Pollsters — Take A Bow (Out)?

“Why do they bother to have the elections at all,” voters once observed when they looked at their newspapers the morning after a vote.

Those were the days when election polling was uncannily accurate.  Was an election really necessary or would a sample size of 1,125 do the trick?

Now, after another ‘shocking’ election result, pollsters are, once again, scratching their heads and the Ontario NDP campaign director is saying “I dunno, a lot of people changed their mind at the last minute, maybe.”

Maybe they did, who’s to say?   But if the amount of ‘pivoting’ voters have been doing in the last few years is true, Your Working Girl recommends they seek immediate medical help for whiplash.

Your Working Girl has previously written about the state of modern polling in this space. Click here for a refresher. Today she is saddened to have to report to you, Gentle Reader, the situation is getting worse, not better.

Those working in another let’s-take-a-stab-at-it profession – meteorologists – are daily subjected to withering comments about their ability to foretell the weather. The forecast is always accompanied with a nudge and a wink.

To their credit, meteorologists have developed a thick safe-depreciating skin to weather the criticism.   But they know that we know, although we continue to chide them, in our hearts of hearts, we understand the capricious quality of Mother Nature and, truth be told, laugh inwardly at the absurd notion we can predict her behavior at all. It’s kind of an in-joke.

Should the same benefit of the doubt be extended to pollsters?

Not according to erstwhile Canadian pollster, Allen Gregg, who posted a somewhat lyrical Tweet after CBC announced a winner last night:

“So called “pollsters” should hang their heads in shame.

It’s time to quit whoring out the profession and get out of the media polling game”

Gregg, who was among those who could uncannily forecast elections, is taking pollsters to task because they continue to poll, report polls, change models and charge money for a service that is now more like a parlour game than a reasonably sound prediction of actual behaviour.   Here are the results from an Ipsos poll published in the National Post on June 11, 2014, 24 hours before the election:

“A new poll predicts the Liberals will just barely edge out the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats to win Thursday’s election.”

The actual result:

LIB: 38.7% (59 seats); PC: 31.2% (27 seats); NDP: 23.7% (21 seats).

Pollster credibility has taken a whack in the United State this week too.

In what US political commentators are calling “the biggest political upset of recent memory,” Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary against Tea-Party challenger, David Brat, after Cantor’s polling company declared Cantor 34 points ahead of Brat.

Not unsurprisingly perhaps, a backlash to political consultancy is emerging, particularly in the U.S., where candidates are spending millions of dollars for polling and consultancy services that don’t seem to be getting the job done.

Why should we listen to you, candidates think (especially grassroots candidates). You are so clearly wrong, yet you pretend to be right. You are so, so, so … elitist … you ignore what real people are saying.

Even Your Working Girl admits the polling industry’s blasé response to its weaknesses is maddening and she has no particular political ax to grind.

Poor polling provides validation for the creed of the sample of one.

It’s about what the cab driver thinks, your neighbor thinks, what you think.   It doesn’t matter what other people think because you are not hearing it with your own ears. When people who rightfully turn their nose up at polling, which is supposed to be scientific, it often means they also dismiss other observations of the vox populi and listen only to the people they can see and hear, which means people like them.

The issue goes well beyond pollsters getting egg on their face.

The insistence of polling companies on injecting themselves into the middle of elections when they are clearly becoming more of a nuisance than a help will change the way politics is executed in more ways than they can predict.   It’s already happening.


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