Shooting the messenger at election time

Leaves of grass for NB's labour market

Few in these jaundiced times espouse an unshakeable faith in much of anything. But those handful who do believe in the primacy, if not permanence, of polling numbers might be disappointed in events presently unfolding in Scotland.

There, the Scottish National Party, under the spirited leadership of Alex Salmond is rallying it supporters of independence before next week’s historic referendum, the outcome of which could redraw the map of Great Britain both figuratively and literally.

According to Griff Witte, writing this week in the Washington Post, “The once-unthinkable prospect that Britain could be ripped apart this month with a vote for Scottish independence became bracingly real Monday after the campaign to keep the three-century-old union together was accused of panicking amid polls showing the referendum in a dead heat.”

Indeed, “Just 10 days before the vote, the new surveys depicted a dramatically tightening race after months in which the ‘no’ side appeared to hold a comfortable lead. Although both sides have questioned the accuracy of the Internet-based polls, the pro-independence camp immediately claimed the momentum.”

In fact, until last month, Scottish naysayers (those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom) accounted for between 60 and 70 per cent of intended voters. The ‘yes’ forces, in contrast, had trouble breaking above 40 per cent. Now, it seems, those in favour of Scottish independence are nudging the 52 per cent mark.

This is why those of us who know a little something about statistics, approach all numbers meant to startle, scare or otherwise provoke only warily.

Still, election polls are notorious, not so much for their inaccuracy but for their unreliability from one day to the next.

For this reason, they’re also the source of some of the most heated debates, sometimes eclipsing all other, more relevant, issues, as candidates desperately fear being trampled by the herd mentality on voting day.

Indeed, when the circumstances are ripe, even some pollsters will wade into the fray. Witness, for example, Corporate Research Associates chairman and CEO Don Mills last week instructing his lawyers to fire off a stern missive to New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward regarding some unfortunate wording the latter deployed during one of his many stump stops around the province.

“CRA has been great over the years at playing games,” Alward had told an audience of supporters, following the release of its latest polling data showing the Liberals ahead of the PCs in popular support (49 versus 29 per cent). 

“You only have to go back to the last election when in the weekend leading up to the voting, they were saying it was too close to call or even that we were behind. In reality it was a 42 to 13 landslide.”

In a statement, Mr. Mills retorted: “Through hard work and diligence, CRA has built its reputation as a non-partisan public opinion polling company since its founding in 1978. Comments attributed to Mr. Alward impugn that reputation and imply bias in our work.”

If they do, it wouldn’t be the first time a frustrated politician has shot from the hip at political pollsters.

“Gov. Chris Christie wasted little time in taking aim at pollsters during his latest town hall event just as a recent poll found the governor’s job approval rating is plummeting amid the ongoing George Washington Bridge controversy,” reported PolitickerNJ last winer.

“The governor started the event discussing the weather, telling residents on another snowy day in the state that there are people in two professions who continue to get paid despite getting it wrong time after time. Meteorologists? Of course, he said. But according to New Jersey’s governor, there’s another group of workers in the same pool: Pollsters. ‘They don’t ever have to have it right,’ Christie said to laughs from the crowd.”

At best, political polling is an accurate snapshot of people’s opinions and attitudes at the time of asking. They can, and do, suggest longer-term trends. But the reliability of those trends is in direct proportion to the number of people who will never change their mind – who will, with an unshakeable faith in their own world view, vote as they say they will regardless of sound facts and arguments that militate for alternatives.

Fortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. Just ask the Scots.

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