Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Is the John Tory bump for real?

The polling world was mostly co-operative in my absence, opting to release only three polls. One of them, a federal poll by Forum, I covered briefly in today's federal polling averages update. The other two covered the Toronto mayoralty race. They both seem to confirm that the race is transforming from an Olivia Chow lead to a two-headed race with John Tory.

Tory = green, Chow = purple, Ford = blue
The Nanos poll that broke the monopoly of Forum polling in Toronto looked like an oddity. It had placed Tory in front with 39% support, well above any poll that had been conducted since Chow joined the race.

But the last two polls seem to suggest that the bump recorded by Nanos may not have been entirely anomalous.

The Forum poll conducted on July 21 did not show the same sort of Tory lead, but did show that - relative to Chow - Tory was doing much better. The poll gave Chow 30% support among decided voters, a drop of eight points since the previous survey by Forum on July 2. Tory and Rob Ford were each up one point to 29% and 28%, respectively. While the Tory number was still well below what Nanos has considered to be the case, his standing relative to Chow was vastly improved.

More revealingly, perhaps, are the approval ratings of the three major candidates. Among those who said they had heard of Tory (96% of the sample), his approval rating was 67%. That was well above Chow's 54% and more than double Ford's 33%. That high approval rating (back to where he was around May, but higher than the last two months) suggests Tory has room to grow. In contrast, Chow seems to be more divisive. Even if we include the undecideds, her disapproval rating is 45%.

The other poll that was out recently is an interesting one. It comes from Dimitri Pantazopoulos of Maple Leaf Strategies. You may remember Pantazopoulos from the last provincial campaign in British Columbia, as he was the B.C. Liberal Party's pollster who (it is claimed) had called the outcome. Pantazopoulos has a history of working for conservative candidates, and even did a poll for Ford back in 2010, but the release by Maple Leaf Strategies makes a point to mention that he is not affiliated with any municipal candidates this time.

Does this mean we have to exercise caution with this poll? We should certainly keep the source in mind. It is not a question of the reliability of the numbers, but rather the potential for reporting bias. We only ever hear of internal party polls, for instance, when they are good for the party in question. But caution does not mean we should disregard the poll.

This is particularly the case as the poll does not clash with the latest numbers from Nanos or even Forum. Pantazopoulos gave Tory 35% support among decided voters, against 31% for Chow and 27% for Ford. The poll thus falls almost right in the middle of the Nanos and Forum polls.

If we take into account the margin of error, the Pantazopoulos and Forum polls line up. For the former, Tory would have about 31% to 39% support with the MOE, with Chow at 27% to 35% and Ford at 23% to 31%. Forum would have Tory between 26% and 32%, Chow between 27% and 33%, and Ford between 25% and 31%. There is just enough overlap there to say these polls are not necessarily contradictory.

Taken together, it is hard not to see that Tory's position is improving, whether because of raw support or simply relative to Chow. I think it can fairly be said that the race is now close between the two.

What about Ford? He is only a little below the others in both polls, with 27% to 28% support. While that makes him a threat, that support is looking like a ceiling. With his approval rating at 33%, there is not much room for growth.

The Maple Leaf Strategies poll also shows how difficult it would be to attract support from other candidates. Only a very small proportion of Chow and Tory supporters said that Ford was their second choice. Even if all of those voters changed their minds and went over to Ford, the incumbent's support would only be boosted to 33%, with Tory and Chow at 30% apiece. That is hardly the kind of scenario that is likely to play out without any other consequences.

Chow and Tory, on the other hand, can benefit hugely from any sort of rally towards the best anti-Ford candidate (the likely consequence of a Ford surge). Chow, for instance, would be boosted to around 44% support if all the Tory supporters who chose her as their second choice changed sides to block Ford. Tory could be boosted to 49% if Chow's fence-sitters went over to him. There is far greater potential, then, for either Chow or Tory to come on top as the anyone-but-Ford candidate, than there is potential for Ford to come through the middle and win by default.