What Do We Learn From Polls?

Pollsters are paid by corporations and political parties to discern customer tastes or voter preferences. It can be well-paid work.

The marvelous part is that there is rarely any way to know whether they are right or wrong. If a marketing campaign based on the poll results is unsuccessful, it must have been the campaign that was flawed.

Perhaps the client asked the wrong question. Pepsi easily beats Coke in blind taste tests. In 1985, Coke changed its formula to taste more like Pepsi and launched “New Coke” with much fanfare. Customers rebelled. Coke beat a hasty retreat, and held on to their superior market share. Apparently something other than taste drives customer preference in colas.

Likewise, political polls between elections always make for an interesting news story. Pundits weigh in on the significance of small movements, and what the parties should be doing to improve their position. These polls are usually unreliable as predictors of an actual vote, but that doesn’t seem to matter – pollsters sell their work and news agencies buy it.

The one time that pollsters go under the microscope is when their results are published shortly before an actual vote. The result in the recent British Columbia election thoroughly embarrassed them, not for the first time.

Recent elections saw them wrongly predict a Wild Rose victory in Alberta, widely underestimate Liberal strength in Quebec’s provincial election, and completely miss the federal NDP surge in Quebec.

In BC, Angus Reid told us in April that 67% of voters disapproved of Premier Christy Clark and only 25% approved. NDP leader Adrian Dix had 49% approving and 40% disapproving.

Pollsters (a total of nine) reported a narrowing of the big NDP lead about a week before the vote on May 14, but subsequently released results showing the gap widening again. In fact, the Liberals won a substantial majority.

Pollsters and pundits have offered various theories to explain the outcome. It has been asserted that this proved that negative advertising works, that the NDP’s “flip-flop” on the Kinder Morgan pipeline was the turning point, that the low voter turnout was key (though it was actually 1% higher than the 2009 vote), and that the Liberals did a better job of getting their vote out.

Most interesting of all are those who have tried to explain why there was a late Liberal surge. This of course assumes that the pre-election polls were right when they demonstrably were not.

The most honest and humble reflection came from Eric Grenier. He is an aggregator of all polling results. Because he is not affiliated with any one of them he can be more forthright about their problems.

If an aggregation of polls involving many thousands of voters can be clearly wrong, within days of an actual vote, what does that say about the polls we read about when elections are distant?

The best known political poll in Nova Scotia is that done quarterly by Corporate Research Associates. The most recent results, released on March 6th, were based on 801 phone interviews. And the winner was… undecided.

Of those that made a choice, 162 supported the Liberals, 133 supported the NDP, and 100 supported the Progressive Conservatives.

The number that deserves attention is the 384 who chose not to express a preference, more than double the number supporting any party.

It suggests that, although there are a lot of people who are not happy with the government, many have not yet concluded that they want to vote for someone else.

In fact, Premier Dexter might take small comfort from Angus Reid’s April survey showing his leadership numbers no worse than those of Premier Clark in BC.

Voters are smart. They are reluctant to commit themselves before having a clear idea of what the different options represent. Platforms have not been released and the opposition leaders have not yet had the kind of scrutiny that premiers receive.

Meanwhile, another CRA poll will be released in early June. It will make interesting reading for casual observers and will be obsessed over by political operatives.

It is unlikely to tell us much about what will happen in the next election.


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