Why the media loves elections polls — but maybe shouldn’t

On Monday, The Globe and Mail reported that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives lead the election horserace with the support of 39.8 per cent of Canadians, a full 10 percentage points ahead of Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals. Meanwhile, the NDP, under the leadership of Jack Layton, are rising steadily, now backed by 17.4 per cent of the population. As Simon Doyle, former deputy editor at the Ottawa-based independent newsweekly The Hill Times, says, “The polls tend to look at who’s up and who’s down, almost like a sports match.”

Doyle’s complaint is a common one, especially during election times. Though sports analogies often suit the scrappy side of political parties, ultimately governments deal with issues that are much weightier than whether, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs will make the playoffs. Unfortunately, when the media focus on horse race polls, weightier issues are relegated to the back pages.

Take the 2008 federal election. “There were issues at the start of the campaign, but the Conservatives — and the Liberals — chose not to seriously debate one of the most important of them: Afghanistan,” writes Ottawa Citizen senior reporter Chris Cobb in Media magazine, “[And] news media chose not to force the issue.” At the time, the Afghanistan debate included issues such as the cost of the mission, the rising soldier death toll and whether Canada’s military could realistically exit by 2011 deadline.

Election campaigns offer the media a chance to remind voters of the decisions leaders made during their time in power, and to help audiences understand the complexities of political platforms. Arguably, this is the type of information that arms voters at the polling booths — not whether Harper is ahead of Ignatieff by one percentage point or 10. “Polling numbers don’t really serve any practical purpose for those who intend to vote strategically,” Doyle observed in Media magazine’s Winter 2009 issue, “unless the polls provide levels of support in specific electoral districts.”
All this is not to say that horse race polls have no place in election reporting. Watching the rise and fall of Iggy can be as entertaining as watching the rise and fall of the Leafs in the playoff standings (if equally as depressing, depending on your political team). But a poll is only worth something if it’s representative.

In the past, telephone surveys provided an accurate, random sample of the population. No longer. According to a recent Canadian Press article, “With more and more people giving up on land lines for cellphones, screening their calls or just hanging up, response rates have plummeted to as little as 15 per cent.” By comparison, Allan Gregg, chairman of polling firm Harris-Decima, has noted that when he started the company in 1979, response rates were routinely in the 60 to 70 per cent range.

Like journalism, the polling industry is in transition, moving toward online surveys. And like journalists, pollsters haven’t quite perfected an online model. Just as telephone polls skew toward the elderly, less educated and rural, online polls favour the younger, better educated and urban.

Illustrating this phenomenon is a series of experiments Decima Research conducted during the 2006 election. The study compared each party’s results in an online poll with their results on election day. In the case of the Liberals and the Conservatives, the online numbers and the actual results were quite close. The NDP, however, did better online. As a possible explanation, commentators suggested that online polls appealed to young and urban Canadians, the NDP’s traditional support base.

Despite the testy relationship between journalists and pollsters, Fred Fletcher, professor of media and politics at York University, believes the media are “getting better” in their use of polls. However, he adds, not enough attention is paid to the limitations of surveys, such as reporting the margin of error, the method of collection and the size of the initial sample. Why? “It’s a lot easier to write a story about a horse race,” Fletcher says. Reporting polls in this way can be done in less time and fewer words. Doyle agrees: “If you’re on three different beats you don’t have the time to sink your teeth into [policy analysis].”

Sometimes, when the horse race is the headline, the responsibility is on the reader to turn past the front page. “Quite often the publication will milk the poll, but those stories [that give context] are on the inside,” says Fletcher. Michael Adams, a fellow of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, a non-profit organization representing the research industry, expanded on this point in a February 2011 op-ed in The Globe and Mail.  “All of us have a responsibility to navigate our public discourse critically,” he wrote, suggesting that understanding the limitations of polling numbers is a job not just for pollsters and reporters, but for readers as well.
In an ideal world, audiences would heed Adams’ advice. Reporters would have more time to move beyond horse race poll reporting into deeper policy analysis. If ever they failed, people would conscientiously seek out additional information. But all this is about as likely as the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup.

Erin James-Abra is a
freelance journalist in Toronto. She is working toward her Master of Journalism
at Ryerson University.