Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reflections on Helen Clark

I hadn't said anything about the 2008 electoral campaign because I regarded the result as a foregone conclusion and couldn't wait for it to be over. Labour had contracted a terminal case of Howard's disease (i.e. it had run dry of ideas) and the numerous sagas since then (the Owen Glenn affair, the secret taping of the Nats, Mike Williams desperate dash to Oz to find dirt on John Key etc.) only reinforced my conviction that this was a government in need of humane slaughter. The election was always going to be the end of an era and I think Helen Clark had foreseen this given her decision to step down as Party Leader during her concession speech. Her announcement was dramatic but really unsurprising. There's no way after nine years in power that she could seriously expected the public to reconsider re-electing her in the future.

While Clark has been a very capable prime minister (in terms of effectiveness, she's well ahead of Jim Bolger and leaves David Lange on the starting line), I didn't like many of her policies and I never liked her style. Her problems with the truth (e.g. leaking false information in the Peter Doone affair, signing paintings she hadn't painted and then passing them off as hers, claiming she hadn't noticed how fast she was going in the speeding convoy) were bad enough but coupled with repellant rhetoric (describing Don Brash as "cancerous", saying that Fiji would become a "leper" and most recently claiming that John Key was on the verge of crying during the first leader's debate) she needlessly created division during her administration.

Clark was noted for keeping a large number of useless ministers on in cabinet well after most managers would have cut them loose. However her one error, I believe, in the recent parliamentary term was her inability to deal with Michael Cullen, a titan in her cabinet who was content to consider that being in a minority of one about his policies was "a comfortable working majority" (originally applied by Gerald Hensley to Robert Muldoon). His attitude towards tax cuts had almost cost Labour the 2005 election and she would have well-advised to kick him upstairs during the last term. But for some reason, she didn't remove Cullen from the financial portfolio whereas Jim Bolger could remove Ruth Richardson after the 1993 election. By the time Cullen was made to offer something substantial this year, the phone was off the hook and Clark's tumble from power was inevitable.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The US Elections: the Polls

In recent weeks virtually every single poll has put Barack Obama in the lead (there was a poll that said otherwise but that turned out to be Zogby playing with himself the numbers). Yet somehow I can't help feeling that there's something seriously wrong about the opinion poll results. I'm not doing this out of a deluded hope that John McCain will win the election - to prepare myself for his loss I've engaged in certain exercises (fetal crouches and thumb suckings).

The source of my discontent is that in 1992, Bill Clinton rode as high as a 20% poll lead over the Elder Bush before falling back to a respectable 6%. He did this by running on a platform of "It's the economy, stupid" in a recession. Barack Obama has been the beneficiary of a meltdown on Wall Street. Things are so bad that if a lynch mob were given the choice between Barack and a Wall Street Banker, they would hang the Banker without hesitation. Yet Barack has never gotten anything like Clinton's lead in the opinion polls. Coupled with other factoids such as the Vice-Presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden pulled 75 million viewers whereas Barack Obama could only pull a third of that for his informercial and my feeling is that the pollsters are getting a distorted impression of the mood due to the recent Wall Street calamity.

I'm not going to engage in an detailed analysis of the polls as it will quickly degenerate into something less informative than a gaggle of Haruspices arguing about the state of a liver. Nor can I plausibly argue that all the polling companies are shilling for Barack because even the Republican polls is saying pretty much the same thing.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the polling is capturing Barack's support accurately but underreporting McCain's support in the countryside. This is because polling companies in order to cut costs produce a representative sample by conducting polls in the easy-to-reach big cities and adjust the results using the smaller sample of the harder-to-reach areas such as the countryside to arrive at a reasonable approximation of the sampling population as a whole. This corner cutting is legitimate and it works and the polling companies would go out of business if they didn't.

However this corner cutting can produce misleading results from time to time. For example Tom Bradley failed to become Governor of California not because moderate democrats were lying to the pollsters about their willingness to vote for a black but because there was an anti-gun proposition on the ballot. The NRA sounded the duelling banjos to defeat it and the unanticipated extra voters voted against Bradley for good measure because he had supported the proposition.

Does this effect significantly distort the poll results? I don't know. If it did, will it be large enough for McCain to win the election? I really don't know. All I can do is wait...