Monday, June 4, 2012

Polls and projections in context

Canadians are three years away from the next federal election, but nevertheless polls on national voting intentions are released at a rate of about one per week. A provincial election in Quebec is around the corner, Ontario has a minority government that could potentially fall at any time between now and 2015, and British Columbians will be voting in May of next year. A discussion of polls and projections seems warranted.

With the next federal election so far away, there is good reason to question why we pay attention to polls. Meaningless! say critics. As I wrote about in my The Hill Times column last week, and as I will be speaking about at next week's MRIA Ottawa Chapter panel discussion, that could not be further from the truth.

Looking at federal polls today through the rubric of 2015 is to miss the point. Of course things will probably change by then, but what Canadians think right now is important and worth knowing. Arguing that polls are meaningless today is to say that the opinions of Canadians are meaningless. It is disappointing that these sorts of comments often come from partisans who see their party losing support. It is no less disappointing that these same partisans will happily gloat about the latest numbers showing their party on the rise.

The voting intentions of Canadians this far out from an election have nothing to do with the vote in three years. It has everything to do with what they think of their leaders right now. A mid-term report card, these public opinion polls give Canadians an indication of what the country thinks of their leaders. If polls are mere snapshots in time, elections are as well. Democracy is more than just voting once every four years, polls are a means (limited as they are) of keeping our political leaders in check. Would Stephen Harper or Thomas Mulcair be acting differently if the polls put them 20 points ahead?

Imagine a scenario where a government is at 10% support. What legitimacy would they have to make controversial decisions? Legally the legitimacy would still exist - but morally? And what if those same public opinion polls demonstrated that Canadians were hugely opposed to a particular government policy? Perhaps more to the point, what if this were the case but public opinion polls weren't available to tell Canadians what their fellow citizens thought?

Perhaps some people think that Canadians can be ignored outside of election campaigns. Undoubtedly, there is little to stop MPs from ignoring public opinion between elections and they can often get away with it. Whether that makes it right to ignore public opinion is another thing entirely.

At the very least, Canadians deserve to have some of the same information as political parties do. They can pay for proper polling, and likely have a much better picture of what Canadians think than can be derived from the polls paid by or provided to the media. Nevertheless, the information that media polls do give us at least levels the playing field somewhat.

Of course, critics of polls will always bring up the cases in which they have failed. The most recent whipping boy is Alberta. That the Alberta election campaign was exceptionally unusual from a public opinion polling perspective (not to mention historically and politically) is, to them, besides the point. That polls did magnificently in the recent Manitoba and Saskatchewan provincial elections, and quite well in Ontario, doesn't matter.

But Alberta might serve as the perfect example of why polls can be useful. Support for Wildrose during the campaign may have been more about being anti-PC than it was about being pro-Wildrose. If polls had not been around to show that Wildrose was making incredible gains, Albertans may not have given as much thought to what a Wildrose government would mean, and the media might not have put more effort into looking into the party's platform and candidates. Democracy is not, in the end, the sum of individual opinions. It is a decision made by society as a whole - that is why we discuss politics with our friends and families and read opinion pieces in the newspaper. If, in this way, we indirectly "poll" those around us and those with insights we trust, why wouldn't we want to know what everyone else thinks as well?

Along with the anecdotal evidence, the observations of people working for the parties in Alberta, and post-election polls, a look at the difference between results in the advanced polls and on election day suggest that Albertans were turning away from Wildrose in the final days of the campaign. This second look at the party, which might not have taken place without public opinion polls, appears to have had an effect.

Now, people who vote in advanced polls aren't necessarily the same sort of people who vote on election day and are not necessarily a fair representation of the voting public. Enthusiasm, commitment, and GOTV operations can play a big role.

Nevertheless, between the advanced polls of Apr. 19-21 and election day (Apr. 23), Wildrose support fell sharply. They took 37.4% of the vote in the advanced polls by my calculations, putting them ahead in 25 seats. A few days later, their share fell to 33.8% and they ended up winning only 17 seats. This is not the dramatic swing that would have had to take place to corroborate the final days of polling, suggesting that the polls may have been over-estimating Wildrose's lead throughout the campaign (or, perhaps, that fence sitters and weak Wildrose supporters were still making up their minds), but it does suggest that there was a swing taking place in the final days.

But as the polls did not call the result, a site like ThreeHundredEight could not call the result. I have often seen comments that since 308 was "way off" in Alberta, how could it be trusted? This seems to be a misunderstanding of what this site does. This site translates polls into seats. Any adjustments the model makes are still based on the raw data provided by the polls. People looking for sites making predictions and guesses have plenty of options - ThreeHundredEight uses the real data that is available. I didn't forecast a Wildrose victory because I thought Wildrose would win (though, reading my final projection, I challenge anyone to argue that I was projecting a Wildrose win without any reservations), I forecast a Wildrose win because the polls suggested they would win.

That should not bring into question the accuracy of seat projections, but it does anyway. Seat projections have been shown, time after time, to be able to come to reasonably accurate reflections of seat totals when the real voting results are plugged in. This is not due to the benefits of hindsight, this is due to the fact that seat projection models work. Though they do not get every seat call right, the errors generally cancel each other out. The overall result is what is important. Focusing on missed riding calls is to miss the forest for the trees.

Seat projections translate polls into generally accurate seat totals. This is a worthwhile exercise in a country like Canada, where the FPTP system obscures what national (and even regional) voting intentions truly mean.

But that brings up the criticism that seat projections are an attempt to forecast the 2015 election. When I projected that the NDP could win 133 seats on Friday, I was not projecting that the New Democrats would win 133 seats in 2015. As with every projection that is posted on this site, the seat totals reflect the likely result if an election were held on the days where the polls in question were conducted. That may seem like meaningless trivia, but if public opinion polls are a reflection of what Canadians think of their leaders (and if this information is, intrinsically, of value), seat projections put these numbers in the context of what the implications of these voting intentions would be in an election.

Despite the next general election being three years away, federal polls will still be released every month. They will give us an indication of how the parties are doing, and what Canadians think of what they are doing. Provincial polls will be released as we approach the elections in Quebec and British Columbia, and seat projections will provide further context as to what those voting intentions could mean. An understanding of all of this information gives us a more global view of Canadian politics and the decisions of our leaders. More information is good - if it is correctly interpreted, placed in context, and not ignored.