Election polls are helpful, but don't let them decide your vote for you

Dec 19 2017, 6:02 pm

Only one more sleep until we find out who will be the next Prime Minister of Canada. The final polling results are coming in, and it appears that the Liberals are in the lead.

But just how much can we depend on polls when it comes to choosing who to vote for?

“Polls shape public opinion, while reflecting it,” David Moscrop, a PhD candidate specializing in political science at the University of British Columbia, told Vancity Buzz.

“On one hand [polls] are a good general source about trends. But there are some caveats. They are not always accurate,” he said.

However, it is important to understand how to read polls carefully, and not depend on just one poll to fuel our assumptions about who will win the election.

Kylie Braid, a Vice-President of Public Affairs at Ipsos Reid, says there are several factors that must be kept in mind about polls.

“In every election, there is a distribution of poll results and some companies do this better than others. A shrewd poll watcher should not put too much weight on any one poll, but instead follow the trends across polls.”

Looking at the latest polls conducted by Nanos Research, Leger Marketing, and Angus Reid released on October 16, we can see that all of the results put the Liberal party several points in front of the Conservatives and NDP, respectively.

Like Braid said, it is important to look at a series of polls in order to get a better idea about national trends. But it is also crucial to understand that these polls capture a small sample of the population.

The Nanos results are based on interviews of 1,600 Canadians conducted over a three day period.

Leger Marketing interviewed 2,086 people over a span of three days.

Angus Reid used a sample of 2,022 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum and also conducted interviews over three days.

Of course, polling companies can’t possibly reach out to every eligible voter in the country and ask them to participate in a survey, but the sample sizes they do use may not be entirely reflective of the nation’s opinions as a whole.

Moreover, opinions change very fast. “The polls represent a snapshot in time. This is not very useful when people can (and do) change their minds at the last minute,” Braid said.

Anything can shift in the span of one day. For example, throughout this election campaign, the NDP started strong in the polls and are now trailing the Conservatives. On the other hand, the Conservatives have remained quite consistent in the polls, always maintaining a high level of support. Meanwhile, the Liberals had a slow start in the early months of the campaign, but are now catching momentum in what appears to a be an extremely tight race.

Another issue Braid pointed out about polling results is voter turnout.

“The polls usually represent the views of the overall public. Yet, 35-50 per cent of people don’t vote in provincial and federal elections. Pollsters have yet to figure out a sound way to determine which of the people in their samples will wind up voting, which makes final poll results less reflective of actual voters,” he explained.

It is difficult for polls to determine an outcome when voter turnout has a crucial impact on the results of an election.

When asked about how much polls matter in the last days of the campaign, Moscrop and Braid both agreed that ultimately, they don’t mean too much.

“The only consistent thing is that the numbers do often change in the last week, and often even in the last couple of days as people finally make up their minds. This, in my opinion, is why people shouldn’t pay too much attention to polls in deciding their own vote. Things change quickly,” explained Braid.

Moscrop highlights that tomorrow’s results are essentially a toss-up. “There is no crystal ball. Anything can happen in the dying days of the election.”

We are the only ones who decide the outcome of tomorrow’s election. Polls can only tell us so much and what we see as a trend now could be completely different by the time the polls close tomorrow.