How B.C.’s pollsters got it right

Seeing the forest for the trees in public opinion research

Seeing the forest for the trees in public opinion research

Public opinion pollsters are, to many, nothing more than contemporary augerers, gauging the effects of political rhetoric to predict which way the wind will blow on election day – something akin to reading a dead muskrat’s guts to divine the moment of Julius Caesar’s murder on the steps of the Theatre of Pompey.

No segment of society, it is safe to say, maintains a more disingenuous relationship with survey masters than the Fourth Estate. Journalists would be lost without the Nik Nanoses, Angus Reids and George Gallups of the world. We hang on their every word, dutifully parrot their findings and usually concur with their conclusions.

Then, when they turn out to be wrong (as they often do), we abandon them faster than a tourist does a passenger cruise infected with stomach flu. “If the B.C. election induced even a smidgen of humility into practitioners of our craft,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson last week, “and made them less reliant on suspect polls and got them to stop yammering about polls (which the general public doesn’t much care about anyway), it will have served a useful purpose.”

Perhaps, but the general public does, in fact, care about polls, because we make them care about polls, especially the “suspect” ones. And if the B.C. election does serve a useful purpose, it will be the degree to which it nurtures a finer appreciation of the role polls play in the peaceful transition of democratic power.

Or, at least that’s John Wright’s and Kyle Braid’s hope. They are, respectively, senior vice president and vice president of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs, which bills itself as “Canada’s market intelligence leader, the country’s leading provider of public opinion research.” In an unprecedented examination of “what happened and why” in British Columbia last week – when the provincial Liberals defied every prediction and marched to victory over the NDP – the pollsters declare:

“In Canada, polls cannot be released on Election Day so it often leaves people guessing at what happened and produces lots of finger pointing. In the United States and other jurisdictions, polls that interview voters are harbingers of the outcome but most importantly help explain why things have turned out the way they have.”

In fact, they say, they nailed the results at the last minute, but because they weren’t allowed to release their election day findings, no one, apart from themselves, was the wiser.

“In British Columbia, we interviewed 1,400 voters on Election Day and, as you’ll see, the numbers virtually matched the real outcome in terms of voter preference,” they write. “But it also tells a story as to why this happened right down to the last minute. The reality is that one in 10 (11%) BC voters decided in the voting booth on election day to mark their ballot for their candidate – and with one of the lowest turnouts in provincial voting ever (52%) it was motivated voters, Liberals, who bested the NDP in the voting booth. . .This was a hand-to-hand combat campaign and it deserved close scrutiny to the final ballot – and that’s why we did what we did by doing this special poll but because of the rules we couldn’t release it.”

The bottom line: “After an event like this – which in Canadian politics has been few and far between – there are lots of people who say that the ‘polls got it wrong’ when in fact it’s voters who upset their own applecart based on everything they’ve seen, read or heard.”

In other words, B.C.’s pollsters got it right to the final moments when the public revolted against what they read about their voting intentions in the media.

The question, of course, is: If Ipsos Reid had been permitted to publish the results of exit polls on voting day, would that have changed the outcome of the election? A better question, perhaps, is: Does it matter?

The final prerogative of citizenship in a democracy defies prediction. A voter, after all, is still permitted to change his mind.

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