VANCOUVER – Pollsters and pundits appear to have been duped again in trying to predict the outcome of a provincial election in B.C.
The race to the premier’s office was supposed to be won by the NDP according to most estimates. But instead, it went to the incumbent Liberals under Premier Christy Clark.
“If there is any lesson in this, it’s that pollsters and pundits and commentators do not choose the government. It’s the people of British Columbia that choose the government,” Clark told reporters after the Liberals handily won a majority government.
Now, pollsters are scratching their heads and trying to figure out just how the results wound up being so drastically different than expected.
Ipsos Reid Vice President of Public Affairs Kyle Braid said the polling firm will reevaluate its pre-election polling, but the win was as much a stunner for them as it was everyone else.
He said it has to be noted that only about half of the province’s eligible voters actually turned out on Tuesday. So, that means roughly half of the people they polled probably didn’t show up at the polls either.
“We appear to have not done as good a job as we could of projecting who would actually turn out,” he said. “When we actually did a survey, with real voters on Election Day, our exit survey actually matches up to the election results almost bang on.”
He doesn’t think the undecided voters were the spoiler; rather it was people who were inclined one way ahead of time and had changed their minds by the time they got to the ballot box.
In an analysis of its polling released Wednesday afternoon, Ipsos Reid says 11 per cent of the province’s voters chose their candidate on Election Day, and 23 per cent said they made up their minds in the week leading up to the vote.
The pollster said the Liberal’s clearly gained a lot of steam in their final days on the campaign trail and NDP attack ads seem to have a “slaughtering effect.”
“If ever there was a case to behold that negative advertising campaigns work, it is here where the Liberals were able to take the NDP lead at the outset of the campaign of 20+ points in some of the polls and put it in the hole,” Ipsos Senior Vice president John Wright explained in the statement.
“As always, Ipsos Reid welcomes the scrutiny of the industry, the media and others because it will make us better every day,” he said of the post-election finger-pointing.
Clark actually came to the defence of the pollsters in a Wednesday afternoon press conference, saying an answer given in a survey two months earlier can easily change as the election campaign goes on and people learn more about the candidates.
“When they give that answer, they’re not saying they’re never going to change their minds,” she said.
Even though the gap had narrowed in the days ahead of Tuesday’s election, the NDP’s victory had been seemingly assured.
Before the writ was dropped on April 16, the Adrian Dix-led New Democrats were 19 percentage points ahead, according to Ipsos Reid.
The Province even went so far as to suggest on the front page of its April 6 edition that there wasn’t much Dix could do wrong to lose the election.
The headline: “IF THIS MAN KICKED A DOG HE’D STILL WIN THE ELECTION.”
The pollsters weren’t entirely off the mark in approval for Liberal leader Clark. She remains the premier of the province, but she doesn’t have a seat in the legislature.
Weeks earlier an Angus Reid poll put Clark at the bottom of the approval-rating barrel, tying with Newfoundland and Labrador’s Kathy Dunderdale as the least-popular premier.
Provincial elections expert Neil Weisman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said he too was “gobsmacked” by the results.
He said it’s normal for the gap to be narrowed in the lead-up to Election Day, and there was a slide in the NDP’s favour in the preceding days. So, he felt the polls were quite accurate.
“And, also, we were told the NDP voters were more committed to turning out, which should have boosted the NDP’s performance over and above what polls were predicting,” he said.
Weisman said sample sizes weren’t really a factor in getting it wrong, and the line of questioning may have played a role.
But, he’s interested to know who turned down being polled.
“There’s something deeper there about the turndown rates,” he said.
Polling agencies reveal the number of people who responded, but not the number of those who refused to participate right out of the gate.
“How many people did they actually reach who said no, they’re not responding to the poll… the numbers they can’t tell you when they say, ‘We reached a thousand people.” No, you actually surveyed 20,000 people, only a thousand people actually agreed to respond.”
Braid said that question is valid, but applies to polls using random dialing. Their pre-election polls were online and everyone that participated had clearly agreed to respond.
There’s also that factor of which organization is releasing poll results, Alberta Progressive Conservative Executive Director Kelley Charlebois said.
He said there are plenty of reputable organizations, but others that have political agendas. It can be difficult for voters to know which results are legitimate and which are not. That was a factor in his province’s 2012 election.
Pollsters came under scrutiny after last year’s Alberta election, when it looked like Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford was destined to be ousted by the Wildrose Party.
That definitely didn’t happen. In a landslide win, the Progressive Conservatives maintained power as they had for the previous 41 years.
“We need to be better educated about what a true poll is and what is a political tool,” said Alberta Progressive Conservative Executive Director Kelley Charlebois.
He doesn’t know for sure if that was a factor in the B.C. results, but he suspects it might be.
Braid said Alberta was also in a much more volatile situation going into Election Day.
“So, having the polls be off was not a welcome surprise but it was not a substantial surprise,” he said.
Redford’s office wasn’t commenting Wednesday on the poll vs. election night disconnect. But a tweet from her official account gives a clear indication about how she feels about the situation.
*With files from The Canadian Press