Home stretch: still long odds and no sure bets

Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s the Agenda, used these words to preface his assessment of Olivia Chow’s chances:

Every public opinion poll I’ve seen on the Toronto mayor’s race tells me what I’m about to write is ridiculous.”  Paikin, The Agenda.

That was January 27th, a full nine months before the 2014 election.  Chow wasn’t even a candidate yet, at least not officially.  Nevertheless, the media favoured her as witlessly as they now tout John Tory.  They calculated the odds and changed horses mid-race because of the polls, which as I have argued, they persistently misinterpreted.

Back in January, Chow was the presumptive favourite, despite polling only one percent ahead of Ford, 31-30%.  Designating Chow as the “anti-Ford” so early proved unwise, not because she was ever really out of the running, but because she dipped in the polls instead of pulling away, while Tory rose to supplant her over the summer.  Now the media promotes Tory as the chosen one, the only known antidote to a toxic Ford dynasty.

Despite all the dramatic language around the candidates’ changing fortunes in the campaign’s middle months, Chow is only down 8% since the media pegged her to win in January (31-23%), and Ford is up only 3% (30-33%).  To the consternation of the city’s powerbrokers, Tory has only risen 15% over the 8 months since he entered the race (24-39%), even though the headlines declared in late summer that he is the runaway winner in a two-horse race.

Was there any solid evidence, a month ago, that Chow was out of the race and Tory was running away with it?  If so, why are columnists now calling for Chow to quit and transfer her support to Tory?  Why would that be necessary if Tory support is as strong as they’ve reported?

Is it possible that Tory’s support has been inflated by the call for strategic voting, and if so, was it ever certain that Chow couldn’t have bounced back from her summer doldrums and posed a better challenge to Ford than Tory can?  Or has there been a circular poll-based media narrative that has used the polls to influence the polls, artificially depressing the level of Chow support?

Following his caveat about polls, Paikin went on:

And yet, I maintain Olivia Chow will be the underdog in the campaign that will culminate on October 27, 2014.”

As he predicted, she struggled in debates, she had difficulty stepping out of Jack’s shadow to command the spotlight, and though she emphasized how she differed from the other candidates, this didn’t make average Torontonians identify with her.  When she didn’t pull away from the pack, and it became clear that Ford’s support was holding fast, strategic voters followed the media’s cues and lined up behind Tory.

Today, she is the official underdog, as Paikin foresaw.  The same pundits who predicted triumph for her last January have, with the same conviction, based on similar evidence, declared her a non-contender.  In ever less subtle editorials, the media is calling for her to step aside so their prophecy of a Tory triumph can be fulfilled.  So I feel, like Paikin, exposed to ridicule for contradicting poll-based headlines composed by the same journalists who once exaggerated Chow’s electability and now exaggerate Tory’s.

Conventional “wisdom” says that the underdog has little chance of success.  But this isn’t a conventional election.  Underdogs are given an advantage when they’re underestimated.  They’re underdogs, not dead dogs.

That’s why I don’t like the media pressure on Chow supporters to vote for Tory, and on Chow herself to withdraw.  In fact I think it’s reckless of the media to pick winners instead of helping voters make their own decisions.  Voters are being directed by the media to scrub her name off the ballot, just as they scrubbed Soknacki and Stintz before her.  Yet in my view, Chow remains a contender.

Here are some troublesome facts that don’t fit with the media’s Tory-first prophecy:

  • According to the latest polls, Tory support has flattened, Ford is dropping, and Chow is rising.
  • As Ford drops, strategic voting will be less prevalent, and Chow will rise further and faster
  • Reports on voter intention are corrupted by strategic voting, so points 1 and 2 are as uncertain as everything else we think we know about what is going to happen in next week’s election

The point of stating these “facts” is that the pollsters’ trend lines don’t fit all that well with the media’s story line.  Chow is the only candidate on the rise over the last two polls, and there is no rationale for strategic voting once Ford drops below the 34% minimum needed to win in a three-way race.  So the media’s attempt to pre-empt the election with creative polling and propaganda can fail, and fail quickly, just as it failed in the spring when they proclaimed Chow to be the prime contender.

Instead of anointing Tory and discounting Chow, they should let the candidates earn victory on their own merits.  Instead of jigging the poll results to rationalize strategic voting months ago, they should have let the campaign story write itself, leaving voting strategies to the voters at the end of the campaign when, in fact, the voters should be making those decisions.

That’s why I think all bets are off.  The media have invalidated the polls upon which their declarations of candidate electability are based.   John Tory is only the probable winner if you believe media interpretations of polling data about voter intentions.  You only believe polls about voter intentions if you believe that voters have intentions.  But a great many aren’t committed to a candidate anymore, because the media has persuaded them to vote strategically.  Polls about committed voters, based on responses from uncommitted voters in large measure, are no basis for calling an election result when there is only 6% between first and second place, and only 10% between second and third place.

Imagine this:  Ford drops to 25%, sending a signal to nose-holding Tory voters that they can vote their conscience if they would rather back Chow.  This is not hard to imagine given today’s endorsement of Tory by the Toronto Sun, which until now has been the Ford family’s media megaphone.  Once the Ford threat subsides, imagine 10% of soft Tory support sliding away, leaving him at 29%, and Chow at 33%.  Now split the 8% reduction in Ford support (33-25%)  equally between them, because Fordies despise Tory and Chow in equal measure.  This perfectly plausible result would give Chow 37% and Tory 33%.

For the media to say this is impossible, they’d have to be certain that Ford support will rise again in the final week, though there is no evidence for it.  They’d also have to believe that “Anyone-But-Ford” supporters will vote for Tory even after the Ford threat has abated, which makes no sense.  They’d also have to argue that Chow’s slight but consistent rise in popularity won’t continue when anti-Ford votes are released from the pro-Tory corral.

The elegant way to avoid all of these outcomes is for Chow to drop out, which is what the media is gently urging now.  If Tory doesn’t perform as hoped in the next few days, that urging will become more forceful.  I wonder if Steve Paikin saw that in his crystal ball back in January.

This is terrible.  Based on shaky polling and a belief that Mayors are chosen in editorial offices, Chow is being pressured to drop out.  The media seems to believe that the public can’t handle too many choices, and wish to eliminate options that might confuse the outcome.  Voters aren’t to be trusted alone with their consciences in the voting booth.

Why talk about choices between transit systems and financing schemes when the very idea of choice is under siege?  From a five-candidate field, the range of viewpoints has been narrowed by pollsters and columnists to a two horse race, with one overwhelmingly favoured thoroughbred.  A casual media consumer, like the majority of Toronto voters, could be forgiven for believing that there is only one acceptable candidate on the ballot. So why vote?  The only certainty in this election is that half of eligible voters simply won’t bother.

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