by Ken Feltman with Louis-Lyonel Voiron
Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.
– Niels Bohr
If I do not say something about Casey Stengel, the New York Yankees’ quotable baseball manager, I will get email and phone calls telling me that Stengel said what I have just credited to Niels Bohr. A Nobel Prize winning Danish physicist, Bohr said it before Stengel became known for whacky statements with a ring of truth imbedded.
Stengel could have come up with the same thought on his own. Stengel was not known as a student of physics, but Bohr’s writings and theories were in the news during Stengel’s heyday and it is likely that Stengel encountered Bohr’s statement and had it lodged somewhere in the back of his mind. Most baseball writers tend to avoid quantum mechanics, which devotes little attention to what makes a baseball curve, so no one noticed that Stengel recycled the quote.
Did Stengel get the credit because more people follow baseball than physics? Actually, Scandinavians may miss out on a lot of fame. Columbus discovered America, right? Well, what about those Vikings in Newfoundland? They were first but Columbus made the first effective discovery of America, just as Stengel uttered the quote in a more memorable way. Maybe the Scandinavians should get a PR guy.
Whoever gets credit, that quote sums up the problem pollsters and pundits have when predicting elections. It is why they hedge their predictions with, “If the election were held today.” Let me cite that hedge and tell you that two improbable things are happening, if we are to believe Radnor’s Conflict Index.
First, Radnor’s Conflict Index predicts when a government or official is likely to lose power in the next election. How does the Conflict Index work? We measure the differences in attitudes between the stated positions of the governing officials and the voters. When the gap between approval of the governing officials’ programs and policies becomes too distant from the attitudes of the voters, the governing class is in trouble: The voters seek change.
Here is what the Conflict Index shows in the United Kingdom: After being counted out for months and months, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown may slip through to a narrow victory. Radnor’s research on the election (which is expected to be called for early May) shows that Brown can eke out a small margin that will allow him to form a government and continue at 10 Downing Street – even though it appears that his Labour Party will trail the Conservatives in total votes. The governing margin will come in the distribution of votes in key constituencies and in the election of minority party members of Parliament who are likely to cut a deal with Labour in exchange for legislative favors and positions in the new government.
Candidates supporting Brown will win narrow victories in crucial areas and the Conservative opposition will pile up the votes in other areas. The United Kingdom does not apportion voters on the one-man, one vote rule. Some constituencies have outsized populations. Others have remained relatively small over the centuries. Brown’s Labour Party is positioned to take advantage.
Due to a combination of the “first past the post” (plurality wins with no run off) election system and the way constituencies are drawn, Labour wins more seats than its share of the popular vote would entitle it to (36.4% of the vote but 57% of the seats in the 2005 election) while the Liberal Democrats have far fewer (23% of the votes but 10% of the seats in 2005), and the Conservatives are more or less even. So the election rules tilt to Labour.
Beside that, the prime minister remains in office after an election until resigning or being forced out through a vote of no confidence. This gives Brown a significant advantage. While retaining power, he will be able to negotiate with the leading third party, the Liberal Democrats, and other minor parties.
Heading for a hung parliament
Radnor’s analysis of polling data suggests that Labour will win over 310 seats (326 are a majority) and 32 percent of the total vote. The Conservatives will win 277 seats and 38 percent. The Liberal Democrats will win 69 seats and 22 percent. Then, Brown will start dealing to secure enough minority support to form a government and continue as prime minister. The drama will be over which party he cuts a deal with or whether the Tories cut a deal with the Liberal Democrats to oust Brown.
Last year, based on what we were seeing in the Conflict Index, Radnor made a counter-intuitive prediction to our clients: “Brown will be battered before the election but when it is over, Brown may well form the next government. His margin in Commons will be reduced below majority and the Liberal Democrats will be tempted to join the Tories to resolve the hung Parliament. In the end, the greater affinity of LD policies with Labour will keep Brown at No. 10 and make Nick Clegg (the LD leader) a very popular man. If Clegg goes through with his pledge not to share power with Labour, Brown will form a governing coalition with – of all parties – the Tories. Brown wants to stay in power. The Conservatives will be left to try to figure out how a splendid opportunity went sour.”
Brown is not liked (although he has been rising in popularity lately) but rank-and-file Labour candidates are often better liked than their opponents. In the past, voters seemed to dismiss their fondness for their local candidate and focus on the prime minister that their local candidate would support if elected. With mass communications and more visibility for members of Parliament in their constituencies, more voters are basing their vote on their local candidate. This trend is sometimes called the “Americanization of British politics.” Whatever it is called, it helps Brown.
The devil they know is better than the devil they do not know
Conservative Party Leader David Cameron is more popular than Brown but local Conservative candidates are viewed less favorably. The Tories have run a disjointed, confused campaign. Voters find more than a few of the Conservatives too extreme. In the end, then, British voters seem to be saying that they will tolerate a prime minister that they do not really like rather than a prime minister heading a “too-conservative” government.
The second major finding of the Conflict Index comes in the United States, again with a caveat: If the November elections were held today (actually March 11), the Democrats would lose control of the House but retain control of the Senate with a reduced margin. The House would have a slim Republican majority. That majority would soon split into factions, as the Democrats did when they regained control.
President Obama’s popularity has been severely damaged. He has fallen further in the Conflict Index than in polls (such as Gallup) that measure his job approval. The reason: The Conflict Index concentrates on issues and the voters’ positions on the issues compared with where the voters believe that the president stands. Voters disagree with what they perceive as Obama’s position – or his actions – on five out of seven issues we tested March 11 (healthcare, the economy, jobs, energy, terrorism). They agree on Iraq/Afghanistan and Middle East policy. The situation for the president gets worse if we include immigration (last tested February 18). Voters are not certain where Obama stands on education but he stressed education in his regular Saturday message of March 13 so that issue will come into focus as the voters learn what Obama plans.
When we ask about his personal qualities, Obama sinks. Voters no longer believe that Obama understands their problems. They see him as aloof, telling them what they need, not listening to their concerns. They are frustrated. They are angry. They come right out and say that they will take out their feelings on incumbents and, especially, Democrats in November.
The voters’ attitudes are almost strictly a result of Obama’s single-minded pursuit of a legislative goal that the public no longer thinks deserves this much attention. The voters have elevated other issues as healthcare reform has bogged down in process.
Process is usually ugly. It has become especially ugly with healthcare. Obama recognizes that and tries, through speeches, to return to campaign-like themes. But the public has stopped listening. People have their own priorities – jobs and the economy – and are beginning to voice concern that Obama continues to focus on healthcare because he does not know what to do about jobs and the economy.
That judgment, still in formation, may seem to be a severe indictment of the president. In fact, it may suggest that by changing his legislative focus, Obama can improve his standing markedly.