Saturday, April 28, 2012

The 10 Most Egregious Punditry Errors

As we all know by now the vast majority of political pundits (including yours truly) completely misread the recent Alberta election.

We all thought the Wildrose Party would bloom, but instead it got cut down by the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party lawn mower and then thrown on the compost heap of electoral failure.

What can we learn from this? I mean, what can we learn besides the fact that I am terrible when it comes to making up metaphors.

Well, one lesson we can learn from the Wildrose loss is the inherent dangers of making election predictions, or as I like to call them, "wild guesses".

Fortunately, however, there are ways to improve such guesses.

For one thing, instead of relying on public opinion polls to make a prediction, try using methods that are cheaper, easier and just as scientifically accurate, such as  throwing darts at a board or rolling a die or flipping a coin.

Mind you, even using those methods won’t absolutely ensure prediction success. The fact is predicting the future is hard.

Indeed, although the punditry failure in Alberta made headlines, it’s not the first time “experts” have been completely and utterly wrong.

I did a little historical research and discovered several examples of failed predictions.

Here are the ten most egregious:

“No Cabinet Minister will ever pay more than $14 for a glass of orange juice.”  -- 2005

“Now that Nazi Germany is defeated, one name that will never, ever be uttered again in the House of Commons is, Hitler.” -- 1945

“I have seen the Progressive Conservative Party’s future and his name is Joe Clark!”  -- 1979

“I have seen the Progressive Conservative Party’s future and her name is Kim Campbell!” --- 1993

“I have seen the Liberal Party’s future and his name is Stephane Dion.” -- 2007

“One thing is for sure, the NDP leadership convention will NOT be the most boring, horribly drawn out and technology-glitched event in Canadian history” – 2012

“The emergence of the Sun News Network will usher in a period of serene conviviality in Canada’s news media community.” – 2011

“A political party that wants to ensure an election victory should secure as its leader someone who has lived outside the country for 30 years and who also possesses a post-graduate degree from a prestigious American Ivy League university.:” -- 2009

“Now that Montreal has won the Stanley Cup, you can be sure we will see many, many more Canadian-based teams win the NHL championship.” --- 1993

“When it comes to fiscal responsibility the best thing you can do is purchase an untried, and vastly complicated piece of military hardware.” 2010.

So you see, even, highly trained and professional pundits have been wrong from time to time in the past.

Mind you, I am fairly certain experts will always get it right in the future.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why did the bloom come off the Wildrose?

I have been trying to make some sense out of the recent Wildrose debacle.

What exactly happened? Why did the Wildrose blow such a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls?

Lots of theories are floating out there. Some say “strategic voting” did them in or that the “bimbo eruptions” of loose cannon candidates hurt the party and others contend Wildrose is just too conservative.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith seems to be in the latter camp. Indeed, she is openly suggesting the party may have to rethink some of its policies if it’s to succeed in the future.

However, my view is the Wildrose loss had more to do with tactics than with policy.

Why do I say that? Well, just consider the Wildrose ad strategy in the last few weeks of the race. It ran what I call “Bandwagon” TV ads. These are positive, upbeat ads designed to urge undecided voters to jump on the “winning team”. These can be effective because, after all, people like to back a winner.

And when I saw these Wildrose ads it helped to confirm my belief they would win. I assumed Wildrose’s own internal polling showed them that undecided voters were leaning Wildrose, and that all it would take to win them over was a nudge.

Yet, it seems the undecided vote actually broke overwhelming for the Progressive Conservatives. Or least this is what Smith contends.

Now this is not the kind of trend a public poll would pick up. But the Wildrose’s own pollsters should have seen this coming. They should have known that undecided voters were leaning PC and would likely vote that way in large numbers.

If they didn’t pick up this crucial trend, than they were not doing their job.

On the other hand, if the pollsters did detect it, then the problem rests with the Wildrose campaign strategy.

Rather than running positive ads in the last few weeks of the race, they should have tried to degrade Premier Alison Redford and the PC brand name.

Perhaps this would have stopped the bleeding.

And yes, I know this is all hindsight analysis, but unfortunately it’s too late for foresight analysis.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pre-election Analysis

When Tuesday morning rolls around and the results of the Alberta provincial election are known, the outcome will seem as if they were pre-ordained.

What I mean is if the Alberta Progressive Conservatives pull off a victory, pundits will point out this result was totally and absolutely inevitable either because a) Alberta’s becoming less “right wing” and more “cosmopolitan” or b) Wildrose leader Danielle Smith blundered when she didn’t denounce the outrageous comments of some of her party’s candidates.

On the other hand, if Wildrose comes out on top, we will be told this result was totally and absolutely inevitable because the Alberta PC dynasty was tired, corrupt and ready for collapse.

In short, political pundits are always brilliant in hindsight.

And so, I am going out on a limb by making a pre-election day analysis. Rather than relying on “hindsight”, I will use the much riskier “foresight.”

But before you read on, a word of caution: I live in Ontario. I am only watching the Alberta election from afar and largely through the prism of the national and eastern media. I have not made any thorough analysis of polling data, nor am I in touch with any sources “on the ground” in that province.

Much of what I am going to say is based simply on my own political instincts. Some might call it “guessing”.

And so with that important caveat in place, here’s my take of what will be obvious to all on Tuesday morning.

To begin with, I am not surprised a bit with the Alberta PC party’s drop in the polls. Recall that earlier this year, the PCs enjoyed 54% support in the polls while Wildrose languished at just 16%. Seemed at the time like PCs were in store for yet another easy majority victory.

Yet as I wrote back in February the “PC support has peaked and is probably pretty soft. That means it can go nowhere but down.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

The fact is, Albertans want change. And why not, the Alberta PCs have been in power since before fire was invented. What this means is that in effect, Albertans were primed and ready not to like newly minted PC leader Premier Alison Redford. All they needed were reasons to reject her.

And Redford obliged.

She pandered to public sector union bosses, she mishandled scandals, she increased government spending.
And in doing all these things, Redford seemingly went out of her way to alienate potential supporters.

Let’s not forget the Alberta Progressive Conservatives are supposed to be … well conservative. In theory, they are a “right wing party.” Much of their base was certainly conservative leaning. But in recent years, many conservatives, disillusioned with the PC party’s drift to the left, defected to Wildrose.

This was a serious problem for the PCs, but the trend was reversible.

Indeed, a sensible and obvious strategy for the PCs would have been to woo as many of these voters as possible back to the Tory fold. And make no mistake, this would have been eminently doable at little political cost.

I say that because Wildrose isn’t so much a party as it is an unwieldy and diverse coalition made up of libertarians, social conservatives, populists and Alberta nationalists. These are groups which don’t necessarily get along. In fact, they sometimes hate each other. The only thing keeping them united right now is that, for a variety of reasons, they all share a mutual dislike for the Alberta Tories.

In other words, Wildrose has ideological fault lines a mile wide. The PCs could and should have exploited this weakness. Simply put, they could have split apart Wildrose by appealing to different parts of its base. Surely, there must still exist in the hearts of one-time PC supporters some residual loyalty for the old Tory brand name.
But Redford made absolutely no attempt to rekindle that loyalty. Instead she pushed away her old supporters and embraced Red Toryism, hoping, it would seem, to recruit Liberals and New Democrats. In effect, she basically wanted to re-invent the PCs as a left of centre party, even if that meant conceding the bulk of the right wing vote to Wildrose.

If current polls are to be believed, that was a huge strategic error.

Mind you, certain things are outside of Redford’s control. For instance, in the past, Alberta PCs could always count on a sure-fire winning formula: Campaign against Ottawa.

What I mean is in days of yore, the PCs framed themselves as the only ones who could defend Alberta’s values and resources from the rapacious designs of Eastern federal politicians such as Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien or Paul Martin.

And for Albertans, furious about the disastrous National Energy Program, this was an argument that resonated.
But today things are different. Now Alberta has, in Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a friend in Ottawa. 

Indeed, Harper is an Albertan!

Unfortunately for the PCs this means they can no longer bash Ottawa.

And there is something else that’s different about this election: for the first time ever, the PCs face a legitimate threat from the right in the Wildrose Party.

Wildrose has a telegenic leader in Smith, it seems to have lots of money and seasoned political veterans are running its campaign.

And Wildrose has something even more important going for it right now: momentum.

Poll after poll shows the Wildrose heading for a victory on Monday. Yes, I know polls can be wrong or misleading, but just the perception of momentum can be a powerful force in politics. Voters are more disposed to back a party that appears to be gaining steam.

The Alberta Tories and their media allies have tried to counter this momentum with another potent force: fear.

They are declaring Wildrose leader Smith is “untested, untried and unfit” to lead. Or they suggest she is an “extremist” or a bigot.

Typically, such tactics reflect a campaign that’s in desperation mode. And when employed at this stage in a campaign such attacks rarely work. Or at least they didn’t work when used to derail Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher or Mike Harris or Stephen Harper.

It seems unlikely, to me anyway, that Albertans can be convinced to write off Smith, who comes across as pretty affable on TV, as a dangerous radical.
Also a sign of desperation is the fact that the PC party is seemingly pinning its hopes on “strategic voting”, a tactic that only works in the delusional minds of campaign strategists.

At any rate, I guess by now you have an idea of where I am heading with all of this.

My strong sense is not that Wildrose will win on Monday, but that, for all the reasons stated above, the PCs will lose.

Of course, my whole analysis might turn out to be completely wrong.

And if that’s the case, I am sure the reasons for my errors will be completely obvious on Tuesday morning.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Final Days of Alberta Election will Pit Momentum Against Fear

The last few days before an election are always the most crucial.

This is the time when the vast majority of voters actually start paying attention to the race with any degree of seriousness and focus.

That’s why it’s also the time a campaign must run its best and most persuasive messaging.

And so, with that in mind, what will the Alberta PCs and Wildrosers do this last weekend before the vote?

Well, I know what I would do.

If I am on Wildrose team, I would run a “we are gaining momentum, we are an exciting movement of change” style of ad. The idea is you want to urge people to jump on the winning and popular bandwagon.

Here’s a classic example of this sort of ad:

Also, I would air TV ads featuring former PC voters switching allegiance to the Wildrose. Maybe the ads would show people putting up a Wildrose sign on their law or a bumper sticker on their car, as they say something like “I was always a loyal PC supporter, but now I see Wildrose is best for Alberta.”

I call these switcher ads.

Again, voters like to be on the side of whoever has the momentum.

As for the PCs, well the polls show they are trailing pretty badly right now. If the their own internal polls show the same, I expect they will use the only weapon they have left in their arsenal: fear.

I would saturate the market with attacks on Wildrose Leader, Danielle Smith, focusing especially on questions about her competence.

The theme would be something along the lines of “Can we really trust this political neophyte to run the province at this crucial time?”

This could be effective; fear can be a powerful motivating weapon.

It’s what helped kill the Ontario PCs in the last Ontario election.

At any rate, no matter whats ad-wise the next few days in Alberta will be fun to watch.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Never Thought I'd See Such a Stupid Ad

There is always a temptation when running a political attack ad, to get cute. Sometimes this works, but all too often an ad that supposed to be clever turns out to be really, really stupid.

For an example of a really, really stupid ad, check out this video found on, an anonymous website, that was most likely produced by the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.

Anyway, this ad is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.

First off, the ad's edgy routine will backfire. What I mean is the profanity and off-colour language, used by the actors portraying an ever so hip and ever so diverse and ever so obnoxious group of young people is so offensive it will turn off  viewers.

Indeed, I suspect anyone who was on the fence before seeing this video will decide to vote Wildrose after seeing it. Also, I suspect many voters who were going to support the PCs before seeing this ad, will change their minds after seeing it and vote Wildrose.

The thought process will go like this: “Any political party these brain dead idiots are against, I am for!”  

Now call me crazy, but I believe airing an ad that actually drives people away from your party, is bad strategy.

And yes, I know the producers of the spot are hoping this will be offset by legions of young chic, urban Albertans who, wishing to emulate the actors in the video, will “vote strategically” to deny the Wildrose a victory.

But there are a couple of problems with this strategy. First, the demographic this ad is targeting --- mainly those people who spend most of their free time playing Xboxes – don’t exactly vote in massive numbers.

Secondly, and more importantly, despite what some media-types and political junkies like to believe, strategic voting doesn’t happen.

Most regular people going into a voting booth don’t think “I don’t like Party A, so I will vote for Party B even though I really like Party C.” Instead, they vote for Party C.

And here's problem with the ad: It contains blatant and absurd falsehoods. During the video actors say Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith “believes the Flintsones are real” and that she “doesn’t believe in gravity.”

Of course, these are lies.

OK I know this is supposed to be “humour”, but this is meant to be a serious piece of political communication. Simply put, lying is wrong in a political spot, even if it's just a lame joke.

Plus the ad isn't even logically consistent. It says to vote strategically, but as my friend Peter Jaworski pointed out on his Facebook page, the spot ends with an actor saying "vote for people who you think are good, man." So which is it? Vote strategically or vote for the guy who is good? You can't do both.

I could go on, but let me finish with one more observation.

The PC party is running this ad because they are desperate and panicky. And losing power after 41 years, probably is a frightening thought.

Yet that does not give the PCs the right to mock and ridicule their own supporters, just for the sake of keeping power.

 And make no mistake, this ad is a calculated slap on the face to every small “c” conservative in Alberta.

The PCs are basically calling conservatives rustic, redneck, rubes in the desperate hope this will curry favor with the trendy left.

This goes beyond crass and cynical. It’s nothing short of despicable.

Premier Alison Redford should be ashamed. 

The producer of the ad says it was not an Alberta PC Party production. I am dubious. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Schooling Russell on Harper and the Charter

Just sent a letter to the Winnipeg Free Press in response to this column. Don't think it will get printed, so to get it off my chest I will post it here:

Dear Sir/Madam:

Surprise, surprise, Frances Russell has spewed out yet another hysterical and bizarre column aimed at smearing Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Harper undoing Canada, April 4, 2012)

What is this, the 1000th such column this month?

News flash Ms. Russell: Other stuff is happening in the world.

Anyway, typically I ignore her simple-minded left wing fantasy rants, but this time she wrote something so ridiculous it had to be challenged.

I am referring to her statement in today’s column that Harper “abhors the 1982 Canadian Constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”


Perhaps Russell is ignorant of the fact that during his time at the National Citizens Coalition, Harper used the Charter on more than one occasion to challenge bad laws.

Yes, that’s right. He turned to the court system and to the Charter in his battle to protect individual freedoms.

As Harper himself once put it, “Solutions can only be found in the classical theory of liberal democracy -- checks and balances of institutional power under limited government”.

Hardly sounds like the actions of a man who “abhors” the Charter, does it?

Mind you, I don’t expect Russell cares much for actual facts or research.

After all, it’s so much easier just to churn out mindless garbage.

Baseball Brainwashing Gone Wrong

My son and I love both love baseball, but unfortunately we don't love it in the same way.

And for me that's a cause for real grief.

To understand what I mean, you need to know I am a baseball zealot. And when I had a son, I was determined that he too would share my passion for the greatest of all sports ---whether he liked it or not.

So when he was barely able to walk I jammed a fielder's mitt on his tiny hand; instead of watching cartoons he watched Blue Jay highlight videos and at three-years-old he was using a plastic bat to whack whiffle balls.

I patiently pitched to him hour after hour, and yes, in the process I took a few vicious liners off various parts of my anatomy, but it was worth it:

My son eagerly took to the sport. Indeed, he went on to become a little league all-star.

But for some reason my baseball brainwashing was not a complete success. Yes, he loved the game, but he loved it the wrong way.

The right way to love baseball, of course, is to embrace the game's traditions and myths and legends.

Anyone who has ever seen the baseball movies The Natural or Field of Dreams knows what I am talking about.

Baseball is not about today; it's about yesterday. It's about Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world," or Babe Ruth calling his home run, or George Brett's pine tar bat.

But my son --- now in his early 20s -- cares nothing for the game's history or hallowed traditions. He doesn't care that the Dodgers once played in Brooklyn or that Ted Williams' nickname was the Splendid Splinter.

If anything he is more than ready to dump the game's grand customs in the name of rationality.

He likes the horrendous idea of a "wild card" team making the playoffs. In fact, he wants (horror of horrors) to add more teams to post-season.

He also supports such heresies as interleague play, the designated hitter rule and using video replays to review an umpire's call.

Where, oh where did I go wrong?

The problem is my son understands the game, but not its soul. And this is clearly manifested in his approach to statistics.

To my mind, for a hitter only three stats really matter: batting average, home runs and runs batted in. For a pitcher, it's wins and losses, earned run average and strike outs. That's the way it's been since the days of Abner Doubleday.

But my son talks about statistics you can only understand if you have an advanced degree in physics.

For example, we will be watching a game and I will say something like "John Jones is a great hitter; he has a batting average of .290."

In response my son will roll his eyes and declare, "His 'isolated power' stats are weak, plus his 'super linear weights' and 'wins above replacement' numbers are a joke."

I nod sagely in response, but what I am really thinking is: "Isn't a 'super linear weight' some sort of exercise machine?"

And he talks about other weird-sounding stats such as Batting Runs Above Average, (B.R.A.A.) which is not to be confused with Batting Runs Above Replacement (B.R.A.R.) or Batting Average on Ball In Play (B.A.B.I.P.).

My reaction is always the same: W.H.A.T.?

And he uses phrases like "regression analysis" and "Pythagorean formulas." It's like talking baseball with Mr. Spock.

The sad fact is, for my son baseball isn't a grand romantic narrative, it's a cold, sterile mathematical equation.

And so we love the same sport, but not the same game.

By the way, I named my son Nolan, after Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan who holds the record for most career strike outs.

You would think that would make him happy?

But it doesn’t.

As he recently put it, "Why didn't you name me after a pitcher with a better walks to strike out ratio?