A Pollster Finally Gets It Right

We see chaos, Nik Nanos sees trends.

Mr Nanos heads up Nanos Research, a leading Canadian research company and official pollster for CTV News, the Globe and Mail, and Bloomberg News.  Last week he spoke at the Merv Leitch Lectures Series sponsored by the University of Calgary.

His topic—politics in the age of voter rage and the tyranny of small swings in public opinion—was a wake-up call for anyone concerned about the impact of populism on the democratic process.

Mr Nanos described three trends; all are troubling and one is downright dystopian.

NOTE:  the comments in italics are Ms Soapbox’s reflections on Mr Nanos’ speech. .        

“the angry tail”

Brexit and Trump demonstrate the obvious:  social and economic change make people angry.  Angry people will support politicians who say the system failed you, the “unholy alliance” of lobbyists, politicians, and bankers and “others” who don’t look like you are to blame, and only I, an outsider, can fix it.


Mr Nik Nanos

A small margin of voters—Mr Nanos calls them “the angry tail” wagging the democratic dog—can have a disproportionate impact on an election.  A politician who persuades 5% of the voters to switch their vote creates a 10% swing in his favour.  (Trump would have been just a bad dream if 60,000 voters switched to Hillary).

The angry tail can mobilize behind any politician who portrays himself as anti-Establishment.  Right leaning, beer drinking, cigarette smoking Nigel Farage attacked David Cameron’s integrity.  Left-leaning former bookseller Martin Shulz attacks Angela Merkel for being too cozy Trump who’s anti-democratic and anti-Europe.

Canadians are not immune to populist politicians, particularly when they feel uncertain about the future.

Conservative politicians across Canada are working hard to mobilize “the angry tail”. 

Kellie Leitch has been endorsed by white supremacists and attended (unintentionally) an event sponsored by an anti-Muslim group, Kevin O’Leary plans to eject asylum-seekers by running roughshod over their Constitutional right to due process and Brad Trost doubled down on his discomfort with “the whole gay thing”. 

Here in Alberta Jason Kenney doesn’t step up to a microphone without his “Alberta is a disaster” talking points and says it’s okay to out students who join Gay-Straight Alliances if the decision is left in the hands of a teacher who can’t possibly know how the family will react.

Education and fake news

Mr Nanos says exit poll data following Brexit and the US election suggest educational attainment may be more useful than income level in predicting voter support for the Establishment—voters with higher levels of education are more likely to vote in favour of the Establishment than those with lower educational levels.

Yes, this is a blanket statement; we all have highly educated friends who supported Trump because he was better than the status quo.  Nevertheless, it is a statistical trend that can’t be ignored.     

Mr Nanos says fake news blurred the distinction between fact, opinion, and misinformation.  Main stream media exacerbated the problem by, for example, interviewing “Leave” supporters in front of a bus emblazoned with false slogans promising to fund the NHS with the £350 million a week saved by withdrawing from the EU.

Mr Nanos reminds us that populist leaders are showboats.  Trump was a regular fixture in the wrestling world (he owned WWE Raw).  In Trump’s mind inciting a crowd to chant “lock her up” was like yelling “kill him” at the bad guy in a wrestling match.

Mr Nanos says Trump’s detractors took him literally but not seriously whereas his supporters took him seriously but not literally.

Ms Soapbox agrees that populist leaders like to reduce politics to a battle between good and evil but thinks this assessment is too glib.  Trump treated “lock her up” as a chant, but he’s treating “build that wall” as a promise.     

The bots

Invoking dystopian movies where humans fight for survival against “bots”, Mr Nanos explains how political bots impact democracy by distorting the news and public opinion.

Fifty-two percent of all traffic on the internet in 2016 was not human.  One-fifth of Hillary’s supporters and one-third of Trump’s supporters were bots.  Trump’s bots responded to CNN polls after each debate and skewed the results so Trump could say he’d won.

Public opinion is shaped by the news media, which in times of limited resources relies heavily on social media to identify trending issues.  Lord only knows how much damage the fake pizzagate/child sex ring stories inflicted on Hillary Clinton’s campaign.   

Some parting thoughts

Mr Nanos says unless we address the fundamental problems of income inequality and the lack of access to education and a living wage, populist politicians will continue to whip up support through xenophobia, racism, and sexism.

 Mr Nanos identified some disturbing trends which make it more difficult to make an informed decision about political candidates and what they stand for.   

Perhaps the best way to move ahead is to ask yourself: is the candidate asking me to choose between fiscal conservatism and human rights?

If so, choose human rights.

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14 Responses to A Pollster Finally Gets It Right

  1. C. Hunt says:

    Mr. Nanos should clear-up some questions about who answers his polls. I always hang up on telephone calls because I have no idea who is phoning or why, and sometimes respond to on-line surveys about an issue that I want to influence, usually expressing a ‘slight’ bias. Many surveys have leading or convoluted questions that can be used to confuse the public or contort the answers. Electoral reform survey comes to mind.
    Scientific polls might be right 19 times out of 20 but we don’t quite know who answered the questions and most of the election predictions seem to change a few days before we vote. How does this influence the outcome?
    Maybe we could stop the “angry tail” by electoral reform with proportional representation of voters and a few other democratic initiatives that might reduce corporate influence before elections and political decisions, after the election.

    • C Hunt: you make an excellent point about stopping the “angry tail” by moving to proportional representation. Mr Nanos said the “angry tail” has the greatest impact in FPTP jurisdictions but noted that it can have an impact (to a lesser degree) in proportional representation jurisdictions because it influences the dialogue by making an issue seem more weighty than it really is. A good example would be the conservative leaders characterizing the asylum-seekers as a “flood” when it’s anything but that.

  2. Ed Henderson says:

    I think 90% of Canadian voters don’t think about who they are voting for in their constituency, they only think about how mad they are at some political party. That’s exactly what the political parties want.

    • CuJo Calgary says:

      Which is precisely why the easiest and cheapest electoral reform we can enact would be to remove party labels from our ballot. People would have to do at least of modicum of research prior to heading to the polling station.

      • CuJo: you’re absolutely right. I’ve never understood why anyone would cast a ballot for a candidate without having a good idea of whether he’s capable of representing his riding. And yet it happened for decades in Alberta. People used to say Albertans will elect a bale of hay if it was decked out with a PC logo. I wonder whether the Wildrose/Kenney merger talks are going to make Albertans think about what they want in a political party or whether it will all boil down to a merge-so-we-can-get-back-into-power decision.

    • Ed: I hope the percentage isn’t as high as 90% but I agree with your comment. Political parties love angry supporters, they’ll believe anything.

  3. John Irvin says:

    Insightful analysis.

  4. Gary Beaton says:

    The fact that “the fundamental problems of income inequality and the lack of access to education and a living wage” was ignored by political elites is exactly how Trump came to be president. He is hardly in the “populist politicans” club – he after all ran his campaign as an outsider and his inability to get Republicans to repeal Obama is further proof. The emergence of Bernie Sanders to threaten the planned coronation of the unlikable Hilary Clinton as the Democratic nominee is further proof.
    You have also confused the terms fiscal conservative with political conservative they are not synonymous. The juxtaposition of “fiscal conservative” and “human rights” is not a proposition I would want to set to voters because they are not and never should be mutually exclusive.

  5. Gary, Nik Nanos puts Trump squarely in the populist politicians club. He said Trump was in a win-win situation with his attempt to repeal Obamacare. If the repeal went through Trump won by delivering on his promise, if the repeal failed Trump won because he could say the Establishment was even tougher than he expected.
    You’re right that a “fiscal conservative” is not necessarily a “social conservative”, however Jason Kenney is framing the choice as one between a fiscally conservative party (him) and a fiscally irresponsible party (the NDP). He refuses to discuss social issues saying they’re irrelevant, but his stance on outing kids who join GSAs shines on a light on how he views members of the LBGTQ community (he’s prepared to violate their rights to security and privacy). Voters need to assess where a fiscally conservative candidate stands on human rights and make their decision accordingly. Another way of saying it would be: if you’re asked to choose between (1) a candidate who is fiscally conservative and socially conservative, or (2) a candidate who is fiscally conservative and socially progressive, or (3) a candidate who is not fiscally conservative but is socially progressive, choose socially progressive.

  6. Carlos Beca says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Nanos I do not trust polls with the 19 out of 20 that they advertise. Polls have been very wrong in the last few years and it is easy to understand why. First of all most people today do not take polls seriously. Furthermore, most polls do not allow for intelligent answers so people that really care about the country and its people do not make an effort to use polls.

    ‘Brexit and Trump demonstrate the obvious: social and economic change make people angry. Angry people will support politicians who say the system failed you, the “unholy alliance” of lobbyists, politicians, and bankers and “others” who don’t look like you are to blame, and only I, an outsider, can fix it.’

    This is totally incorrect in my opinion. It is not change that makes people angry. Change is part of life and most people try to deal with it the best they can. The problem is how change is dealt with at the government level. For years we have been lied to constantly including Justin Trudeau that to me just is the worst I have seen in the last 2 decades. The cynicism of this man is mind boggling. He has been able to outdo every predecessor and created a new genre out of it. He was able to create some of the most beautiful and convincing backgrounds to his story to make it 3D.
    We bailed out the banks in 2008 and now they harass us at every opportunity. The government covered up the bailout by saying that they just exchanged our money for resources that the banks owned, but they forgot to explain that those resources was stuff the banks did not know what to do with and passed it to us, like bad investments. So they not only got the money but cleared their bad portfolios. This is what makes people angry. The use and abuse of the common good for the benefit of those that subsidize their election dreams.
    So the premise that people get angry because of change to me is wrong. It is actually the lobbyists, the bankers, the politicians and media that pushed us to where we are. People are angry at that. People are tired of being taken in by dishonest politicians. People are tired of witnessing the destruction of our democracy for the benefit of the rich elites that have no limits to their greed.

    If any of what I said is not true – please anybody tell me and explain to me why it is not true. It seems that we cannot even talk about it because somehow we are stuck in a total disgraceful situation and our democratic process does not help anymore because liars like Kevin O’Leary, Trump and others, somehow manipulate us in continuing this self destructive process.

    I better leave it at this. I already need a pill to calm my nerves just talking about it.

  7. Carlos, Nanos said “the angry tail” thinks the lobbyists, bankers and politicians created this mess and big-corporate media made it worse. I think “the angry tail” is right about that (as long as we don’t clump all politicians in with the bad politicians). What I have trouble with is why “the angry tail” turns its anger on minorities/women/others instead of on the lobbyists, bankers and politicians who created the mess in the first place. If they did they would not have elected Trump.
    I see this less as a problem adjusting to change and more as a problem of coming to grips with the reality that not everyone is going to be rich, but everyone can have a good quality of life if key services were properly funded (fair taxes) and delivered by the public sector. This requires regular people to drop the ridiculous dream that if they elect Donald Trump they will be as rich as Donald Trump; and Donald Trump (and the lobbyists, bankers and politicians) to realize the government needs to raise taxes on the rich, plug tax loopholes, take big money out of politics and take back government services like healthcare and education from the private sector. I don’t think the US can get itself out of the hole it’s dug for itself. I just hope Canada doesn’t hop in and join them.

  8. Carlos Beca says:

    Well I do not like to generalize either but I do take seriously that when something is brought to the house and MPs noisily support it, just because they are afraid of party rules, constitutes an agreement and so I put them all in the same bag. The excuse that I was under orders no longer excuses them from the responsibility they have as representatives.

    I do believe in good politicians and as far as I know I like this one.


    I still trust Elizabeth May

    • Carlos, I too trust Elizabeth. The leader of the provincial Greens, Janet Keeping, demonstrates the same high levels of integrity and dedication. People like May and Keeping represent politicians at their best.
      I have a lot of respect for Rachel Notley as well. She’s doing an amazing job considering the mess she inherited and the barrage of ill-informed abuse she has to put up with.

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