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Discourse And The Damage Done
On Bad Polls And Bad Takes
“Is this guy for real, or is this guy full of shit?”
There are moments we remember distinctly, with a clarity and an ease, and that won’t go away. For me, there are many – blessed (or cursed, depending on your view) with a good memory, I can relive more than I want, for sure – but there’s two that stick with me right now. The first was in Montreal, in January 2013, leaning against the statue in Dorchester Square, a bag of records in my hand, having paid $15 for 5 discs of Springsteen live on vinyl, and feeling a sense of home and belonging that I’ve rarely felt since.
The other was the first time I read Chuck Klosterman, and specifically that quote. Driving out of Philly, down to DC the summer before University, I remember holding a since-lost copy of Klosterman IV in the passenger seat with my mother and reveling in the idea that someone could write that. (I had known who Klosterman was from Bill Simmons’ podcast, but I had never read him.)
That clarity of writing has stuck with me – Klosterman is by miles the writer I owe the most to, in both style and substance – and I’m thinking about it now in the context of 2024 and the writing I want to do next year. But those two moments also remind me of something else – just how fucking fast politics can change.
The day before we left Philly – the day I acquired Klosterman IV, and about 21 hours before that seminal moment, the CBC reported that Stephen Harper would be calling the 2015 election on Sunday or Monday. That night, I remember saying that it would be Tom Mulcair who’d be PM at the end of it, because he was the anti-Harper vote.
11 weeks later I was knocking on doors and voting for the Liberals.
When I was in Montreal, we were three months into the PQ’s (as of now) last term in government, which ended after 18 months, before the party collapsed, and is now on the rise again. Ask 2013 Scrimshaw (or any member of the commentariat in Montreal or Quebec City) what was about to happen and the consensus was that the Liberals were up shit’s creek without a paddle after the decade of corruption, arrogance, and incompetence of Jean Charest. 18 months later they were back in office and the PQ was dying.
Hell, a March 13th, 2014 Leger poll had the CAQ at 14% of the vote. Less than a month later, they got 23% of the vote and helped the Liberals get back to majority government by allowing the Liberals to come up the middle across the province.
The reason I’m thinking of all of this is that the discourse around the polling – both here and down south, not that I’m particularly eager to engage in US poll analysis anytime soon – has lost the plot. With both Trudeau and Biden, the claim the polls are making is robust – if their respective elections were right now, they’d both be fucked. Nobody serious or credible is really arguing that point, and I’m certainly not. But that’s a very different thing than the proclamations about the future.
The pollsters aren’t the problems, it’s the ahistorical and intellectual vapid arguments those using them as evidence of something distinctly other than their purpose that drive me crazy. Would Poilievre’s CPC win 200 seats and Trudeau sub-100 if there was an election this week, as others project? I’m sure that would happen, the people who do this more regularly than me are good at their jobs. But those who take those weekly forecasts as evidence of their predictive brilliance are engaging in a form of revisionism that they’d do well avoid.
Could the polls just continue to suck for the government? Of course, but that’s talked about as a sort of certainty by people who would self-describe as Thinkers, as opposed to a possibility that could go bust. I remember doing a (much more) arrogant version of this in 2020, and I am genuinely embarrassed by how much time I spent taking a victory lap before the game had even been played.
The reason I’m thinking about Montreal in 2013 and Philly in 2015 is that events have the ability to change things greatly. Hell, I can remember the Grade 12 French class I was in when the news of the Ottawa shooting in 2014 broke. Before that morning, nobody thought one of the defining moments of the 2015 election was going to be Justin Trudeau defending Stephen Harper’s anti-terror law, but events dictated.
It is possible the next election has been won and lost already, but the nature of that Tory government (namely, majority or minority) for sure hasn’t been, and yet we have people musing about the Liberals falling precariously with no end in sight as Wynne did. The evidence for the Wynne-ification of the LPC is non-existent, but more importantly not every bad spree of polls is evidence of a repeat of the last thing that happened.
The polls are almost assuredly right. This long, of this much sustained damage to the brand, from this many pollsters, isn’t noise. It’s real. It’s also not nearly the death sentence that so many are acting like. The discourse has become divorced from the reality of what these polls say, and more importantly what they don’t.
The reality of all of this is that there’s no way of knowing how many more capital-E Events will happen before the next election, and without that information it’s impossible to know if the narrative around Trudeau will be desperately clinging on or a fighter back for to protect his legacy. We have no idea whether Gaza will exist in any meaningful form in a month, let alone whether the widely leaked austere 2024 budget will do its job and spur a few rate cuts. We have no idea, and yet we’re addicted to misusing good data for dumb purposes.
The reason I can’t stop thinking of that time on a highway outside of Philadelphia is that this site is undergoing a subtle transition, as I care less about doing horserace coverage where I don’t add much to a different form of utility. I’ll still be here – I get enough value just from getting my thoughts out of my head to make it worthwhile even if nobody read it – but it’ll be different than it was, mostly because I’m not sure how I used it was really ever worth it, in victory or in defeat.
But I’m also thinking of Philadelphia, and Montreal, and a dozen other moments for another, much less existential reason. The reason politics has taken up the place in my life and my mind that it has is its unpredictability. There’s truly nothing better than being completely and utterly unsure of what will happen next, and too many people are seeing a government whose polls sharply and suddenly collapsed and going “welp, next election’s taken care of”, as if there’s no way things could invert again.
And every time I see someone overly confident in their assessment, I find myself reminded of Klosterman, except I’m quite sure they’re full of shit, whether they know it or not.