South Stormont, ON – There are many major players in the current political battle and most are well known.
There is Stephen Harper, the would-be benevolent patriarch, Michael Ignatieff , the “David” to Harper’s “Goliath” fighting insurmountable polling numbers, Jack Layton, the underdog that makes bold speaches and gestures with no fear of reprisal and of course Gilles Duceppe, the little boy on the balcony shouting out that the emperor has no clothes. These characters are well known and they seem to exist on their own, however what many fail to see is that they do not.
There is a fifth character in the mix. A hidden player that is more insidious than a tyrant, an outmatched soldier, an underdog or a
forthright boy. I of course refer to the polls. Particularly the Nanos polls. These figures are seemingly at odds with the running narrative so far in that they don’t seem to reflect what is transpiring. This should be no surprise since they have been showing roughly the same 10 point lead that Harper enjoys over Ignatieff for the past year.
No matter what scandal that befalls the Conservative brand, and recently it seems that they can’t go three days without another, the poll numbers show the same incessant 10 point lead. Only very rarely do they depart from this pattern.
Some would say that this means nothing matters. No matter what this incumbent does or fails to do will affect public opinion. No matter what Ignatieff says, or how many hearts he touches with his social conscience appeal, no matter how many pie-in-the-sky plans that Layton throws out there or how many barbs from the cheeky bullfighter himself, Gilles Duceppe sticks into the Conservative rumps, the numbers never seem to change.
How is this possible? The secret lies in the structure of these numbers. The most oft-quoted poll shows a 10 point lead and is measured from “decided” voters. On the face of things, this makes sense. You don’t want opinions from people who have none, after all, but wait a minute!
Elizabeth May pointed out , quite rightly, in an interview on CPAC that the only polling numbers that outnumber the enormous decided and voting supporters is, gasp, the undecided non-voter! She’s counting on the masses to elevate themselves off of the couch, hop in their infernal combustion machines and head to the only poll that counts; the election booth.
Is she correct? She’s not the first political actor to make such an assertion. Even John Diefenbaker once mused that polls “…are only useful for dogs to relieve themselves on…” So? Is there an untapped reservoir of support just waiting to be released like some wellspring that will topple ancient power structures? Probably not. There’s a reason they didn’t vote. They just don’t care that much or were just not engaged.
Last election, Harper took Stephane Dion out to the proverbial woodshed amidst the worst voter turnout in the history of Canadian politics. He did so almost completely by virtue of the fact that the centrist vote stayed home and a right-wing base showed up. The liberal leaning youth vote basically turned off, tuned out and sat around at home on election night, presumably socially networking with other non-voters.
But wait a minute! Did we not just experience a singularly transformative event in political history? Did the Americans not just elect the first African American President almost completely under the power of Facebook and Twitter? Aren’t we in the new era of democracy by data-stream? If so, then the parties that have taken that election seriously may have an inside edge. The Liberal engine seems to be well adapted already, pumping out daily election videos, briefings, organizational meetings and live web conferences discussing policy and strategy.
The NDP are no slouches either with lost of web and television ads that show excellent production value. The Conservatives are decidedly a little slower to take to this media. Their most recent ad was a widely ridiculed knock-off of the American Tim Pawlenty TV ad that had more to do with making people woozey than it did about substance.
Ottawa incumbent and House Leader John Baird, for example had up until recently, a paltry 50 friends on facebook. 50 friends? A Luddite grandmother has more facebook friends! In fact the most notorious use of facebook the Conservatives have so far is for vetting people out of their campaign rallies by lurking the photo sections of it’s members.
That may not engage the youth as they would like.
Perhaps the new media will make a difference, perhaps not. Perhaps the polls are right and nothing will change. It’s impossible to truly say however one thing is for sure, if a large number of previously disengaged voters show up on election day, polls won’t matter. The only useful poll that night will be an exit poll.