Sunday, November 25, 2012

Looking for a Liberal Leader

The race to become the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada is underway. On April 14th, 2013, party faithful will choose the leader they hope will take Canada's "once natural governing party, but now third party in the House" down the path of renewal - a path they hope can reposition the party for success.

While the field currently boasts a number of candidates, at this time it appears that the lion's share of the attention will be lavished on three: Justin Trudeau and Martha Hall Findlay, who have both launched their campaigns, and Marc Garneau who will do so this week.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will be writing about this campaign - the candidates and the issues. To start things off, I thought I would borrow page from Andrew Coyne and offer some unsolicited advice.


As Mr. Coyne pointed out in this excellent piece the party has an important choice to make. It can choose to swing for the fences by seeing themselves as viable candidates for power in the next election, or it can preach patience and look to first generate stability and then build from its position as the third party.

His recommendation - the patience route - is reasonable, as it takes into account the litany of challenges the party is facing. It also suggests that settling in as a third party can afford the Liberals the opportunity to develop more definition to their party - something that has been dwindling since 2006.

The argument is that freed from having to play it safe as one of the two contenders, the party can lay out more robust, thoughtful and perhaps controversial policy positions. This is what Reform and the NDP did. The question is whether the Liberals have the patience necessary to survive a longer spell on the sidelines.


Building on Mr. Coyne's arguments, I offer some additional points for the Liberals to consider...

Define Progressive...

A centrist party is by definition a difficult thing to define. Move away from this nomenclature and instead look to define what progressive means in the 21st century.

Progressive needs to be more than a new way of saying "left". The Liberals need to frame progressive as being about balance and collaboration.

A progressive brand should be one which defines what fiscal responsibility means in a modern society. It needs to acknowledge that sound finances and sustainable social programs are equally important to the country's future prosperity.

It should be a brand which breaks both the mindset that taxation is bad, and the mindset that suggests that controlling spending is draconian. Neither position is true, despite what the traditional right or left will tell you.

More than anything, defining progressive is an opportunity to illustrate how economic policy, health policy, environmental policy, education, trade and foreign policy are all inter-connected. Too often they are presented as independent of one another, or even mutually exclusive.

A progressive party should look to connect the dots between the multiple policy threads that make up governing and tell a story which brings the voter into the dialogue. A progressive party should foster engagement, not discourage it.

A tall order, yes. But an opportunity to fill a void which is missing in Ottawa right now.

Pay Heed to the Lessons of Romney, part one...

As Justin Trudeau is currently learning, what you have said in the past can and will be used against you - often and with scant regard for context. And the impact can be significant.  Just ask Mitt.

Quick question: Who won the Republican nomination campaign? Answer: Barack Obama.

That campaign forced Romney to adopt positions which would appeal to the conservatives of the Republican party, but which would not appeal to mainstream American voters.  The result is that while Romney fought to define himself for Republicans, he opened the door for the Obama campaign to define him for the rest of the country.

The definition they offered was something the Romney campaign never really recovered from. Even when he tried he simply reinforced a sense that he would say anything to anyone. When a candidate loses the voter's "does he understand me" test, he or she loses the election. 

The Liberal candidates need to be mindful of this fact as they debate the issues. I am not for a moment suggesting that any candidate adopt a bland, un-offensive approach which tries to please all. But each candidate needs to find their space or ground. 

Moving all over the map, as Romney did, will be damaging. Define your campaign and stick to your principles.

And finally, be mindful as to how you go after one another. Learn not just the lessons of Mitt, but also the lessons of Stephane. As candidates you will look to draw contrasts between one another. But don't adopt the hyperbole that can hamstring whomever the eventual winner will be.

Remember, the Conservatives are just waiting for you to do so. Tread carefully.

Pay Heed to the Lessons of Romney, part two...

Romney won his party's nomination because he was deemed electable. The Liberals need to avoid the "electable trap".

Falling into this trap means choosing someone because you think they can deliver the goods at the next opportunity. For the Liberals, this would be a long-shot. 

As Mr. Coyne points out, the hurdles the party faces are not insignificant. While the unpredictability of politics reminds one that anything can happen, the current facts suggest that on balance the Liberals need more than 2-3 years to be in a position to challenge for government.

With this in mind, the party needs to select a candidate for the long run. The next leader needs two elections and time to build. It has to be someone prepared to put in the time out of the spotlight as they work to re-build.

In the end it is a balance. You need someone ready to lead should fortune swing your way. But you need someone patient to wait and prepared to do the work necessary to build.

And for heaven's sake, Liberals. Don't ditch the leader if they don't win.


In less than five months, the Liberals will select a leader. Between now and then, however, the party and its faithful have some thinking to do.

What are the lessons of the past six years? What investments are needed to re-build the party? Are you prepared to make them?

Many thought that electoral defeat was just the normal "time in the penalty box"; that after a spell on the sidelines it would be their turn again. The thinking was that at some point enough voters would simply tire of the Harper government once they knew more about them, and presto(!) the Liberals would be back in government.

They were wrong. And that is why we stand here today at the beginning of this campaign.

The leadership campaign is probably the Liberals last, best shot at repositioning themselves in the eyes of voters. The stakes are hight. Let's see if they are up to the challenge.

I, for one, hope they are.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's win and Romney's Loss

So, there it is. President Obama has been re-elected in what ultimately turned out to be a pretty comprehensive victory.

A look at some of the top-line Obama results is not happy reading for a Romney campaign team that was confident it could win:

  • 303 Electoral Votes, with the possibility of 29 more from still-counting Florida;
  • a majority of the popular vote;
  • a campaign that got to 270 without Ohio, Florida or Virginia;
  • winning a strong majority of women's votes (with women accounting for 53% of the entire electorate); and 
  • a lock on the African-American, Latino and youth vote. 
Add to this the ongoing demographic shift in America which favours the Democrats and you can glimpse a future that could prove challenging to a Republican party that is already struggling with how to balance the more traditional elements of the party with the Tea Party supporters.

While the future of the GOP is something that will be written about in countless post-mortems, today offers an opportunity to make some observations about the current state of the party and in particular the Romney campaign.

1. Paul Ryan

In 2008, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee became a large part of the campaign story for almost all the wrong reasons. Four years later, I would posit that questions will also be asked about the choice this time around.

Paul Ryan was not a bad choice in Palin-esque kind of way. But he appears to have been a bad choice in terms of how little he benefited the campaign. Over the course of the campaign he seemed to evolve from a being a choice that would ignite the base to almost being a "Oh yeah, Ryan, forgot about him."

When one looks at Ohio and Virginia and the central part they would play in a Romney campaign strategy, it seems odd that the Republican nominee chose to look elsewhere for a running mate. It also seemed odd that he failed to choose someone who could enable him to close the "he does not get me gap."

2. He doesn't get me

A candidate's ability to connect with their voter is crucial. The candidate who conveys empathy will always be more likely to garner the support of the voter who feels understood. This is a big part of what happened last night.

In this campaign, Mr. Romney basically made half an argument. He successfully made the economy the number one issue for voters, and in so doing was able to convince a majority that he was the man to tackle it. But that was only half the job.

The half he failed to do was convince people that in addressing the economy, he would see their interests as his. Mr. Romney could not demonstrate that he sufficiently understood their interests and that he was prepared to use that insight to guide policy. The choice of an ideologue like Ryan only compounded that problem. As did...

3. "47%"

Way back when in that fundraising dinner video, Mr. Romney infamously commented that there are 47% of Americans who would not vote for him. He described them as being a group that could not be convinced to take personal responsibility for themselves.

First, those remarks simply reinforced the "he doesn't get me" line of thinking. Second, I suspect those remarks helped drive to / keep with the Obama campaign the swaths of the electorate that carried them to victory - women, Latinos, African-Americans and youth.

4. From severely conservative to moderate Mitt and all stops in between

If you asked voters what Romney stands for and the values he represents in the spring, you would have gotten one answer. If you asked him last week, you would have gotten another.

And therein lies the problem.

The Republican primaries forced Romney to the right to such a distance that it would be difficult to come back without leaving the impression that this was a politician prepared to say anything to get to the Presidency. The primaries also left the Obama campaign with a wealth of material with which to frame Romney as out of touch and not aligned with the concerns of middle-class America. 

And frame him they did. Romney spent most of the summer and the early part of the campaign trying to chip away at that image. In the end he was unsuccessful.


The points above are by no means meant to suggest that the Obama campaign lucked into victory. From the narrative they set, to the convention they held and the ground game they put in place, it was all in all a superlative campaign - particularly in light of the economy they faced.

They also impressively recovered from the Denver debate and in the process made the race a whole lot more interesting for those of us watching.  Thanks for that, team Obama!


So, the campaign is over. The Nate Silver's of the world were proven right and Americans woke up to the same Congress and Executive that they had the day before. And all for the low price of $6 billion.

For the Obama campaign, deserved success. For the Romney campaign, a sense of a opportunity lost given issues and challenges facing America. And for this Guy Watching Politics, a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing political roller coaster. 

To those who took the time to read, thanks for joining me in following the long and winding the White House.

Monday, November 5, 2012

24 hours to go....give or take several protracted legal battles

"Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours to go.  I wanna be sedated." - The Ramones

I have always been of the view that you can find a song title or lyric to basically describe whatever is going on, and today is no different. This time tomorrow - 24 hours from now - the transition from voting to counting will be well-underway. For many it promises to be a tense and intense night. 

First let's start with the polling. The majority of published polls now show President Obama with the lead - both nationally and more importantly within the swing states that will decide the Presidency. 

As always, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight does a great job of pulling them all together. I would also recommend a look at Public Policy Polling's final set of polls here.

The bottom-line for many pollsters is that the consistency of the President's polling in these states and his re-taking of the popular vote lead make him the strong favourite tomorrow. You can see odds anywhere from two-thirds to north of 80% in terms of the likelihood of an Obama victory.

And yet we have a race that pundits continue to claim is too close to call. Why?

First, while the President has leads in several key states many are not decisive and some (when aggregated) fall close to the margin of error. Much will therefore depend on our second point - turnout. 

Turnout basically morphs into three questions:

- How much higher will Romney's 2012 turnout be than McCain's in 2008?
- How much lower will Obama's 2012 turnout be than Obama's in 2008?
- Are Romney's gains / Obama's losses sufficient to turn small Obama poll leads into Romney victories?

President Obama can afford - and undoubtedly will have - some declines from his 2008 turnout. But he can't afford a lot.

That said, his team are confident that their ground game can prove decisive, both in terms of early vote and on election day. For their part the Romney camp is claiming a better organization and much stronger enthusiasm (compared with 2008) can take them over the line. We will see.

Without question media and new cycles are also playing their part in driving this sense of a virtual dead heat. It makes for a compelling story and you cannot argue with the degree to which it has kept people engaged.

Yet there is one other element which could make things closer than polling suggests, and in fact which polling could not really account for in a model - voting irregularity.

Whether we are talking about provisional ballots, voting technology or voter identification, it is difficult to discern what impact, if any, voting irregularities could have on results. The experiences of 2000 and 2004 (as well as issues at the state level) have people worried about fraud and theft.

This is why Ohio is probably more densely populated with lawyers right now than an other part of the United States. And this is why there is a possibility that we will not know who wins tomorrow. Or Wednesday. Or even this week.

This is not the likely outcome, but it is not improbable. And in a country that aspires to be a shining city on the hill and the world's greatest democracy, the fact that this is not improbable is a tragedy.

So, hold on tight America! 24 hours to go....give or take several protracted legal battles.

Friday, November 2, 2012

"Can't talk, on the phone with Obama..."

A little more than a weekend separates Americans from today and election day. While early voting has been underway in some states for some time, Tuesday is the day the majority of Americans who choose to vote will do so.

As the homestretch morphs into the final push, the candidates are moving in and out of those few remaining states where both feel they have a chance. As noted in earlier posts, their blitz rallies are intended to mobilize their respective bases and convince those undecided or soft votes to vote for them.

Earlier today, I had the chance to "participate" in one of these final blitz rallies. No, I was not in Ohio or any other swing state.

I was on the phone, listening to an Obama campaign call with supporters. The call featured a member of the campaign team and another guy whose name escapes me. Oh yeah, President Obama.


Now, until today the closest I got to a something like this was last year when I was a listener on a Dalton McGuinty (remember him?) "telephone town hall" during the Ontario provincial campaign. In terms of the U.S., the closest I have come was listening to those infamous Romney 47% fund-raising dinner remarks on the web.

This time I was listening in on the Obama campaign team presenting supporters with their see of the race, followed by observations on the race from the President, and then a final wrap-up by the team.

The purpose of the call was two-fold. First to keep the supporters mobilized and to encourage them to vote (and vote early).  Second, to solicit funds.

While neither should be surprising, the real interest for me was in the messaging. Here are some highlights:

From the campaign team...

  • This campaign is looking like the campaigns of 2000 and 2004; they are extremely close and there is a lot at stake.
  • A reminder that in 2000 (in Florida) and 2004 (in Ohio), a few hundred thousand votes changed history, both times at the expense of the Democrats.
  • While Obama posted a strong electoral college victory in 2008, don't lose sight of the fact that the race was close with the popular vote seeing some 48% of voters vote Republican.
  • While the race is close, the campaign feels very good about where they are and the state of the race.

From President Obama...

  • You are not simply supporting a candidate, you are supporting a vision about America. You are supporting students who can now afford university, people who now have affordable health care, auto workers who have had their jobs saved. This is what I hear on the campaign trail.
  • You are fighting to preserve the progress we have made.  
  • We should win, but have to get our team out on the ground and ensure that we are not outspent.
  • We can only go as far as our resources take us, and right now the airwaves are being flooded with lies through Super PAC ads; lies which we need to counter.
  • Your support has got us this far and now we have to make the final push.


In terms of engaging the base, the lines did well to remind supporters about 2000 and 2004 - elections many Democrats feel were stolen from them. The reminder should promote engagement.

Those lines also were a caution against complacency. For all of the criticism from the right about the predictions and probabilities from the Nate Silver's of the world, the last thing the Obama team wants to see is a complacent base who feel it is won. Calls like this are intended to keep people focused and ready for November 6th.

I found as well that the narrative around "what is at stake" was well-struck. The President used his remarks to remind supporters about the impact they have had as Democrats, and as well as about (a) what else they can do if elected, and (b) about what they could lose if they are not.

Polling was also discussed and yes, for those who doubted, Ohio remains the focus. Interestingly, the narrative around the state of the race in Virginia left me feeling like they are not that confident there. Otherwise the commentary on polls and the state of the campaign was the first time I heard the Obama team say they "should win."

As for the fund-raising pitch, it was important that they tie it to the Super PACs and the recent onslaught of ads against the campaign. Consider this part of the call "fear-factor" time.

The subtext was something along the lines of the following: "After telling you what we have accomplished and what is at stake, I remind you of our foes and the resources they have, and I ask you to open your wallet one last time."

I suspect more than a few did.


So there you go. What started as a regular Friday turned into an unexpected and interesting experience for a politics watcher, and a small glimpse into a campaign that I have followed from (somewhat) afar.

The next three days will be frantic and then it will all be over. Ish.

I expect a long night on Tuesday and think we may have a few more ups and downs between now and when we know who arrives first after walking along the long and winding road to the White House.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Polls, Predictions and Probabilities...Oh My!

Voting day is nearly here and, not surprisingly, the chatter and speculation as to who will win has intensified each day we get closer to November 6th. Also not surprisingly, each side has expressed confidence that they will be successful.

So where are we? Can anyone say with confidence that they will deliver the goods on Tuesday?

Certainly no one can say with any certainty that they will win. The simple fact is that there is an awful lot of noise in the air relating to polls, predictions and probabilities (...oh my!). 

Let's consider a few points.

1. In a close race, it is imperative that a candidate project confidence and predict victory. And this is a close race. We are not in a race where it is clear who will win and the poor other guy / girl is left to say things like "we'll have to wait for the voters to decide" - something which, if you read between the lines, is more like "please God, let it end."

No, we are in a race in which the polling noise, economic environment and sense of political division all open the door to multiple predictions from state to state. As of this morning, Real Clear Politics showed 11 "toss-up" states - in effect the states that will decide the Presidency.

In such an environment, a candidate needs to make sure their base is sufficiently energized to get out and vote. And, for those few (but potentially decisive) who are waffling or undecided they need to convey a sense of momentum. You will see this from both tickets and their supporters, so see it for what it is.

2. At this stage in the campaign, it sometimes seems like there are as many polls as there are voters. With so many polls coming out, it is important to consider the source, the sample, the methodology and the history of the polling firm.

As noted in earlier posts, Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight blog at the New York Times is a must read. This is especially true if you have an interest in better understanding polling and how one might view the varying results from the different polls out there.

The model used by Mr. Silver doesn't just average out polls, it weights them by taking into account things like methodology and sample, among others. Knowing whether a polling house is more traditionally Republican or Democratic leaning is a variable. Phone versus on-line samples is a variable.  Consistency in terms of results and accuracy is a variable.

All to say, a poll can be commissioned to suggest many things and its results can be read many ways. Also consider the fact that the real polls which actually drive a candidate's behaviour are the ones we never see. Polling is instructive and indicative, no more. 

3. Building on the subject of polls we have another topic that has come up with more frequency over the past week - particularly in relation to the Silver blog. It is the question of probabilities

Sites like Silver's, Real Clear Politics and others are playing in the world of probabilities. The problem is that people tend to gravitate around the numbers they provide at the expense of the story.

If you only took a cursory glance at Five Thirty Eight you would likely look to the right at the forecasts for vote-share and electoral college votes. If you did so, you would miss a regular and frank explanation as to the rationale behind those numbers.

This rationale does not suggest certainty, it suggests probability. Odds, if you will. For this reason, I find aggregators such as this one helpful in cutting through the polling noise and allowing one to make sense of the landscape.

And yet, blogs like Silver's have come under criticism from the right as being biased towards the Democrats. 

The thing is, probabilities which factor in a host of variables are more likely to be accurate than any one poll. This does not mean that the outcome they suggest as probable is a certaintly; it is just to say it is more probable based on the information available.

My take? The criticism of Silver is a case of shoot the messenger. I would wager that the internal polling of the right is aligned with his probable outcomes.

Given the points above about confidence and projecting momentum, if Silver is correct (which I think he is) and influential on the media narrative (which he certainly is), it is natural that the Romney campaign / supporters would come out against him.


Pity the voter who has yet to make up their mind. Between candidate predictions, a plethora of polls and talk about probabilities there is a lot of noise out there. How one hears it can influence how one votes.

Factor in ads and newspaper editorials and it gets noisier. And tomorrow we have the final jobs report before election day.

All of it makes one wonder: who is more eager for November 6th to come and go - the voter or the candidates?  
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