11.30.2013 08:01 PM

In Sunday’s Sun: lies, statistics and polls

Can public opinion polls suppress voter turnout? Of course they can.

Do they? Yes, a lot, a lot.

If a poll shows the electorate evenly split, turnout typically surges — because people feel energized by the notion they might help to cast a pivotal, deciding vote.

On this, studies abound.

In Israel, where tight races are common, a Hebrew University study concluded that “closeness in the division of preferences induces a significant increase in turnout.”

But, not surprisingly, the Israeli study also found that, if a particular political choice is way ahead, there will be “an important decrease in participation” by folks favouring that choice.

“Why bother,” to employ a less academic lexicon. “My vote won’t make a difference. He/she is going to win anyway.” Makes sense, right?

Closer to home, the experts find the same thing. One fairly recent study done for Elections Canada looked at vote rates in Canadian elections, and found that participation has been plummeting since about 1984.

One the biggest reasons for lack of turnout?

“A widespread feeling that political participation is meaningless,” the study found.

Which brings us, in a roundabout kind of way, to last week’s much-watched byelection in Brandon-Souris in Manitoba.

It was much watched because the Manitoba riding had been held by Conservatives for most of the last century. It was much watched because the Liberal party came fourth in the 2011 federal election, with a pitiful 5% of the vote.

And it was much watched because, the day before the vote, an outfit called Forum Research released a poll stating the Liberals had a nearly 30-point lead in the riding.

Thirty points! The resulting big headline in the Winnipeg Free Press: “Liberal candidate holds 29-point lead in Brandon-Souris byelection: Poll.”

Forum’s methods are “amazingly accurate,” said Forum’s media-friendly president, who became quite shy when this writer (a friend of the Liberal candidate, full disclosure) sent him a number of questions about his firm’s methods.

“Amazingly accurate.” That’s what he said.

Except, well, they weren’t. Not in Brandon-Souris; they were a joke. On election night, my Liberal pal lost by less than 400 votes — but, it should be noted, he lost.

About two percentage points separated the Liberal and Conservative candidates. Not 29.

Who paid for that poll, which landed like a bomb in Brandon-Souris, and mere hours before polls were to open? Forum didn’t say. Did the Conservatives? After all, Conservative backroomers are pretty smart, and they know all about the gist of the aforementioned academic studies.

They know that too many Canadians often regard their participation in elections as “meaningless,” and a poll that tells Liberal voters their guy has already won — well, such a poll might certainly have the effect of causing “an important decrease in participation,” to quote the Israelis.

But again, Forum — in other circumstances, always ready to provide a clip to the media — has become a bit less available, post-Brandon. They didn’t respond to my questions by deadline.

Is it important? Yes, actually, it is. Forum is the same polling firm that said the NDP would win a big majority in B.C., Wildrose would do likewise in Alberta and the Parti Quebecois would seize a majority in Quebec.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

None of it would matter if people didn’t pay attention to media polls, and if their behaviour wasn’t affected by polls. But they do, and they are.

In the case of Brandon-Souris — and in the case of B.C., Alberta, Quebec and not a few other cases — I don’t actually blame Forum Research for this appalling situation.

I blame the media (including Sun Media, sometimes) who regurgitate bogus numbers without ever employing their critical faculties.

In Brandon-Souris, we will likely never know if a poll persuaded some folks to stay home. But, based on what the experts say, it seems likely.

If you care about democracy, that should worry you.

A lot.

29 Comments

  1. Mulletaur says:

    In the final days of the 2011 Ontario provincial election, the polls made it look like the Liberals were going to get 60 seats. It was enough to convince a number of swing voters who were already dissatisfied with the government, particularly on the left, to pull away from the Liberals, leaving McGuinty just short of a majority. There are a number of countries which ban polls in the final days of a campaign, but with the advent of social media, not sure how effective this could be.

  2. Steve T says:

    This is dead-on accurate. It’s exactly why, during the 2006 election, the Conservative candidate in my area (Rod Bruinooge) was very quiet when he learned he was actually slightly ahead of the incumbent Liberal, Reg Alcock. Mr. Alcock was busy helping another candidate campaign in another riding, assuming his seat was safe. Bruinooge was happy to let him keep thinking that, as he squeaked towards a victory.

    Even those in the Bruinooge camp realized that, if Alcock had spent more time in his riding and mobilizing his vote, he probably would have won. So, yes, polls (and the public’s knowledge of polls) matters a whole lot.

  3. Robin says:

    During the Calgary Centre by-election the Green Party candidate benefited by a bogus poll that claimed the Green Party candidate was surging ahead with a “Nenshi-like tsunami” of support. This caused many NDP voters to shift their vote to the Green Party candidate with the mistaken belief that he could win. Liberal polling showed their candidate within striking distance of a win which turned out to be true; the close race between the Liberal and Conservative candidate based on the Liberal polling probably resulted in the Liberal vote going up compared to the previous general election and the Conservative candidate getting more votes out; however, the bogus poll by the Green Party may have convinced some NDP voters to switch their vote to the Green Party instead of to the Liberals because they believed the Green candidate had “momentum”. It was false. The Green Party got 25.6%, the Liberals 32.7%, and the Conservatives 36.9. No Green surge, just misguided NDP voters switching to the wrong candidate due to a bogus poll. The NDP got 3.8% compared to 14.9% in the 2012 general election. Polls matter; bogus polls are the instrument of unscrupulous people who believe duping the voters is justified to win. Polls should be outlawed during elections.

  4. Matt says:

    Regarding your thoughts on polls vote suppressing capabilities:

    Wouldn’t the Forum Research poll for Brandon Souris have had that suppressive effect on BOTH Liberal AND Conservative support?

    Liberal supporter – Our guy has a 30 point lead. He’s got this thing wrapped up. No need for me to go vote.

    CPC supporter – Our guy is 30 points down. He’s got no chance. No point in me going to vote.

    It would seem to me the NDP would stand to gain the most from these types of games in that riding.

    • dave says:

      Matt, you may be right.
      But about 20 years ago I was part of the local of a well known(much feared on this comment board) leftie party here in BC. Our riding covers a fair bit of ground on both sides of the Rockies: larger city down there, smaller cities up here. Our candidate and his mandarins came up to get us to do no campaigning in our end of the riding, arguing that we would just rile up the local conservative/reform voters(we have barrels of them here) and increase their vote throughout the riding. On the one hand, \I was irked, and argued against it. But, I could see their point. The idea, then, was to suppress the rightie vote by not campaigning and avoiding awakening them.
      It’s only one example, but it does suggest that it is one way to keep the other guy’s vote down.

      • Wellll… I have trouble believing that a serious campaign anywhere would actually, deliberately not campaign for fear of arousing opposition. Probably the most astonishing comment I have read in many a day. Not a tactic I would reccomend.

  5. Fully agree with Robin. Right now pollsters have unregulated spin power. They can say whatever they are paid to say; they can play God because the Great Unwashed attribute divine wisdom to their paid utterances and the media are only too ready to pump their spectacular messages. How many of us have seen tweets during elections that begin with a breathless “BREAKING: X reports that Libs/Cons/NDP/Greens/BQ ahead by 80%….” Horseshit. Polls should be outlawed once the writ is dropped. Too easy to game the current system.

  6. Mike Sloan says:

    I wish Forum could be reined in a bit, though I have no idea how it would be possible. What he’s doing is discrediting not only polling, but pollsters. Most people who don’t follow politics don’t know one pollster from another.

  7. .. polls (paid for or commissioned by mysterious entities) RULE ..

    That is The News … The Medium is the Massage ….
    McLuhan never said ‘message’ .. he said ‘massage’

    Issues, background, context, fact & consequence etc take far too long to explain, validate
    A six second to read headline ‘talks’ .. and facts walk ..

    If I was running for public office.. that’s where I would spend my budget ..
    Shaped partisan polls, and spoon feeding the so-called ‘results’ to dim lazy media cattle

    ‘Harper Spies and Lies’ is the News in 4 words
    Trudeau ‘takes off shirt for women’ another example .. in 6 words
    but which resonates deeper ???

    .. thus do nine staggering paragraphs re ‘Harper Government subverts Northern Gateway Review’
    escape critical awareness… but Joe Oliver speaks to Petroleum Club in Washington.. scores big time

    Forget ‘Small Government’ .. its the era of Sneaky – word bite denial Government

  8. Bruce Anderson says:

    I’ll bet you that it was an Automated Voice Response poll, the technique responsible for the disasterous BC and AB provincial mis-predictions.

  9. Matt says:

    Isn’t it also a possibility people are simply lying to pollsters about their voting intentions?

    • dave says:

      Hah…we’re all potential cabinet ministers…that’s egalitarian democracy for ya…

    • Steve T says:

      I think this is an excellent idea. Whenever a pollster calls (or you get a robo-call), tell them anyone other than the person you actually intend to vote for. If we can make polls irrelevant, then perhaps campaigns can start being about real issues again.

      • lol, I prefer just to not go on the record with any opinion poll. In other words I ask them politely to go away. When I am telephoned by any political campaign, I just tell them they can count on my support. It gets hectic on e-day with so many peole calling to get my vote out, but I figure they are mis-using the private information they collect, so I am happy to waste their time and money. Plus all the political nonesense I receive in emails etc makes excellent fodder for blog posts, and helps me keep my finger on the pulse of various political actors. Imagine if EVERYBODY told the Conservative canvasser they would vote for them in the next election? The entire Conservative database would have to go in the garbage, and they would get hammered on eday.

  10. steve says:

    Two ethical ways to stick it to the man and let your freak flag fly.

    1) Vote, early and often and tell your friends to get off the couch because its the most important public service most will ever perform
    2) Follow the path below to free unlimited broadband free of government snoops.
    http://thinkingaboot.blogspot.ca/2013/12/the-greatest-thing-ever-to-happen-to.html

  11. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Warren,

    Canada isn’t Ukraine. But we can get riled up — Mulroney’s FTA was a great lesson in democratic expression on both sides. I miss Canadians being so passionate about something that it almost makes them…

    We need more of that going into 2015. As your boss would say, it comes Straight From The Heart. Are Canadians still capable of ignoring the noise generated by polls and acting on emotion, passion and instinct? God, I hope so.

  12. MgS says:

    One comment regarding the last general election in Alberta:

    Yes, the WRP was polling high by all measures. They probably would have won, too…but for a couple of candidates having “bozo eruptions”, and the party leader trying to defend her position by using a very weak libertarian argument.

    The issue there wasn’t the consequences of Forum’s polling model, but rather one of a whole lot of people voting strategically to make sure that the WRP didn’t get elected.

  13. Anita says:

    This is hilarious. A group of us found out about the poll and within the hour we had Harper down from 85 to 43%. Obviously a bigoted paper like that would only be read by HarpCons. A non Con would not be reading that Conservative controlled paper.

  14. Mike Fowler says:

    I believe that publishing of political polls should be outlawed after a writ has been dropped.

  15. steve says:

    Speaking of lies, the biggest of them all is that Conservatives are good financial managers. It was Mulroney not Trudeau who ran up the debt, it was Chretien who pounded it down, and now Harper has blown that decade of hard work.
    http://thinkingaboot.blogspot.ca/2011/06/if-debt-is-so-bad-how-come.html (based upon charts from that liberal fortress the National Post)
    The litany of all governments being penny wise and pound foolish is long, but for pure stupid malice Diefenbaker takes the cake, at least until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets a look in Harper’s closet of horrors.
    http://thinkingaboot.blogspot.ca/2013/12/diefenbaker-worst-pm-ever.html

  16. Mom says:

    Forum calls me all the time with questions about Rob Ford and who would make the best Mayor etc. Doesn’t seem too random to me.

  17. Steve Withers says:

    Elections in Canada give a voter just one vote in just one geographical electorate. A large number of those single electorates almost always vote the same way. A relatively small number are “marginal” ridings. You don’t have to waste your vote (elect non one) too many times before you begin to consider the messy garage is more in need of your time on voting day than an almost certainly futile trip to the polling station.

    I’ve been there. I know that landscape well.

    But now I live in New Zealand. New Zealand changed to a proportional voting system after the 1993 general elections. My vote always counts now toward the party I support. It’s worth voting because my vote DOES have an affect on the outcome.

    Canada needs to adopt proportional representation yesterday. All the talk of political instability about PR is BS. New Zealand has had stable, effective government under a PR voting regime. What New Zealand no longer has is one minority party getting 100% of the power…..which is the chronic, awful state of affairs in most of Canada.

    • steve says:

      Amen, prop vote, runoff or weighted ballot are true democracy, first past the post something the lords invented to keep the peasants at bay. The most successful countries have prop voting, by successful I mean goverment for the people not for the special interests. Germany is number one. Did you know they have a law that every office worker must be able to see the sky from their work station. And for those who don’t know Germany blows the pants off the rest of the world in every category except military power. There are lots of nations with a similar work to live not live to work ethos, but Germany is special because its the third or fourth biggest economy in the world. To top off the achievement imagine how USA would be if they had taken over Mexico a decade ago, well taking over East Germany was a challenge on that scale.

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