Why we shouldn’t depend on the polls

Photo courtesy of Polls (Flickr)

Ah, election season. For us political junkies, it’s the true season to be jolly. We listen to pundits, we start bad-mouthing, we see political ads taking up valuable flier space in our mailbox, and most importantly, we keep up with the polls.

Polls, while they have a place in politics, do diddly (yes, that’s the official term) when it comes to Canadian election outcomes. Polling has long been a form of gauging how a party, leader, or topic is trending among Canadians. ‘What do you think about. . . ?’ becomes the call of the political wild. Yet, not since 1984 has a poll in Canada meant more than diddly.

In countries like the U.S., which has a similar first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and only two parties, polls let these parties follow public opinion as a campaign proceeds. In places like Germany, where they have a system of proportional representation and a multi-party system, polls let parties do what they can to win over the most votes possible, and possibly change or adapt policies to work with coalitions in order to win governance.

Here in Canada, we do both. Because, well, it’s Canada. In our multi-party FPTP system, the ‘popular vote’ does not often match who rules and by how much.

As I write this, the current polls show that the Conservatives and the Liberals are tied with 31 per cent in the polls, while the NDP has 27 per cent. Pretty even, all things considered right? Well, not really. This would equate to 127 seats for the Conservatives, 110 for the Libs, and 99 for the NDP. What the fudge, right? The seats awarded are not nearly as even as the polling numbers would reveal. Wait, it gets better.

Polls are alright for observing an overall nation with a wide attitude.

My favourite election (I’m a poli-nerd) is the one from 1993, where the NDP received seven per cent of the popular vote yet attained nine seats, and the old Progressive Conservatives gained 16 per cent of the vote yet with only two seats. That election, by the way, was the start of the five-party system that exists today.

With our current set-up, there is no way that polls will tell us anything about the upcoming election, other than 60 per cent of the voting population at best will be pissed off with the outcome of an election — leaving aside the fact that a minority of the population has elected the ruling party since 1984, when Mulroney won with a majority of votes and seats. That turned out well, hey? ‘Yay’ for NAFTA and GST.

To all who vote in Canada, polls are alright for observing an overall nation with a wide attitude. They help us see that we might think the same way as people in other parts of the country, they let campaign managers track how a new tactic is responding, if we had a proportional representation system they would show us our potential government.

However, we do not, and therefore polling means diddly in the actual election.

There are lies, damn lies, and polls. All they do in Canadian elections is confuse the undecided into thinking that they are voting for something they really aren’t.