The game of polls is played by many

I have covered politics in B.C. all the way back to 1970 when the godfather of free enterprise, W.A.C. Bennett, was being dogged...

I have covered politics in B.C. all the way back to 1970 when the godfather of free enterprise, W.A.C. Bennett, was being dogged by the dark knight of socialism, Dave Barrett.

Through the decades I have found that when premiers and party leaders can’t feel the love, when they start falling out of favour with the electorate, they all sing the same tune. It goes like this: “The only poll that matters is the poll on election day.”

The latest to warble this refrain is Premier Christy Clark. The polls have not been Christy’s friend for some time now.

Last summer an Angus Reid public opinion poll of 800 adults found that one in five 2009 Liberal voters intended to vote NDP. Clark’s reaction was to lash out: “I think the Angus Reid poll contributes to the growing cynicism about polls in general and Angus Reid’s accuracy. We always see these guys get it wrong.”

In fact, Angus Reid usually gets it right. But, the same cannot be said for other survey firms that love to gain public exposure by jumping on the polling bandwagon as an election approaches.

We saw an example of this last week when relatively obscure Justason Market Intelligence released a poll showing a 22 per cent gap between the NDP at 48 per cent support and the Liberals at 26.

My radar was flashing red alert when prominent NDP camp follower Bill Tieleman started pimping this astounding finding on his Facebook page. I say astounding because a week earlier a survey by the Mustel Group showed 43 per cent support for the NDP compared to 33 per cent for the Liberals, a gap of only 10 points.

How could two polls be so divergent? For openers, (Barb) Justason Market Intelligence is essentially a Metro Vancouver survey company with little credibility on the provincial stage. Secondly, the record must show that Mustel Group, while usually credible, was originally well known as McIntyre & Mustel Research Associates. That would be McIntyre as in Joan McIntyre, the two-term Liberal MLA for West Vancouver — Sea to Sky. Just saying.

Regardless of expertise or pedigree, both these polling samples were too small to command respect. Justason’s was a telephone-online poll of 600 adults and Mustel’s was an even smaller sample of 500. I believe you can’t start taking polling results to the databank unless the sample is 800-plus.

Here’s an example of how numbers get skewed in a small sample: The Justason poll gives the NDP a staggering 35 per cent lead in Metro Vancouver and a slim five per cent lead here on Vancouver Island.

That is simply not the case. A January poll by Angus Reid showed the NDP with a 17 per cent lead over the Liberals in Metro Vancouver and a 24 per cent lead on the Island. The sample size was 800-plus and the findings were consistent with earlier polls. The same poll gave the NDP a province-wide lead of 15 per cent over the Liberals, 46 to 31. Not 10 points and certainly not 22.

In the coming weeks we will be inundated with polls. And, more than once, we will hear the refrain: “The only poll that matters is the poll on election day.”

Be assured that party headquarters, regardless of their leaders’ protestations, will be polling 24/7 looking for glimmers of hope and snapshots of insight. M

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