The problem with political punditry
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It has always been a problem, but it has worsened in this era of social media and 140-character posts.
Far too often, political issues are being covered and commented upon by the media as if politics is a sport. We treat the run-up to an election as if political parties are fighting for playoff positions, hoping to add a few choice left- (or right-) wingers to carry them to victory.
We focus far too much on poll numbers and personalities, and far too little on policies and process. We spend too much time talking about sample sizes and margins of error, and not enough time explaining what is causing voters to feel the way they feel on various issues.
Much of the past year’s coverage and commentary regarding Manitoba politics is a glowing example of the problem. Based almost exclusively on the results of more than a year of quarterly polls by Probe Research, many in the media regard it as a certainty that Wab Kinew’s New Democrats will crush Heather Stefanson’s Progressive Conservatives in the upcoming provincial election — still more than eight months away — and that Dougald Lamont’s Liberals will be hard-pressed to hang on to their three seats.
We’re creating a narrative that the election’s a foregone conclusion, yet ignoring the fact poll respondents are simply asked which political party’s candidate they would “most likely” vote for, “might want to support” or are “leaning toward.” It’s a three-level generic question that doesn’t square with the reality that citizens vote for real candidates with names and qualifications. Indeed, the quality and track record of each candidate is a critical factor in deciding which candidate to vote for.
Even worse, many in the media appear indifferent to the negative impact that the “foregone conclusion” narrative can have on the electoral process. It drives down the willingness of people to run as candidates, to work as volunteers on campaigns, to donate money to campaigns, or to even bother to vote.
After all, what’s the point of investing your time, energy and money in a campaign that, according to pundits, is doomed to fail?
That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s entirely possible the media drumbeat of NDP invincibility inside the Perimeter impacted the outcome of the Fort Whyte byelection last year, and also the Kirkfield Park byelection last month.
Did the NDP’s huge lead in the polls cause Progressive Conservative supporters to conclude there was no point in voting? Did it induce some NDP supporters to believe their votes, money and time were not needed?
The answers to those questions might help explain why the NDP held a 47 to 23 per cent lead over the Tories in southwest Winnipeg at the time of the Fort Whyte byelection, yet the Tory candidate in that byelection (Obby Khan) won with more than 42 per cent of votes cast, and the NDP candidate (Trudy Schroeder) finished third with just 15 per cent.
It might also explain why Logan Oxenham, the defeated NDP candidate in Kirkfield Park, received just 34 per cent of votes cast, despite the NDP holding a commanding 55-27 lead in Winnipeg, according to Probe poll results released the day before that byelection.
Many NDP supporters may have assumed an Oxenham victory was guaranteed and their votes were not needed. It’s also possible many Tory supporters didn’t vote because they believed — incorrectly, as it turned out — PC candidate Kevin Klein had no hope of winning.
Then again, there is the greater likelihood Khan’s and Klein’s experience, qualifications and name recognition played significant roles in their respective byelections’ outcomes. That would further emphasize the need to approach poll numbers derived from generic questions, and commentary based on those numbers, with a degree of caution. Maybe even skepticism.
Those of us who comment on politics, myself included, need to work harder and be more careful in our analysis. We must look beyond the numbers, resist the temptation to treat the upcoming election as a horse race, and provide Manitobans with the information they need in order to make informed decisions about which candidate they will each vote for.