The weight on a BC pollster’s shoulders

Many flubbed their May 14 election calls. Here’s one who thinks he knows why.
By Tom Barrett
June 21, 2013
TheTyee.ca

Ipsos Reid's Kyle Braid unravels the mystery of his election-night failure. Photo: Twitter.
Ipsos Reid’s Kyle Braid unravels the mystery of his election-night failure. Photo: Twitter.

Pollster Kyle Braid thinks he’s figured out how he missed so badly in the May 14 election.

Like almost every other pollster, Braid, a vice-president at Ipsos Reid, came up with results on the eve of the election that suggested a healthy victory for the New Democratic Party. When that turned into a healthy victory for the BC Liberals, Braid and the other pollsters were left with egg dripping from their faces.

The last Ipsos poll, taken May 13, suggested the NDP had the support of 45 per cent of decided voters, compared to 37 per cent for the BC Liberals. The final results were NDP 40 per cent, Liberals 44.

Braid told an audience at the Spur Festival in Vancouver this week that he thinks he adjusted his data when he shouldn’t have and failed to adjust it when he should have.

Every polling company adjusts, or weights, its samples. That’s because samples rarely look like the general population. They may, to take a simple example, contain more women than the electorate as a whole. Continue reading

Green gains likely came at BC Libs’ expense

Further election number crunching that suggests the centre-left vote split is myth.
By Tom Barrett
May 31, 2013
TheTyee.ca

Andrew Weaver, first Green MLA in B.C., on May 14 election night. Photo by Robert Alstead, Running on Climate.
Andrew Weaver, first Green MLA in B.C., on May 14 election night. Photo by Robert Alstead, Running on Climate.

The Green Party’s biggest gains in the May 14 election seem to have come at the expense of the Liberals.

During the campaign, the New Democrats seemed obsessed with losing votes to the Greens. The Liberals even tweaked the NDP by running a pro-Green newspaper ad in Victoria near the end of the campaign.

Maybe the Liberals should have saved their money.

The final count shows the five ridings where the Green vote increased the most were all in southern Vancouver Island. And in four of those ridings, the Liberal vote dropped more than the NDP vote.

One popular theory holds that the Greens steal votes from the NDP. If that were true, you’d expect the Greens’ gains to come at the expense of the NDP in these ridings. But that doesn’t seem to have happened.

In Oak Bay-Gordon Head, where Andrew Weaver won the Greens their first seat ever, the Greens picked up 8,392 more votes than in 2009. At the same time, the NDP vote dropped by 3,780.

But the Liberals, who won the seat in 2009, saw their vote drop by 4,110. Those votes don’t seem to have gone to the Conservative party, which is usually assumed to be the biggest vote-splitting threat to the Liberals. The Conservative vote increased by only 492 over 2009.

The numbers suggest that the Greens pulled a lot of support from former Liberal voters.

Libs suffered in Island ridings

Now, it’s possible that a whole lot of Liberal supporters stayed home May 14 and a whole bunch of new Green supporters turned out for the first time. Or a lot of Liberal supporters switched to the NDP and some NDP supporters switched to the Greens. But, given the size of the Liberal collapse, it seems likely that plenty of former Liberal supporters went Green.

The overall number of valid votes in Oak Bay-Gordon Head increased by 994, or four per cent, suggesting that Weaver’s support didn’t all come from new voters.

The Greens’ other big increase came in Saanich North and the Islands, which also went Liberal in 2009. This time, after all the ballots were counted, the NDP took this riding in a close three-way race.

The Green vote increased 6,913. The NDP vote dropped 2,363. The Liberal vote dropped 2,784. There was no Conservative candidate.

Overall, the vote in Saanich North and the Islands increased by 2,365, a hefty eight per cent over 2009. Continue reading

Behind BC’s pollster fail

Were they foiled by the ’10-second Socred’? A look at several possibilities.
By Tom Barrett
May 17 2013
TheTyee.ca

“Any election is like a horse race, in that you can tell more about it the next day.” — Sir John A. Macdonald

Tuesday's outcome was not great publicity for some pollsters. Photo: Shutterstock.
Tuesday’s outcome was not great publicity for some pollsters. Photo: Shutterstock.

Greg Lyle has seen a lot of election campaigns — and campaign polls — as a pollster and a political organizer.

He says there’s a key difference between parties’ internal polls and the polls you read about in the media.

“Parties spend a lot of money on polling,” Lyle said in an election night interview.

A major party will spend between $150,000 and $200,000 on polls during an election, he said. Public polls, the kind you read about in the media, are either sponsored by media outlets at a relatively low cost or given away free.

Pollsters tend to be political junkies. They like to be a part of the campaign drama and they want to know what’s happening. That’s part of the reason they give campaign polls away.

But political polls are also loss leaders for pollsters. They make their money testing public opinion for people who want to sell shampoo and potato chips; having the media talk about their election insights helps attract such clients.

So if you’re a pollster, calling an election correctly is great publicity.

Having people say “How did the pollsters get it so completely, utterly, ridiculously, ludicrously wrong?” is not great publicity.

’10-second Socred’ syndrome

Lyle, managing director of the Innovative Research Group, thinks the answer to that question lies partly in pollsters’ methodology. Many of the big polls taken during the campaign were online polls: a pollster assembles a panel of tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to answer questions, sometimes for a token fee. The pollster conducts a poll by drawing names from that panel and sending out emails with links to questionnaires.

Some experts argue that such polls pose problems. While online polling has generally been pretty successful, some, like Lyle, argue that online polls don’t “respect the rules of polling, which is that everybody has a random chance, or an equal and known chance of being selected.” Continue reading

In a Greenless world, would the NDP have won?

To decide, look at 13 lost New Democrat ridings where the Greens factored in.
By Tom Barrett
May 15, 2013
TheTyee.ca

NDP: Stolen victory? Judge for yourself. Photo by Joshua Berson.
NDP: Stolen victory? Judge for yourself. Photo by Joshua Berson.

Imagine a British Columbia without the Green party. It’s a fantasy that many angry New Democrats are indulging in today.

That’s because, if you take the Green party out of Tuesday’s election and assume that every vote cast for the Greens would have gone instead to the NDP, you’re looking at a hefty NDP majority government.

Pending absentee ballots and possible recounts, Tuesday’s results were: 50 seats for the BC Liberals, 33 NDP, one Green and one independent.

The NDP lost in 13 ridings where the combined NDP and Green vote was greater than the BC Liberal vote. Switch all those seats to the NDP and you get 46 NDP, 37 Liberals, no Greens and one independent.

However, the assumption underlying this fantasy Greenless world is a bit iffy.

Those 13 ridings include Oak Bay-Gordon Head, where Andrew Weaver took 40 per cent of the vote. The NDP came third, just behind former Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong. Can you really say Weaver split the NDP vote?

For the sake of argument, let’s give this riding to the NDP in our fantasy legislature. That leaves 12 ridings where the NDP came second to the Liberals and would have won if all the Green votes had gone to them. How likely is that? Can you assume that every Green voter would have voted NDP if the Greens didn’t exist? Continue reading

In key ridings, NDP failed to improve on 2009 results

By Tom Barrett
May 15, 2013
TheTyee.ca

One big reason the new B.C. political map looks so much like the old one is the NDP’s inability to pick up ridings they almost won in 2009.

Four hours after the polls closed, votes were still being counted and several ridings were too close to call. Still, it was clear that the New Democrats failed to make any headway in the many ridings that were close in 2009.

There were 17 ridings that were decided by less than five percentage points in the last election; 11 of them went Liberal. The NDP needed to drag most of those into their win column to claim victory Tuesday.

Given the comfortable NDP lead suggested by the polls, that should have been an easy task. Instead, the Liberals managed to hang on to most of their near wins and even stole two ridings that the NDP had narrowly won in ’09.

In Saanich North and the Islands, which the Liberals won by less than one percentage point in 2009, the NDP was leading by an eyelash Tuesday night in what was essentially a three-way tie.

In Burnaby-Lougheed, which the Liberals won by less than four points in 2009, the NDP was up by three points Tuesday night.

The NDP also took Vancouver-Fairview, which the Liberals won by just under five points in 2009.

But the NDP couldn’t hang on to two ridings they won by narrow margins in 2009.

In Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, where the NDP won by a little over one percentage point in 2009, the Liberals were ahead by three points Tuesday night.

The Liberals also took Cariboo North, which the NDP won by less than four points in 2009.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

Did negative politics crush positive?

Or did Christy Clark just run a better campaign, period?
By Tom Barrett
May 15, 2013
TheTyee.ca

Premer Christy Clark. Photo by Carlos Tello.
Premer Christy Clark. Photo by Carlos Tello.

It won’t be hard to find people who will point to tonight’s Liberal victory and claim that negative politics beat positive campaigning.

But the answer may be that a good campaign beat a bad one.

The incumbent Liberals waged an aggressive battle that focused on raising fears about job losses and New Democrat leader Adrian Dix’s personal trustworthiness. The NDP, which had pledged a positive campaign, spent little time reminding voters of why the Liberals were so unpopular.

“It was a disastrous campaign and I felt that through most of the campaign,” political scientist Hamish Telford said of the New Democrats’ effort, which saw a 20-point lead in the polls turn into a five-point deficit when the ballots were counted.

“I thought the NDP was not campaigning effectively,” said Telford, head of the political science department at the University of the Fraser Valley. “I thought that Adrian Dix was quite lacklustre in both the debates. But I thought the campaign was going to be good enough to succeed.

“Evidently it wasn’t.”

Telford said much of the credit must go to Premier Christy Clark.

“A lot of people are going to focus on the negativity of the Liberals, that they ran a very negative campaign with a lot of attacks,” he said. “But I also believe it had a lot to do with the buoyant personality of Christy Clark. She’s always upbeat, positive and optimistic.”

Clark’s ability to project optimism while knocking down the NDP — combined with Dix’s “charisma deficit” — is what turned the tide, Telford said.

He said there will inevitably be a great deal of soul-searching within the NDP. The party caucus will be bitter and it won’t be easy for Dix to meet them, he said.

“I feel terrible for the man,” he said.

However, Telford said, “He didn’t pull it off and he’s going to have to carry the can for it.”

Going positive ‘right thing to do’: Dix

Dix insisted on election night that the positive pledge was no mistake.

“I believed and I still believe running a positive campaign was the right approach,” he said.

Saying he will have to accept the voters’ verdict, Dix said he had wanted to get young people interested in politics again.

“One way to address that is to stop attacking people personally,” he said. “I’m not naive about it. I think it was the right thing to do.”

Pollster Greg Lyle, managing director of the Innovative Research Group, said the NDP campaign “got very negative in the last week” of the campaign.

But the NDP defeat was not really about being positive or negative, he said.

“You’re taking a pretty big chance when you elect as leader of your party somebody who was fired for faking a memo,” Lyle said. “His record was just a scary record. At the end of the day I think some of that sunk in.”

When Dix came out against the Kinder Morgan pipeline, voters thought “maybe he’s not as safe as they thought he was,” said Lyle, who was Gordon Campbell’s campaign director in the 1996 B.C. election.

He said the Liberals won by turning the election from “a referendum on whether they were a perfect government into a referendum on whether or not Adrian Dix was a safe choice.”

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him. With files from Andrew MacLeod, The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief.

For pollsters, an Alberta-sized mess

But maybe one way to look at it is that polls don’t drive democracy.
By Tom Barrett
May 15, 2013
TheTyee.ca

Fooled by prediction: NDP members hear from Adrian Dix on election night. Photo by Joshua Berson
Fooled by prediction: NDP members hear from Adrian Dix on election night. Photo by Joshua Berson

It was a lousy night to be a pollster and a great night to be someone who thinks polls undermine democracy.

The pollsters got it wrong Tuesday: spectacularly, Alberta-sized wrong.

Not one published poll in the months before the election gave the BC Liberals a lead over the New Democratic Party. Instead of the six-to-nine percentage point NDP victory suggested by the province’s big political pollsters, voters appear to have given the Liberals a comfortable five-point victory.

It was eerily similar to the result in Alberta a year ago, when the last polls put the Wildrose party ahead of the incumbent Progressive Conservatives by six to eight points. On election night, the PCs won by a 10-point margin.

B.C. pollsters were well aware that Alberta voters appear to have changed their minds at the last minute and were polling up until the day before the vote. It didn’t help.

The closest late-stage B.C. election poll was produced by Forum Research, which still had the NDP in the lead and overestimated the NDP share of the vote by more than the poll’s margin of error.

Pollster Greg Lyle, managing director of the Innovative Research Group, said online polling — used by Ipsos and Angus Reid, B.C.’s two best-known pollsters — appears to have failed.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the online polls overestimated the NDP,” Lyle said. “They’re going to have to tear their panels apart and figure out what they got wrong.”

Lyle, who was Gordon Campbell’s campaign director in the 1996 B.C. election, said his firm did some private polling during the campaign and found a narrow gap between the Liberals and NDP.

“We thought our poll was wrong because all these other online polls were saying that there was this big gap,” he said. “But I think, hindsight being 20/20, that it’s pretty clear that it was never as bad as they said.”

There appear to be biases in the makeup of the panels of respondents to online polls that will need to be addressed, Lyle said.

“Everyone got burned,” he said.

Hamish Telford, head of the political science department at the University of the Fraser Valley, said there was a large undecided vote in the polls until the last week.

“Clearly, that undecided vote broke one way rather than the other,” he said.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

The Premier who was a reporter’s ‘fantasy’

No one sprouted weird headlines like the Zalm. Last in our series.
By Tom Barrett
May 14, 2013
TheTyee.ca

Editor’s note: Alas, this is the last of “Some Honourable Members” — the addictive series by Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn reliving the most colourfully dubious moments in B.C. political history. Collect all 21 vignettes of shame here!

The Zalm
The Zalm

Bill Vander Zalm thought it would be nice if there were a quiet place in the legislature where folks could get together and pray. It didn’t stay quiet for long.

People complained that the so-called prayer room appeared to be reserved for Christian fundamentalists. Soon members of other faith groups began to show up.

During one lunch hour, a group of environmental protesters, including Muslims, pagans and a Sufi, dropped by and, in the words of Vancouver Sun reporter Keith Baldrey, sparked a “holy war.”

“Tolerance is ignorance!” declared a guitar-carrying fundamentalist.

“Peace is not always tranquility, sometimes it can be more exciting,” a woman replied.

“I heard something about Buddha here, and I didn’t like it,” said the guitar slinger.

“Buddha and Jesus were friends!” shouted a woman.

“Who says?” shouted another.

Wrote Baldrey: “A man watching the meeting from a hallway said between bites on his baloney sandwich, ‘It’s sure not like Sunday school.’”

For Baldrey and the other reporters covering the scene, it was just another day at the office. When Vander Zalm became premier in 1986, the surreal became the commonplace.

The Zalm lived in a castle in the middle of a biblical theme park called Fantasy Garden World. Whatever drifted through his head, it seemed, could pop out as a statement of government policy. And, like some giant weirdness magnet, he attracted strange people of all political types.

It was as if the 1986 election had punched a wormhole through the cosmos that dragged British Columbia into the eccentric orbit of Fantasy World.

Consider Vander Zalm’s trip to the Netherlands to shoot the movie “Sinterklaas Fantasy,” a semi-autobiographical production that, as Vancouver Sun reporter Gary Mason put it, saw the premier “riding a magical frozen rainbow across the world and landing in an Amsterdam canal.” (Well, he did say it was semi-autobiographical.)

Consider the anti-immigration activist and numerologist who claimed to be an economic advisor to the premier. Vander Zalm denied the story and said the paper that broke it should be banned.

Or consider the time Vander Zalm invited the Press Gallery to his office to watch him watch a video called Sex, Drugs and AIDS. The tape, part of a lesson on AIDS being considered by the Vancouver School Board, was a hot topic in the spring of 1987.

The 18-minute video explained how the virus spreads and showed interviews with HIV-positive men and women. Three young women talked about condoms.

Said Vander Zalm: “The part that troubled me most is the subtle message throughout the whole of it, starting from the very beginning, where it says ‘I want to have sex, but I don’t want to die.’” He called it “the longest condom ad I’ve ever seen,” adding: “It’s good for the condom makers.”

As the reporters quizzed him on what he planned to do about the video, Vander Zalm kept repeating the phrase like a mantra: “I want to have sex, but I don’t want to die.”

Whatever the topic, Vander Zalm always had time for the media. A morning news scrum involving the Zalm and the Gallery could last until the TV photographers’ tape ran out and provide enough news to keep reporters writing for the rest of the day.

Following one of these marathons, cabinet ministers would sometimes phone reporters to ask if the boss had invented any new policies involving their portfolios.

The love affair couldn’t last, though. Vander Zalm’s social conservatism upset many voters. His fondness for capitalists who didn’t belong to the Howe Street club peeved the party’s financial backers.

The Zalm era ended with a scathing report by conflict of interest commissioner Ted Hughes, who found the premier had used his office to help sell Fantasy Gardens to Taiwanese billionaire Tan Yu.

Vander Zalm was forced to resign; he was later acquitted of criminal breach of trust. True to the tenor of the Zalm years, the whistleblower who helped bring the premier down was Faye Leung, a realtor with a wardrobe containing several hundred flamboyant hats and a habit of delivering high-speed, high-pitched, high-volume monologues.

As she told Vander Zalm in a taped conversation she later released to the media: “Tan Yu got a good deal, you got a good deal, everybody got a good deal but I got the bum rap.”

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

Why polls don’t quell New Democrat jitters

Most BC surveys give NDP solid edge but several factors keep swing ridings in play.
By Tom Barrett
May 13, 2013
TheTyee.ca

May 10 vote mob at Vancouver's Roundhouse, where over 400 people lined up to cast ballots early. Which party gets highest turnout may decide riding races tightened in past weeks. Photo: Joshua Berson
May 10 vote mob at Vancouver’s Roundhouse, where over 400 people lined up to cast ballots early. Which party gets highest turnout may decide riding races tightened in past weeks. Photo: Joshua Berson

If the polls are right, the NDP is headed for a comfortable victory Tuesday. Of course, that’s what they said in Alberta last year about the Wildrose party.

The last polls in Alberta put Wildrose ahead of the incumbent Progressive Conservatives by six to eight points. On election night, the PCs won by a 10-point margin.

Friday, B.C.’s two big political pollsters, Ipsos Reid and Angus Reid, released polls that suggested an NDP lead of between six and nine points over the incumbent B.C. Liberals.

Those are large leads, given B.C. election history. But they’re dramatically smaller than the 20-point leads the polls suggested in March. That collapse in New Democratic Party support has sparked talk of the Liberals’ Christy Clark pulling off an upset for the ages.

You expect that kind of stuff from the Liberals and their media chums. But some well-placed New Democrats are sketching the same scenario, foreseeing a calamitous alignment of the stars that combines a better-than-expected Green party showing with a worse-than-predicted B.C. Conservative showing.

At this point in the campaign, you have to assume that everything is spin. And fretting aloud about the possibility of a Liberal win suits the New Democrats’ strategy; volunteers would be spurred to work harder, supporters scared into making sure they vote and soft NDPers warned away from the Green party.

But years of losing have taught B.C. New Democrats that even the fluffiest white cloud comes with a heavy rainfall warning. And you can make a case that there may be something to their fears.

After all, look what happened in Alberta.

Conservative klutz factor

To start with, the B.C. Conservatives are fielding only 60 candidates in the 85 ridings. Plenty of people who have told pollsters they’d vote for John Cummins’ party could turn up at the polls and discover they don’t have a Conservative to vote for. Will those people end up voting Liberal? Continue reading