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Don't blame the polls; it's your wacky interpretations that are sus
Why I still trust my handy pollster, 9 times out of 10
Two very recent Angus Reid polls caught my attention. Not for their numbers but for their headlines: A B.C. Battle (for second place): NDP hold comfortable lead as surging Conservatives pull into a tie with BC United and federally, Majority — including two-in-five past Liberal voters — say Trudeau should step down. And if one was to dive into the numbers behind these headlines, they would rightly believe BC United Leader Kevin Falcon and PM Justin Trudeau should be holding some very difficult discussions and listening to equally uncomfortable voices. In the meantime, we can enjoy a bunch of wacky and suspect thoughts and opinions on social media: #bcpoli #cdnpoli
Reality checks are hard. Being the leader of a political party or a country is tough. And yes - numbers do matter…but only to a point. Context is everything and at this point in time, the weather has turned cold and grey, prices are up, bank accounts are low and the kids’ first report cards will soon be coming out. Darker days are still ahead and it’s hard not to think that the day-to-day sucks.
If I got a call from a pollster right now, I might be inclined to express some of my more jagged thoughts and opinions. It’s how I feel…right now. The problem is we are a long way away from anyone dropping a writ and forcing a B.C. or Canadian election. Those who conclude BC United will become a third place B.C. party or that the federal Liberals will get fewer than a hundred seats, overlook how many news cycles we go through in the span of a month, let alone a year or more.
Q: Why talk about polls in the media?
Well - it’s because they are great metrics when there are few other KPIs for your average voter. How we feel is important and it helps guide change through policy decisions. Right now for example, I suspect all levels of government understand they need to focus more on the lack of affordable housing. Perhaps the deficit, the environment and international politics are nowhere near as important as our money. This is a chance for our politicians to tinker with speaking points, adjust approaches and measure the impacts. The news media should reflect such findings and moods back to those in power. One would also hope that people don’t read to much into current fortunes or misfortunes. Social media can be a dubious thing.
Q: Why are the polls wrong?
They aren’t. Ever. A poll is exactly what it says it is and that makes it right. It’s a sample of how people respond to questions such as “If an election were held today, how would you vote?” Those answers do not reflect how you would vote year or even next week. Check the polling dates - what was happening at that time. Polls also don’t break down results by riding - usually. Many times, they don’t address the number of seats that would be won…only the overall popularity of a political party.
Most major polling firms use accepted sampling protocols and post an expected margin of error. Equating those results to what will happen the next time we head to a ballot box…that’s our own fault. Campaigns are very important. Personally, I’d trust any of our current leaders to blow a huge advantage in only a few short days.
Q: Is the devil in the details?
Of course. And yes, that’s a lazy rhetorical question. Behind any great headlines are the numbers that support it. Pollsters do interpret their own findings and often go a step further in explaining what they see as reasons behind trends, demographics and geopolitical divisions. And then there’s us - the reading public. What we need to do is read those same questions and understand the possibility of answers. Remember, certain answers get grouped and headlines can be drawn around those who say ‘okay’ to absolutely.
Also, a deeper poll could show age, gender, income, race/religion and other demographics. I often look at these closely to see the responses of people who are just like me. We could also point out, that some people are more likely to vote than others. The loudest mouth doesn’t always shade with a sharp pencil.
These are just a few quick thoughts from someone who has always been fascinated by polling and often uses such results as a conversation starter. I’d love to know what you think.
Bruce Claggett is a 35 year veteran in the news media, having worked as a reporter, newscaster, producer/editor, senior editor, news director, journalism instructor and media consultant. He holds a BA (political science/geography) from UBC, B.Ed. (secondary education) from UBC and a Dipl. T. (broadcast journalism) from BCIT. He continues to work as a guest host on 980/CKNW, media trainer and communications advisor.