05.21.2013 05:29 AM

In Tuesday’s Sun: no longer part of the conversation

After the B.C. fiasco, Canada’s polling industry is — once again — engaged in a painful existential debate about what they do and how they do it.

Because, make no mistake, they were dramatically mistaken about last Tuesday’s British Columbia election result.

Going into the month-long race, every single pollster declared the NDP was far ahead of the governing B.C. Liberals — in some cases by as many as 20 percentage points.

While the gap narrowed during the campaign, not one pollster foresaw a majority Liberal government. Not one.

Gullible pundits (like me) uncritically quoted the pollsters ad nauseum and, accordingly, let our readers down.

For that, we owe you — the reader — a full and sincere apology.

We, and the pollsters, owe you an explanation, too. In the past week, countless column inches have been published about what the reasons might be: Poor methodology, low voter turnout, new polling technology, respondents lying to pollsters about their voting intentions, and so on.

All of those explanations have some merit, but I don’t think they begin to capture the full extent of the problem.

The problem, you see, is the chattering classes have been missing out on a conversation between citizens.

It’s like we’ve been in a different room entirely, while Joe and Jane Frontporch carry on a discussion that does not involve us anymore (or ever did).

In the past two years, it’s happened no less than five times.

Federally, when the tall foreheads did not foresee the once-mighty Liberals sliding to third place, and Jack Layton seizing a strong second in the May 2011 election.

In Alberta just over a year ago, the Angus Reid Group said Wildrose was “poised to make history” and crush Alison Redford’s PCs — when Redford ended up crushing Wildrose and forming another majority government.

In Manitoba, The Globe and Mail declared the May 2011 election would be “the closest in more than a decade” — except it wasn’t, and the New Democrats easily secured a fourth majority term.

In Quebec, the National Post’s pollster, Forum Research, said the day before the September 2012 election that the Parti Quebecois had “a large lead” — even though they didn’t, and the separatists eked out a bare minority, less than a percentage point ahead of the Liberals in popular vote. And now B.C., where every “expert” got it wrong.

What’s happening? My suspicion, increasingly, is that the conventional wisdom is neither. Politicos have grown too reliant on methodologies that are fraught with frailties, and the media have simply gone along.

In the meantime, the public has grown ever more cynical about politicians and reporters, who they see as charter members of the same elite group.

The Occupy Movement, the Tea Party, the Reform Party and successive election results show the public are literally withdrawing from the body politic. Declining voting rates reflect this, of course.

But there’s more to it than that. The commentariat is, more than ever before, wildly out of sync with the public’s real agenda. We profess to know what real people think, but we don’t.

All of this has the potential to reshape politics, if political people are willing to change how they do things, and to reconsider the conventional wisdom.

Until we do, we’re doomed — like the pollsters — to irrelevance.


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    Bill MacLeod says:

    Whoa, big guy!

    I remember the 2011 federal election vividly; mainly because the Liberals imploded and the NDP nearly reached first place with a week to go — according to the pollsters. I think they did remarkably well in such a fluid situation.

    Manitoba’s final vote was 46-44 in favour of the NDP. Pretty much in line with what the pollsters called for.

    The Alberta and BC results were indeed polling mishaps, and I really would like to understand the “whys” of those situations better. As no doubt we all would.

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    JH says:

    I think the methodology used by the Liberals guy in BC seems to make sense. As for the press and pundits, who believe so much in polls – I wonder if they’ve notice the trend there regarding themselves. Not good at all. About on a par with politcians actually according to Mr. & Mrs. Frontporch.

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    Patrice Boivin says:

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/137800.html probably illustrates what you mean

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    Kelly says:

    Big budget media and think tanks use polls to generate fake stories and attempt to INFLUENCE opinion, not measure it. Read Cialdini’s “Influence The Psychology of Persuasion”. Principle 3 is “Social Proof”. In other words, the Herd instinct. People are persuaded by what others think. It’s a very powerful method. Scarcity, Wanting to be liked, reciprocity are some others … We’re social animals.

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    Terraderma says:

    The pollsters did their job and kept all the comfy NDP support home on polling day.

    It’s another play from the Republican handbook.

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      Canada Joe says:

      Or you had a crappy leader, leading a crappy party, filled with crappy ideas that people just didn’t buy. Sometimes the NDP really is a failure, despite what the cultists like to believe.

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    Carmichael says:

    After 15 years or so of experience working for several different pollsters out here I think there are several factors at play.

    One is the dwindling number of landlines, true enough. Another is caller ID, yes.

    Another is that the people who always answer are the most easily confused among us – seniors who more and more are house bound – and the urban lonely who are just dying to talk to anybody about anything. They will work at keeping a pollster on the line for just a few more minutes of a human voice.

    Dozens of times I have seen results of questions about favourite department stores return significant percentages of mentions of stores that no longer exist. Eatons and Woodwards primarily.

    Also dozens of times I have seen significant percentages of people (in all demos) being unclear about who’s a provincial pol and who’s national. Ditto on political parties.

    Canadians, or at least those in the Metro Vancouver area, are not terribly well informed. Partly this is piss poor news media out here and partly it’s an apathetic population. But that doesn’t stop them from having an opinion and very often they’ll tell you all about it ad nauseum. I even postulated a theory once that the more uninformed the respondent the more likely they were to have an opinion that they insisted on telling the pollster in detail.

    About 10 years ago Angus Reid published a piece about the crisis he saw coming in polling and market research. He doesn’t talk about it any more.

    But if I were an executive of a major corporation using these same polling companies to do my market research I would be calling them in for some very serious discussions. The major question would be why should we be paying you to conduct very important research for us. Maybe the problem has been the market research company and not the market.

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