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Looking Backward and Looking Forward – Part 1


December 31, 2013


In this three-part series, we are going to examine the public perspective on 2013 and try and glean some insights about what this might mean for the year ahead. This review will start with a fairly frothy snapshot of the winners and losers of the past year. We will also tread into the realm of prediction using a “wisdom of crowds” approach. Will Stephen Harper retire? Will there be a surprise election this year? Who do the public see as the likely winner of the next election? How will we fare at Sochi? If the public are indeed wise (and we tend to think they mostly are), then we will not see any big surprises this year and they see the outcome of next election as impossible to judge.

Our second topic is the issue of the health of our democracy and what the public think can be done to improve it. Recall how at this time last year, the public told us that broken democracy and rising inequality were the two most important national conversations they wanted to have. Apparently, nothing transpired over the past year to dampen collective anxieties in these areas and our year-end poll shows that public rating democratic health has plummeted even further to record lows. The public have some positive responses to some current suggestions for reversing these trends, along with a less harsh view of how polling fits into this issue than we would have gleaned given the annus horribilis of the pollster last year. As we are looking at sports, we will throw in a look at how the public see that monster Rogers-NHL deal and how this might affect the future of the CBC.

Our final section will be the most challenging and most important one. Here we will revisit the grim public prognostication on the “end of progress”. Following up on themes from our year-end research from the last two years, we will examine whether the growing conviction that progress would no longer be available and that the future leads downward for Canada and the United States. Sadly, nothing seems to have disrupted this dispiriting outlook which seem to have gripped both Canada and the American public. At the heart of this are three forces: 1) the relative decline of the West and upper North America; 2) a collapse of the middle class which moves from mere ‘hollowing’ to implosion; and 3) a growing resentment that so little progress is being usurped by so few.

While we take some mixed satisfaction at having clearly seen these forces unfolding against a backdrop where the elite consensus was these were largely non-issues and that we were actually doing swimmingly well, this is dwarfed by the sense that this is becoming the issue of our times and that uncorrected will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of catastrophic consequences. We remain convinced that the issue is both exaggerated and solvable, but that the window of opportunity is closing. It is heartening to see this receiving the salience it should in political debate in the United States and the United Kingdom (arguably more negatively challenged by these problems than Canada). If anything, Canada may be moving even more rapidly downward on what Miles Corak has called the reverse Gatsby curve. We are relinquishing our relative advantage and seeing erosion of not only the disparity between the top and everyone else. Even more troubling is that there is clear evidence that intergenerational progress is not only halting but reversing in Canada. The problem of restoring progress and a growing optimistic middle class is the problem of our times.

In this year-end piece, we will provide new empirical evidence on just how clear these trajectories are but also some areas of consensus about how to start solving this shared problem.

1.0 A Lighter Look Backward at a Darker Year?

Before delving into the gloomier stuff, let’s see how the public assigned brickbats and kudos in a tumultuous year in Canadian politics. Beginning with the stars, we tested a list with over a dozen potential heroes. Notably, other than the overwhelming first choice, no other choices exceeded 10 points as the public were not filled with hosannas at year-end. Notable as well is that, unlike the recent Order of Canada, performers didn’t even register on the list.

Only one Canadian achieved celestial status – high-flying Chris Hadfield. The combination of humour and empathy while achieving cosmic heights propelled Hadfield to a runaway win. Rocketing to nearly the five times the score of the next closes contender for most positive contributor, Hadfield scored nearly half the votes at 46 points. Well back at 10 points, the also cheerful and capable mayor of Calgary secured second place. Continuing with the cheerful theme – oops, scratch that – we find the beleaguered Stephen Harper narrowly edging Noble Laureate Alice Munro for a bronze medal. Hold the laurel wreath as Mr. Harper appears even more prominently in a solid silver medal performance on our villains of the year awards. Rounding out those who place, we find the unremittingly cheerful Justin Trudeau a close fifth followed by the somewhat gruffer leader of the opposition, who did, however, improve his standing and recognition levels with Canadians last year (as he inched into the less grumpy zone in a largely successful political makeover in 2013). Fully three per cent of Canadians picked the occasionally over-cheerful (and over-refreshed) Rob Ford for top contributor status, tied with Pauline Marois, who appears fairly indistinct on the cheery-grumpy continuum. All in all, a clear triumph for the happy astronaut Chris Hadfield – congratulations Chris!

And the villain of the year is…

In a much tighter race (but still a clear victory), the most negative contributor prize went to the (now) hapless mayor of Toronto. He shatters his marginal three-point showing on the hero list with a huge victory in the most negative impact award. Approximately half of Canada felt that the assorted pratfalls, apologies, and blatant mendacity which became clear this year were not offset by the unique form of nation branding that a reclusive Canada received basking in his late night notoriety on American talk shows. Apparently undeterred by this rather harsh recognition from the rest of Canada, Torontonians appear poised to be seriously considering Mr. Ford for a second term. It seemed unimaginable that anyone could make Mel Lastman look like a paragon of statesmanship and good taste, but such is the turning wheel of Toronto politics.

The only other serious contender for most damage to Canada goes to none other than our Prime Minister. While Canadians are reserved in their praise for their political leaders, it cannot be considered an auspicious signal for the future that the Prime Minister has won a solid second place on the most negative contributor to the country. Notably, his newly antagonist senate appointment, Mike Duffy registered much lower on the villain of the year awards, echoing a similar advantage that he enjoyed in the believability sweepstakes regarding the senate spending scandal.

But more and more Canadians want to have a drink with their leaders…

Whether from sheer desperation or a genuine desire to socialize, the incidence of Canadians picking a federal leader to have a beer with has vaulted from our last sounding. This important social indicator shows the incidence of none of the above has fallen steeply from 40 per cent to a mere 11 points since 2010. Stephen Harper holds steady with 23 points favouring him as beer buddy (he may well have won the coffee at Timmy’s contest). Thomas Mulcair is also beer ready according Canada virtually tying his predecessor, the late Jack Layton (who won the contest in 2010). But the new kid on the block – a young and charismatic Justin Trudeau – blew the competition away with a huge 20 point victory. Who knows how he would have scored in the about-to-be-legal-on-his-watch “who would you most like to blow a joint with” contest. And one can only imagine the winner of the improbable “who would you most like to smoke crack cocaine with” award (see winner of last contest).

And now peering forward

As Conservative fortunes have waned, speculation has risen that Mr. Harper may decide to take a walk in the snow and leave things to a successor to complete his makeover of Canada. Others have even speculated that far from quitting Mr. Harper may stay and pull the plug before the appointed fixed election date (see 2008 for precedent) and take his chances in advance of further unravelling on the ongoing controversies and poll sliding of 2014.

So what do the public think? No way! In a remarkable display of consensus, the public discount the chances of an early election and sneeze at the notion that Mr. Harper would walk away. Being careful to disentangle preferences from predictions (70 percent want him to resign immediately if they feel he has been misleading Canadians on the senate spending scandal and most seem to lean to the view that he has been less than frank), the idea that the tenacious and driven Stephen Harper would fold his tent and leave is dismissed as nonsense. Frankly, we would place our bets with the pubic on this one.

A “wisdom of crowds” appraoch to forecasting

In a fascinating book from a few years ago , James Surowiecki noted that under the right conditions, the average “wisdom” of a crowd could achieve insights which would be inaccessible to even the most able individuals. This approach has been borrowed by some pollsters to deal with the problem of forecasting future events – particularly election outcomes. Although many do not realise it, the problem of assessing polling accuracy by comparing the gap between final polls and election outcomes is increasingly fraught with difficulties. First and foremost, as the size of the non-voting population has grown with declining voter participation – particularly among the young and vulnerable members of the electorate – and as systematic differences between the political preferences of the less engaged and non-voting segments of the population have grown more systematically different from the participants in elections, the test of nearness to the final poll outcome becomes a mixed yardstick of polling quality. The problem is disentangling the challenge of modelling all eligible voters from predicting the behaviour of those who actually show up.

This challenge is at the heart of many of the recent woes of pollsters in recent campaigns in Canada and elsewhere.

One promising approach is to turn the prediction problem over to the ‘wisdom of crowds’ approach. In the United Kingdom, the market research firm ICM Research has had some pretty impressive results using this approach (although by no means perfect) . In the United States, the Rand Corporation has taken a related approach by asking a random panel (their “Life Panel”) to answer three simple questions: 1) likelihood of voting; 2) per cent chance of voting for a given candidate; and 3) percent likelihood of a given candidate winning. In retrospect, they did a superb job of charting the last presidential campaign. We are testing some variations of these different approaches and present the highlights of one initial test here.

We asked similar questions of a randomly recruited sample of respondents (the random recruitment thing is important and most online panels use opt-in samples that are self-selected and who have never been spoken to). Like the Rand Life Panel, our panel has been recruited randomly and we have actually spoken to and verified all panel members.

Asking the panel to rate the percentage likelihood of each of the three contending parties winning the next election provides an interesting insight as to what the Canadian crowd thinks about the next election. Noting that the election is still quite distant and that this, for now, ignores the majority/minority question and the likelihood of voting, the following chart shows a near exact tie for the Conservative or Liberal likelihood of emerging as victors.

This dead heat view of public wisdom on the outcome of the next election certainly does not preclude an NDP victory. Indeed, Canadians, on average, estimate a 23 per cent chance that the NDP will be victorious in the next election and there is no clear winner among any of the three current contenders. Note that we will refine this approach as time goes on to consider other scenarios such as the possibility of coalition governments.

So the public in their wisdom don’t know at this early stage who will win the 42nd Federal Election. Their best conjecture is a dead heat between the incumbent and the Liberal Party, with the NDP remaining a strong contender. We will be charting this approach along with more conventional approaches as we near the next election. Notably, this approach was within two per cent of the actual outcome in the last election in the United Kingdom and was basically bang on in the case of the Rand approach to the last presidential election in the United States.

Other applications of “wisdom of crowds”

The beauty of this “wisdom of crowds” approach is that is extends well beyond the political realm. For instance, Surowiecki opened his book with an anecdote about how a crowd at a county fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when their individual guesses were averaged. Applying this model to the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, we asked Canadians how many medals they believe Canadian will win in February. Responses were all over the map. Some respondents predicted that our athletes would come home utterly empty-handed, while others ventured guesses of upwards of 40 medals. When we take the average, however, we get a very sensible estimate of 20 medals, down from our record performance in 2010, but consistent with our average haul over the last 20 years.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (December 31, 2013)

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