From one pollster to another: Stop trying to predict electionsJune 11, 2014
Globe and Mail
June 11, 2014
For 30 years, I’ve designed and analyzed public opinion surveys. I’ve done campaign polling for leadership candidates, local candidates, national political parties and media organizations too.
I’ve always loved finding out how people consider their political choices. What I’ve learned has fascinated me. But the things I don’t yet know are even more interesting. To me, excellence in this profession is more about eternal curiosity, less about being convinced that you can predict tomorrow based on what you know about yesterday.
Lately, some in the polling industry have been indulging in an unhealthy, feverish competition to predict the outcome and seat distribution of every election. I think it’s a bit of a fool’s errand.
I’m personally enjoying the fact that the race for Ontario is down to the wire and the outcome is more uncertain than ever.
It’s a great time to remind ourselves that the suspense of a big unknown is more interesting than endless over-confident predictions about the chemistry of turnout rates and the implications of same for a handful of swing ridings.
It would be refreshing to hear more pollsters say, honestly, “impossible to tell” when asked how this election will turn out. “I don’t know” isn’t a mark of shame, and sometimes it can be a badge of honour.
Pollsters aren’t completely to blame for the syndrome that’s developed. Nor are news organizations. But together, the relationship has been mutually destructive. The search for edgy stories and declarative headlines creates a not-very-subtle invitation to pollsters to put more black and white into their storytelling, despite the fact that often, shades of grey are the hallmark of Canadian political opinion.
This is not to say that little has been learned from the polls that have emerged in this election. But the best value lies in the big picture, the context and the general reactions to parties, leaders and ideas.