Nice call, Nostradamus

The next time the man on the white horse comes in, he may not be so benign. He could be a real racial hater or a divider of people.

 

Jim Squires, one-time spokesperson for Ross Perot.
Squires made the comment after the 1992 U.S. election, which showed that millions of Americans were ready to go crazy for a thin-skinned, TV-adept billionaire who promised to shake things up in Washington, D.C.

Quoted in The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism,
by Steve Kornacki (p. 209)

After Several Fails, Should We Trust Election Polls?

It’s a key question, given the swarm of public opinion reports on the horizon.
By Tom Barrett
TheTyee.ca

One academic cautions that election polls tend to underestimate support for the incumbent party. Photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Bonhomme by pmwebphotos Flickr.
One academic cautions that election polls tend to underestimate support for the incumbent party. Photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Bonhomme by pmwebphotos Flickr.

In recent weeks, pollsters have asked us questions about UFOs, cyberscams, the coming federal election and Metro Vancouver’s transit plebiscite. But there’s one question many of us are asking the pollsters: Why should we believe you?

The 2013 B.C. election fail did for the polling industry what the Hindenburg did for the dirigible as the last word in air safety. Since then, pollsters have been struggling to find ways to better measure what we’re thinking.

For pollsters, there’s no money in asking questions about elections and releasing the numbers to the media. They do it as a marketing tool to attract clients who want to know what people think about, say, shampoo.

Because the numbers in marketing surveys are difficult to verify, calling elections correctly is one of the few ways pollsters can show they know their stuff. Calling elections correctly, however, is becoming increasingly difficult. And bum results don’t attract clients.

University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston said he understands their plight. “If I were in the firms I would almost ask myself, ‘Is it worth it to be in the prediction business?'” he said.

But if pollsters quit doing public polls, voters are left with less information, said Johnston. Voters have a valid interest in knowing how their fellow citizens are going to vote because it allows them to decide how to vote most effectively, he said. “If you can’t make sense of the polling information, then what do you do?” Continue reading

Pollster Calls BS on BC Libs’ Private Election Polls

‘Show me the numbers,’ demands Insights West president, who says voters simply changed their minds.
By Tom Barrett
TheTyee.ca

"It's very easy after the fact, once you've won, to say, 'We knew it all along,'" says veteran pollster Steve Mossop.
“It’s very easy after the fact, once you’ve won, to say, ‘We knew it all along,'” says veteran pollster Steve Mossop.

A veteran pollster is calling BS on BC Liberal claims that the party’s internal polls predicted the May 14 provincial election result.

On the eve of the election, polls published in the media suggested a comfortable majority for the New Democratic Party. Instead, the Liberals won by more than four percentage points.

After the election, Liberal sources said their own polls had indicated they would win 48 seats. The party ended up winning 49 seats.

Steve Mossop, president of Insights West, says he doesn’t believe the stories.

During a recent panel discussion at Simon Fraser University Harbour Centre, Mossop was asked by an audience member about media reports that contrasted public pollsters’ embarrassing failures with the Liberals’ own polls.

“I knew the question would come up and my answer to that is, ‘I cry BS,'” he said. “There’s no way. I have never seen the data…

“Show me the numbers.”

Added Mossop: “Every insider that I’ve ever talked to, both in the NDP and in the Liberals, said they all thought they were doomed to fail that night. It’s very easy after the fact, once you’ve won, to say, ‘We knew it all along.'” Continue reading

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

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

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.

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

Keep in mind, BC elections tend to be close…

By Tom Barrett
TheTyee.ca

B.C. elections tend to be close. Over the last 40 years, only two have been decided by more than 10 percentage points. Only one has been decided by more than 10.1 points.

That’s worth bearing in mind as the election polls tighten. The latest poll, from Ipsos, suggests the New Democratic Party leads the BC Liberals by 10 points. The day before that, an Angus Reid poll suggested the NDP leads by seven points.

It’s a long way to election day, but a 10-point victory would be the third-largest margin of the last 40 years. A seven-point victory would be the fourth-largest in that period.

During the 1960s, W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit party beat the NDP three times by a margin of 12 to 13 points. But since the W.A.C. era ended in 1972 with an eight-point victory by the NDP, things have been much tighter.

Here are the results of the nine elections of the last four decades. The table shows the winner’s margin of victory in percentage points as well as the percentage of seats in the legislature the winner took.

Election Winner Margin Seat percentage
1975 Social Credit 10.09 64
1979 Social Credit 2.24 54
1983 Social Credit 4.82 61
1986 Social Credit 6.72 68
1991 NDP 7.46 68
1996 NDP – 2.37 52
2001 Liberal 36.06 97
2005 Liberal 4.28 58
2009 Liberal 3.67 58

The median margin of victory for this period is 4.82 percentage points.

The biggest victory by far was 36 points in the New Democrat wipeout of 2001, when voters went to the polls with pitchforks and torches looking to throw the bums out even unto the seventh generation. The narrowest victory was in 1996, when the NDP won with fewer votes than the Liberals. That wasn’t the first time in B.C. history that the party with the most votes lost. In 1952, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation beat Social Credit by four points on the final count, but took one less seat.

As that suggests, in our first-past-the-post system you don’t need to run up a big lead to win control of the legislature. The NDP took more seats in 1996 because their vote was spread more evenly over the province’s ridings, while the Liberal vote tended to cluster in places like West Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.

As the table above also shows, the size of a party’s victory doesn’t translate directly into seats in the legislature. It all depends on where a party’s votes are located and the strength of third parties.

The two charts below give a graphic illustration of just how close B.C. elections tend to be. If things get tight on May 14, it won’t be anything out of the ordinary.

(Click on chart to enlarge.)

Source: Elections BC
Source: Elections BC

Source: Elections BC
Source: Elections BC

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

Digging into last week’s blitz of polls

A possible clue to why Forum had NDP, Libs closest. And other notes.
By Tom Barrett
TheTyee.ca

As more people make up their minds, the polls are tightening.
As more people make up their minds, the polls are tightening.

Some random thoughts on a flurry of election polls…

Five of the six polls that were released last week suggest the gap between the New Democratic Party and the BC Liberals has narrowed substantially. At the end of the week, B.C.’s two biggest pollsters, Angus Reid and Ipsos Reid, weighed in. Ipsos found a 10-point gap, Angus Reid found a seven-point gap.

As you can see from the chart here, Reid shows the BC Liberals up three points from the beginning of the campaign and the NDP down four points. Ipsos shows the Liberals up six points from their start-of-the-campaign poll and the NDP down three points. Even that six-point Liberal jump from Ipsos is within the poll’s combined stated margins of error — although it’s near the outside edge.

But a trend is apparent. The polls are tightening — just as pretty much everyone predicted at the beginning of the campaign.

Is the shift due to last week’s televised leaders debate? Could be. Or it could be a result of negative Liberal ads or the relentless, if fanciful, Liberal focus on debt, the deficit and the economy during the first two weeks. Or the media’s focus on the same topics and on NDP leader Adrian Dix’s Kinder Morgan switch.

Or, quite likely, a lot of potential voters are just starting to pay attention to politics for the first time in four years.

We’ll never know the real reason because there isn’t enough information available.

Forum’s four point gap: sample skewed?

Not that there’s a shortage of facts and figures flying around from the week’s polls. Take the Forum poll that suggested the gap between the NDP and the Liberals had fallen to four points.

Here’s something interesting about that poll that my colleague Andrew MacLeod pointed out: out of 1,009 respondents, 459 said they voted for the Liberals in the last provincial election. Another 290 said they voted for the NDP, 78 said they voted BC Conservative, 79 said they voted Green, 49 said they voted for other parties and 54 said they didn’t vote.

Forum is to be commended for publicizing this much detail about their poll; not all pollsters do.

But among those respondents who say they voted in 2009, 48 per cent say they voted for the Liberals, 30 per cent for the NDP, eight per cent for the Conservatives, eight per cent for the Greens and five per cent for other parties. Five per cent of the total sample say they didn’t vote.

Here are the results from the 2009 election: Liberal, 46 per cent; NDP, 42 per cent; Conservative, two per cent, Green, eight per cent; others, two per cent.

And an estimated 49 per cent of all eligible voters didn’t vote in 2009.

Questions like this rely on sometimes faulty memories. Respondents who didn’t vote may feel pressured to lie; saying you voted is the socially acceptable answer, after all. And pollsters who discover their sample doesn’t look like the population use weighting techniques to make up for the difference.

Still, on the face of it, this sample doesn’t look much like the real world of B.C. voters.

Gender gap trap?

One interesting difference between the Ipsos and Reid polls involves the gender gap. Ipsos suggests women favour the NDP by a 20-point margin, 50 per cent to the 30 per cent who would vote Liberal. But Reid suggests the gap is eight points, 43 per cent NDP to 35 per cent Liberal. That’s a pretty big difference, but it’s worth remembering that the margin of error goes up as the sample size goes down. Continue reading