EDITORIAL: Election polling a numbers game

Poll results are a snapshot of the political landscape, be wary of using them to help make voting decisions

Every politician and would-be MP or MLA knows, or at least they should, that polling numbers don’t translate into seats.

Polling figures from Nanos Research released this week show the governing Conservatives, Opposition NDP and the Liberals in a virtual dead heat among decided voters, with support ranging between 29 and 31 per cent. But even if that was the last poll conducted before election day, it wouldn’t necessarily mean Parliament would split exactly down those lines.

There is always a huge glut of people who are undecided up until the late stages of a campaign – some estimates put it as high as 25 per cent. In a close election race, the number of people who make up their mind just before heading to the polling station is likely far more than politicians or parties would care to see.

It would be interesting to know how many people use polling figures to help them cast their vote. Our guess would be very few.

Public media companies have for years commissioned research firms to give them the latest figures, which often get trotted out on front pages and websites as the top story for that day. We believe in the credibility and veracity of such polls, given their size and the commitment to accuracy made by the major media – CTV and The Globe and Mail hired Nanos for the above poll.

Unfortunately, releasing polling data has become a public relations ploy, especially with all the parties commissioning their own polls at various times. One firm hired by the NDP came back with numbers last week that said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was trailing an opponent by 11 points in his own riding. A poll conducted for a national media company with a far larger sample size and different methodology found Trudeau to actually be leading by five points.

Political parties hire pollsters to come up with numbers they feel will help them. Without a doubt, if the numbers don’t flatter them, they don’t publicize them. While stats heads might find the pre-election numbers interesting, the only ones that count are on election day.

So what do we take from this? Voters can do their homework on local candidates and leave the polls for the parties to play around with.

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