Vitor Marciano is a seasoned political strategist and energy advocate who has held senior campaign headquarters roles at the provincial and federal levels.
The number of consistent polling outliers suggests the latter.
Take this federal election for example. While most polls suggest a tight race between the top two contenders, a handful of others have double-digit spreads. Coincidentally, it seems to be the same few that have these odd results every election.
Certainly, methodology can account for some differences, but that can’t be all. And at the end of the day, who is right?
As the election unfolds, it’s become increasingly clear that some firms must be oversampling certain demographics. It could be geographic, past party preferences, income level, or a host of different factors which skew their results.
Like many other businesses, polling firms benefit from the outcomes. Lucrative government contracts are dished out to preferred firms by the reigning party. The parties themselves also rely heavily on polling firms – and the campaign winners are usually the ones with the biggest war chests.
Polling plays an important role in our campaigns and the skewed results can have real effects on the electoral outcome.
Not every voter has the time to read the party platforms. Not every voter is fully informed about the issues. We all have busy lives.
These Canadians rely on independent news reports to get the gist of the campaign. For many, polling firms give an indication of where the election is heading. Some voters may want to jump on the leading bandwagon. Many will look and be worried about the final outcome leading to the dreaded strategic vote.
Strategic voting has long played a role in our multi-party system. A voter may really want the Conservative candidate to win but realize they’re third place so voting for the NDP may help oust a Liberal incumbent. Or another may see the Liberals far behind in the polls to the leading Conservatives and switch their vote from the NDP – their preferred party who has yet to form a federal government – to the Liberals. ABC (Anything But Conservative) is certainly a rallying cry for some on the left and this kind of vote switching is familiar to anyone who’s knocked doors in a campaign.
Are pollsters playing to strategic voters? Are parties hoping that sagging in the polls may help energize their base who really just don’t want the leading party to win?
And as election day draws near, some of those same outliers have begun to close the gap. This creates the impression of a surge in support for the rising second-place party – yet another way that these shifting polls can draw voters in who are naturally entranced by the rising momentum.
It’s hard to assign blame to the polling firms for having a finger on the scale. Nonetheless, we know the results of these outlier polls are often used in a variety of ways to energize voters by political campaigns.
Polling firms inform the public and policymakers about where Canadians stand on certain issues. Their independence and accuracy are of essential importance for our democracy. When the results are exaggerated, polls become another argument for the growth of “fake news” that turns so many citizens away from participating in the political discourse.
The outliers risk playing into the emotions of a hyper-partisan society and further driving voters to the political fringe. A poll that oversamples one party paired with news outlets that stir fear about that party’s policies has the potential to increase strategic voting. Even a small percentage of voters changing their ballot can impact the overall results – turning minorities into majorities. And maybe in this election, a disastrous campaign by a majority destined for the opposition benches into a slim minority for the Liberals.
Campaigning should be up to the political parties, not the polling firms. To the outliers – stop manufacturing political divisions.
Let’s let the voters decide this election.