The Daily Exchange: Does the media put too much stock in polls?
Does polling figure too prominently in the media's coverage of elections?
It's a question I'm pondering this morning thanks to a remarkable campaign intervention by, of all people, a pollster. Darrell Bricker and John Wright, of Ipsos Reid, have taken the unusual step of issuing a news release outlining the problems with polls and journalists' coverage of polls in elections.
Their chief focus is accuracy. Their concern is that some of the newer methods pollsters use to gauge public opinion are flawed and generate results of questionable scientific value. Or, as they put it, how some pollsters are "hucksters selling methodological snake oil."
That got me to thinking about the bigger issue of whether our collective fascination with polls during elections is serves the public's interest.
Should we be so concerned about who's winning, or should our focus be on voters' choices?
For me, it's the latter.
I like a shiny new poll like any other political junkie. But elections are supposed to be about the voters, their needs and desires, and which party's leader and plan takes voters where they want to go.
But poll-focused coverage isn't about choices. It's about who's winning and who's losing. The result? It sidelines the real exchange of ideas and debate, and reduces the democratic process into just a big game.
Democracy is stronger when voters understand their choices. But poll-focused coverage reduces choice. By framing elections as a battle between establishment choice A and establishment choice B, it tells voters they only have two choices. That all others who seek to represent and serve the public are also-rans are unworthy of voters' consideration.
For voters, it's like going into Tim Hortons and asking the server what's the healthiest snack, and the server tell you that ice cappucinos and apple fritters are most popular, so pick one of them. But what if you want a multigrain bagel with light cream cheese? Sorry, that's not the most popular choice. Pick the ice capp or the doughnut already.
Limiting choices disrespects voters. Folks who cast their ballots have the right to choose who they want representing them and what direction they want their provincial government to pursue.
So how about some good news - because I like to try and keep things positive.
The provincial media are doing a pretty good job covering the issues. There's been a little too much focus on the Liberals' newcomer tax credit and the PC response for my liking. But overall, Star reporters and others have done a good job explaining where the parties stand on the issues, especially on the issues of jobs, the economy and the affordability of everyday life.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath's call for more debate instead of the same-old political bickering is another positive development in this campaign. I am also encouraged to see Tim Hudak agree to take part in a debate focused on Northern issues. I hope Dalton McGuinty agrees too.
Maybe this call for a return to civility in politics will put an end to what Horwath cleverly dubbed groundhog politics. Pop out of your hole. Deliver talking point attacks. Then go back into your hole.
And now Bricker's and Wrights' comments might just prompt the media to think twice about focusing so much on polls and who's winning, and redouble their commitment to focus on the choices before the voters.
When campaigns focus on the choices before the voters, and voters understand the menu before them, we make better choices, and we all win.
- Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP
Response from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
Yesterday I focused on polls and the media and how this can heavily influence voters. Today Jeff has brought up a few new concepts in that space that I would be happy to comment on.
First he talks about poll accuracy: yes, the media and the general public do need to be concerned about how they interpret polls. This election already proves the point – depending on which pollster you ask the Ontario Liberals are either ahead, tied or losing support (I like to believe the first two are true). If the research and analysis course I took (yes, eight years ago) taught me anything it is that polls can be skewed to show different results. I am not implying that pollster are intentionally doing so (some of my best friends are pollsters!), but it is one way to interpret the wide range of results.
So yes, voters do need to be warned if they are voting solely on poll results.
Voter’s choice: Yesterday I argued that Ontarians are reading or watching media stories, and many alter their behaviour because of them. One person might be dispirited by the news of a bad poll and stop donating to the party that’s behind. Another might decide that their preferred party won’t win, and not vote at all. Others, who might not have had a clear preference before the election, might decide they want to be on the “winning team” and vote for the leading party. (We saw this in spades during Jack Layton’s NDP surge in the 2011 Federal Election.)
Voters are concerned with who is winning, and the media focuses on who is winning, because that is, put frankly, news - particularly in an election where the incumbent party was 10 points behind going into the race and is now tied (or ahead or behind depending on which pollster you believe).
The issues: so far there have been two major issues in this election – the new Canadian tax credit and the PC’s reaction to it, and the economy. (The NDP may want debates to be an issue, but I don’t see it catching on like wildfire with the electorate).
The polls are showing, and the media are reporting, on the Ontario Liberal Party and the PC’s more than the NDP because on the pertinent issues they are dominating the discussion. The NDP party wants to raise corporate taxes, bring in protectionist policies, freeze gas and transit prices (while building more) and halt future nuclear generation – not exactly an economic friendly platform...and they stayed above the frey on the new Canadian tax credit.
My point being, polls results have, in my opinion, been influenced by the policy debate so far. So I don’t believe the argument that choices have been limited by publication and focus on poll results, because the polls results are reflecting the policy debate. This is a good thing.
I agree that voters have to focus on the choices before them and make the right choice for what they feel is important for the next four years. I would argue it should be the economy moving forward and the future and protection of core social services like health care and education. But then remember, I am a Liberal, and we may be ahead, tied or behind in the polls.
Response from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper:
I agree with Jeff. And with Darrel Bricker and John Wright.
Voters have limited sources of information during campaigns. Short of conducting their own research (on the Internet or otherwise), citizens must rely on candidates' canvass and literature, on paid political advertising and on news coverage of the campaign.
Indeed, media coverage is a primary source of voter information prior to the most important decision a citizen can make. When the media coverage conveys substance, voters are better informed. When the media talk about process issues, voters are deprived of an opportunity to learn more before casting a ballot.
We are privileged in this country to enjoy a free press. The news media are free to report what they want. As they should be. No one should compel the news media to report a certain way. Their freedom is essential to our democracy.
That said, when the news media use their freedom to ignore the substance of what the candidates are saying, and choose instead to focus on polling or the "horse race" aspects of the election, it is not just the politicians who suffer. Voters miss out too.
Every day, each party leader delivers a carefully chosen message of substance. Each day, he or she has pretty much one chance to have that message covered on the nightly TV news. If the leader's substantive message is lost amid alternative news coverage ("today leader X was forced to respond to the latest poll results") then the people will receive that much less information and will be that much less informed about where the parties stand.
I think we'd all agree that where the parties stand on the issues is more important than where the parties stand in the latest survey.
Many reporters will argue that it's their job to provide analysis and insight, not just to report the politicians' positions. "We're not stenographers," I heard one prominent print and radio journalist say earlier today. What he meant was that reporters aren't doing their jobs when they just repeat what the politicians say.
It's true that reporters are not stenographers and it's true that the voters benefit from the insight and analysis of a free press. At the same time, the voters also benefit from hearing the politicians' messages, unedited and unfiltered, so they (the voters) can form their own conclusions.
The proliferation of polls is one reason we have less news coverage of issues, policy and substance, and more obsession with process.
In the end, the voters are the ones who lose.