This from a column in the Toronto Star posted just last February, Election polls are fun, but they don’t mean a thing: pollsters. That is coming from the pollsters themselves.
Pay attention if you want to but, frankly, they don’t really mean anything,” sums up Andre Turcotte, a pollster and communications professor at Carleton University.Methodology can differ from pollster to pollster and there is also an unhealthy relationship with the media.
He has even more pointed advice for news organizations that breathlessly report minor fluctuations in polling numbers: “You should really consider what is the basis for your addiction and maybe enter a ten-step program.”
And for fellow pollsters who provide the almost daily fix for media junkies: “I think pollsters should reflect on what this does to our industry. It cheapens it.”
Turcotte’s blunt assessment is widely shared by fellow pollsters, including those who help feed the media addiction to political horse race numbers.
There’s broad consensus among pollsters that proliferating political polls suffer from a combination of methodological problems, commercial pressures and an unhealthy relationship with the media.*************************************************************************
The problem is exacerbated by what Gregg calls an “unholy alliance” with the media. Reporters have “an inherent bias in creating news out of what is methodologically not news.” And pollsters have little interest in taming the media’s penchant for hype because they won’t get quoted repeatedly saying their data shows no statistically significant change.Be wary of the"margin of error."
“In fact, they do the exact opposite. They will give quotes, chapter and verse, and basically reverse and eat themselves the next week,” says Gregg.
The MOE, as it’s known in the biz, is usually relegated to the tag line at the end of a poll story, advising that the survey is considered accurate within plus or minus so many percentage points, 19 times in 20. It’s rarely explained what that really means.
Take a poll that suggests Tory support stands at 35 per cent, the Liberals at 30. If the MOE is, say, 2 percentage points, that means Tory support could be as high as 37 and the Liberals as low as 28, a nine-point gap. Or the Tories could be as low as 33 and the Liberals as high as 32, a one-point gap.Even the Liberals own pollster weighs in.
If support falls within those ranges the following week, it should be reported as no change — but rarely is. A two or three point change is more likely to be touted as one party surging or the other collapsing.
Worse, the media often trumpet shifts in provinces or other small sub-samples of the population, like urban women or educated males. But with MOEs of as much as 10 percentage points, seemingly huge 20-point fluctuations are actually statistically meaningless.
“I’ve seen pollsters comment one week, you know, ‘The Tories are dead in Quebec’ only to have this magical resurrection the week after and there’s a pressure to sort of explain that and you come up with saying, ‘You know, well, (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) made this statement or he wore this tie,’” says Mukerji.
“I think if you take a step back and look at the general trend, there hasn’t actually been all that much that’s changed, quite frankly, in the party standings.”
With little or no time between polls and the media fixated on the flood of horse race numbers, he says voters don’t get a chance to reflect on platforms or leaders or their campaign messages. Hence, “the only movement in the polls is in fact motivated by the previous polls.”So yeah, polls can be fun but focus your attention on the issues. Probably a more accurate and true account of what is going on is listen to what is happening from the local ground war. Look passed the what the media reports and read and listen to the candidates actual words. Then vote accordingly.
Polls have always had some influence on elections, helping to drive strategic voting. But Marzolini fears the sheer volume now is creating a situation in which the media — and, by extension, voters, — “just want to get the score for the game; they don’t want to watch the game.”