I am hardly the first person to comment that the number of public opinion polls that have flooded the Canadian political landscape in the last five years has created a noise that is often deafening to political discourse in this country. But the number of polls is not all bad; when you get this many data points, you can start drawing longer term conclusions that can often be illuminating.
I thought of this as I read through story after story this week about how the Liberal Party has been the beneficiary of a " Bob Rae bounce" when we reached the lofty 21 per cent support mark.
We're "gaining" on our opponents, screams another pollster, as we hit 22 per cent. Finally, we're " gaining steam," screamed a third story, on a third poll in the last 4 days, as we hit 25 per cent. The party ranged in support this week from 21 to 25 per cent – so is that really a bounce?
Thanks to polling archives, we can put the "Bob Rae" bounce into recent historical context:
From the time Stéphane Dion became leader of the Liberal Party in December 2006 until the writ was dropped on the 2008 election, I count 104 public polls that were released with horse-race numbers.
The range of support that the Liberal Party received in that time ranged from a high of 37 per cent to a low of 22 per cent.
The straight, non-weighted average support that Mr. Dion received in all of those polls was 31 per cent.
It should be noted that in 102 of the 104 polls, Mr. Dion received 26 per cent support or higher. In other words, if this week's polls had been released while Mr. Dion was leader (outside of the writ), they would have contained both the worst poll he ever received (the poll with the Liberals at 21 per cent) and three of the four worst polls of his leadership.
Even if you extend the analysis to Mr. Dion's writ period, he only received one poll that had the Liberals at 21 per cent. It goes without saying that Mr. Dion had these polling numbers while being subjected to a multi-million dollar negative advertising campaign.
From the time Michael Ignatieff became interim leader of the Liberal Party in December 2008 until the writ was dropped on the 2011 election, I count a staggering 202 public polls that were released with horse-race numbers.
The range of support that the Liberal Party received in that time ranged from a high of 37 per cent to a low of 21 per cent.
The straight, non-weighted average support that Mr. Ignatieff received in all of those polls was 29 per cent.
It should be noted that in 194 of the 202 polls (96 per cent of the time), Mr. Ignatieff received 25 per cent support or higher. He received 26 per cent or higher in 186 of the 202 polls (92 per cent of the time).
Again, if you were to include all of this week's polls into Mr. Ignatieff's sample, one of them would tie for the worst result he ever received outside of the writ period and all of them would rank in the bottom five percent of his results, and two of them would have ranked in the bottom four of all his results . And like Mr. Dion, Mr. Ignatieff's results were realized in the context of a multi-million dollar negative campaign.
Which brings me to our current interim leader. Let me be clear, I think our interim leader is doing a fine job. He's a wonderful performer and is clearly working hard in the job. The flip side is he's being compared to Nycole Turmel at the moment, and with all respect to the National Citizen's Coalition YouTube ad and the lame press release the Conservatives put out the day of the Liberal convention, Mr. Rae is getting a free ride from the opposition in terms of attacks.
So Mr. Rae is a talented guy who couldn't have received any more positive air time around the Liberal convention and he's operating in a total political bubble that will not be here (a) as soon as the NDP has a permanent leader; and (b) as soon as the Liberals choose a permanent leader and the Conservatives (and likely the NDP) launch a full-frontal assault on them. Yet our current polling results are worse than anything Mr. Dion or Mr. Ignatieff delivered outside of the writ period and neither them had the political advantages Mr. Rae currently has.
There's no doubt our numbers are up from last May's election result. I'm no statistics talking guy, but based on the 400-plus polls from the last five years, this uptick looks more than anything like a regression towards the mean than a true change in fortune.
The way I read it, the Liberal Party is benefiting from a dead cat bounce in the post-May election. The party is helped, no doubt, by the NDP's current struggles and the Conservatives' customary dip outside of election (read: heavy advertising) periods, but statistically you would expect this uptick just based on past history more than anything else.
So go ahead Liberals, celebrate these numbers if you want. I'm just not sure that these numbers mean a whole lot given we are nowhere near an election, we still need to choose a permanent leader, recast our policy direction and our opponents are nowhere near where they will be by 2015.
But leaving all of that aside, this week's numbers, meaningless as they may be, should tell Liberals just how far we still have to go, rather than be reason for celebration.