BALDREY: Stay skeptical of political polling results
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BALDREY: Stay skeptical of political polling results
Keith Baldrey / North Shore News
August 14, 2015 12:00 AM
When will much of the national news media finally lose its obsessive love affair with political opinion polls?
For weeks now, major media outlets across the country have enthusiastically embraced every poll that is released,
and have granted most of them major headlines.
The fact that a number of them are completely contradictory to each other seems lost on journalists reporting on
many of them. On one day, the NDP is said to be in the lead nationally — the next, another pollster says the
Conservatives are actually the most popular party.
Neither can be right, but many news outlets — from newspapers, television and radio — seem ready to stick with the
poll they got access to, and don’t acknowledge when another one shows a significantly different result.
And this love affair continues — in fact, it seems more heated than ever — despite a long list of polling “fails” in
recent years (think B.C., Ontario and Great Britain for starters).
Since it’s unlikely the breathless coverage of polls will not end during this federal election campaign (there is one
underway you know), here is some advice when consuming those “news” stories:
Keep in mind that a poll is trying to gauge the opinion of 100 per cent of adults (including those who don’t have an
opinion). But remember that 100 per cent of people don’t vote, and in fact voting turnout hovers around 60 per cent
But it gets even trickier than that. As I’ve pointed out several times before in this space, people of different ages vote
in vastly different numbers. The shorthand is this: most older (50+ years) people cast ballots, most young people do
So if a poll’s sample (how many older people versus how many younger ones) doesn’t reflect true voting patterns,
BALDREY: Stay skeptical of political polling results
have a huge grain of salt sitting nearby. If pollsters won’t release tables that show voting intentions by age, gender,
income and geography — well, be skeptical of what they claim to have found.
Ignore, for the most part, provincial poll results gleaned from a national poll. This is a rule that many journalists don’t
know or choose to ignore because it can ruin a good story.
The problem with producing provincial “findings” from a national poll is the sample size is so small it is almost
worthless to base any detailed analysis on it.
The hallowed “margin of error” can be higher than 10 percentage points, which means a party said to be leading by
five points in a provincial sample may actually be losing when the margin of error is factored in. Stay away!
Try to ascertain a pollster’s methodology. Is it a telephone poll? If so, is it a computerized one or does it involve an
actual human being phoning someone? Or is it an online panel, put together by a pollster who recruits participants?
Faced with new challenges in polling, pollsters have changed their methodology by various degrees in recent years.
The days of pure randomness based on telephone numbers — the basis of polling for decades — are long gone.
Now, none of this is to say that political polling is pointless or not valuable in some way. Top pollsters such as Ipsos
Reid, Insights West, Angus Reid, EKOS and Nanos provide powerful insights into what’s “trending” in public opinion.
They have uniformly picked up on what appears to be significant growth in support for the NDP nationally, and a
decline in Liberal support, with the Conservatives holding fairly steady.
But going much beyond those generalizations — such as making a big fuss when a party’s apparent support goes
from 33 per cent to, say, 35 per cent in subsequent polls — is a fool’s errand. Yet too many people continue to do
just that.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. He can be reached via email at [email protected]
(mailto:[email protected]).
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