The Problem with Polls

By Ian Capstick · October 13, 2015

The Media Narrative

Prime Minister Diefenbaker had a way with words. When asked about public opinion research he famously said, “Dogs know best what to do with polls”.

A veritable Canadian cliche. Also, accurate.

The 2015 federal election is awash with so-called information: left, right and centre. Partisans can find a poll to match any desired electoral outcome.

This election is being defined by trendlines. It’s not healthy for democracy. The number of minutes wasted and columns spilled in earnest of polling results that are literally worth as much as the media paid for them: nothing.

I’m not some anti-polling pundit either. At some point our firm has worked with most Canadian pollsters of note and continue to have a deep respect and ongoing relationship with several firms. We buy a lot of research to help us guide our marketing and advertising decisions. I like polls. No, I’m obsessed with polls, so take it from me: they aren’t all right and they sure as heck aren’t all equal.

Days are spent working over the results of a poll for a rebranding project, for example. Analysis isn’t automatic because data alone can’t tell a story. Only people can. It takes time to understand what people are telling you with their answers. Patterns must be discerned and assumptions checked.

The Canada Elections Act governs the reporting on polls. An oft-forgotten section (the three hundred twenty-sixth) defines all the legislative requirements for the sponsors of the materials being put into the public realm. It’s extensive.

It would be incredible to see a decline in polling stories this week, but that’s not going to happen.

Instead, I have a challenge to my friends in the media: review Section 326 of the Act. Then, add one more paragraph of context to your poll stories this week to explain what the numbers really mean and how they were obtained. Just two hundred more words or a few more seconds on air — for the sake of democracy, accuracy and fairness.

Resist the urge to predict an election that is anything but predictable.

Six days left in the campaign. Each of them incredibly important. Expect the Liberals to continue their new push to pick up so-called progressive Conservative voters. The NDP will hammer away at the LPC on the TPP, and the Conservatives are playing defence on some of their seats, continuing the “strong Canada” theme they have run on thus far.

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