Manitoba natives indicated that the Conservatives perform relatively well among Métis, who make up about 2/5ths of the aboriginal population in the riding.

Admittedly, yesterday’s revelations about the brouhaha behind the scenes which got Robert Sopuck nominated were unexpected. That’s a risk when projecting this early in a race.

But the riding has a very long history of Conservative support (in all its variations), so Sopuck still enters as the clear and obvious favourite.

Could 66% be too high? Yes, as the party hasn’t done that well before. But turnout is key, and the Conservatives have been effective at getting out the vote in recent by-elections. It doesn’t hurt that the provincial Progressive Conservatives are looking good in Manitoba at the moment.

Finally, Alice brings up Nate Silver. I’m flattered to be mentioned in such company, as Nate was the inspiration for this site (which began a few months after his). But Nate has an easier job than I do, and even then he can be off (as with this week’s mid-terms and this year’s British election).

Why is his job easier? Virtually every election he calls is a race between two people, and it’s an either/or situation. Virtually every race I have to call is a three, four, or five-way contest. He also gets polls for almost every race, at the district level and state level. I get nationwide polls with samples of 50 people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He has many pollsters reporting – his short list of “10 or more polls” pollsters has 63 firms on it. My entire list of pollster ratings has 13 on it, and three of those report once in a blue moon and two of them are provincial-only. I have to work with what I have, or not work at all. It's a handicap that I can do nothing about.

Alice sums it up by saying she will eat her shoes if Lamoureux gets 9% and Sopuck gets 66%. It’s a safe bet for her to make. I’ll consider myself to have been right if Lamoureux ends up with anything between 6% and 14% and Sopuck 61% and 72%. What I do is not anything close to an exact science, so it is nearly impossible that I will be exactly right with all of my projections. As with any poll, my calculations have a margin of error and readers are, or at least should be, aware of that.

But as to the Conservatives and New Democrats winning comfortably in Manitoba with the Vaughan race being close, I’d stand by that.