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THE GREAT CANADIAN POLL-OFF – March 29, 2011

INITIATING AN OPEN-SOURCE APPROACH TO POLLING

By Frank Graves with Jeff Smith

In the same spirit that we offer our public opinion polling, data tables, and methodology as a forum for discussion, this document is offered as a draft and we welcome comments from those interested.

[Ottawa – March 29, 2011] – Recent articles by Joan Bryden, and the responses they have generated, have launched a useful, if mildly overwrought debate about the merits of contemporary polling, with a particular focus on the perils of political polling. There are many useful caveats and lots of points of consensus. Let’s focus on the main points that have been raised:

  1. Polling faces significant new challenges due to declining response rates and coverage issues where certain parts of the population are included in the sampling frames (listings of the entire population) the most significant new expression of this is the growing incidence of households which have abandoned land lines in favour of cell phones.
  2. The symbiotic relationships between the media, the public and the pollsters has been compromised by a range of factors such as poor resourcing, declining methodological literacy in journalism, and a tendency to focus on the superficial with exaggerated and unduly pyrotechnical interpretation.
  3. There is a broad tendency to ignore the guidelines of margin of error and to report spurious or substantively insignificant events.
  4. Concerns that polling may distort the democratic process, either through leading voting trends or by compromising the inside political process.

Before turning to these four points, a couple of general observations are in order. Our main point is that polling can be done well. It is true that polling is constantly facing new and emerging challenges, but all of these problems are more or less solvable. It is not the case that are polls are of equal quality in meeting these challenges and the media often fail to adequately scrutinize the polls they publish. Expert, external, third-party sources are important, as is benchmarking. It is not enough for a firm to say their methods are good and point to their examples of success while ignoring failures and the expert consensus. In short, good quality polling is possible and exists. The problems are that the good is interlaced with the not so good and that the media are confused by differences which are methodological artefacts

In short, the overall depiction of media polling as error prone, unreliable, and corrosive to democracy is overstated and wrong. It would be better if it were more adequately resourced and if some media were more knowledgeable of the theories of probability and statistics. Much of the “confusion” is a product of comparing across polls of variable quality conducted over different time periods using alternative methods. For these reasons, we collect data using exactly the same sampling and survey methods on a regular basis. Undoubtedly, more in-depth interviewing can provide more insightful and interesting analysis of the drivers of public opinion. The problem here is that there are rarely the resources or public attention spans to justify more exhaustive surveys. Some may feign disdain for the vulgar simplicity and irrelevance of the “horse race”, but without ambiguity, nothing is of more interest to politicians, media, pollsters, and the general public than the horse race (supported with a few judiciously chosen explanatory and background variables).

Click here for the full report: the_great_canadian_poll_off

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