Reading The Polls

There is an election going on. For Canadians it is almost over. In slightly more than two weeks we will know who will form our next government and who will be the Prime Minister.

Americans aren’t so lucky. Their presidential election is an ongoing thing, with the vote still 13 months away. The systems are very different, but one thing the two countries have in common are political polls. In Canada it seems a new one is published daily, and it is almost as bad for our neighbours to the south.

Politicians will tell you that the only poll that matters is election day, that other polls are meaningless. Mind you, it is usually those trailing in those polls that say that.

Funny thing is, for once there’s a fair amount of truth in those statements, at least in Canada. The polling figures reported by the media really are almost meaningless. It’s a quirk of our electoral system.

I think the polls are more accurate in the United States, though there can be exceptions there. The nature of the Electoral College system used to elect an American president is such that it is quite possible in a two person race for the person with the fewest votes to win the election, though it is unlikely that would happen. It all depends where those votes are. This is even truer in Canada.

The Canadian electoral landscape is fractured by regionalism. There are parties strong in some areas that are weaker than others. No one party has a commanding national presence.

In the last election, for example, the governing Conservatives won a majority of seats, even though they finished third (or worse) in most of Quebec’s 75 seats. They actually lost seats in Quebec, but those losses were offset by gains elsewhere.

When I see national poll numbers that show Canada has three parties basically tied at this point in the campaign I am usually amused. The effects of regionalism mean that the national numbers don’t have much meaning. Included in those numbers are the poor expectations for the Conservatives in Quebec and the high expectations in Alberta. (In the last election Conservatives won 27 of 28 seats. Putting Alberta’s Conservative numbers into a national result shows that party perhaps stronger than it really is, because support there unnecessarily high. In a three party race you can win handily with 40% of the vote, 80% is impressive but doesn’t add to your seat total.)

Because Canadians do not elect a Prime Minister directly (he or she is the leader of the party that forms the government) national polls showing support for a particular party or leader don’t impress me. They fill newspaper pages and broadcast airtime, but are not indicative of what is going to happen on election day.

When it comes right down to it, Canada’s political parties, especially at this point, are not too concerned with the national campaign, beyond making sure that the leaders stay on message and that the party policies are publicized. They don’t even care much about the regions. Right now it is all about what happens locally.

In the last election a number of local contests were decided by less than 100 votes. That makes it supremely important for parties to be doing polling on a riding by riding basis, identify their supporters and get them out to vote. I suspect that top party strategists, the ones who have seen all the data, could paint you a very good picture now of how many seats their party will win. There are probably very few ridings where the undecided voters will decide the outcome.

The information contained in those 338 internal polls is not something you will be hearing about in the media. You’ll have to wait until election day.


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