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Why horse-race polling is little more than political theatre

The reality is that this race is not nearly as close as it seems

Canadian PoliticsMedia

Close poll numbers make for great television entertainment. No one tunes in to watch election coverage when it’s a perceived blowout, writes Joe Roberts. Photo by Dallas Reedy/Unsplash.

The polls are tightening up in Election 44 and we have a live one on our hands. With the Conservatives taking the lead, it’s anyone’s guess who will form government after election day, right? Well, not exactly.

The problem is that the popular vote doesn’t really mean squat. It’s little more than a temperature check for the national mood and leaves Canadians in the dark about where we really stand in this election.

Ask the Liberals and they’ll tell you that the polling proves their point—Canadians have to embrace strategic voting to prevent a Conservative upset. They’ll tell you that Justin Trudeau is the only choice to ensure a progressive agenda. They’ll tell you that in such a close race a vote for the NDP might as well be a vote for Erin O’Toole.

Ask the Conservatives and they’ll tell you that the polling is definitive proof that momentum is in their favour. They’ll tell you that Canadians have tuned in, seen what they have to offer, and are responding in a big way. They’ll tell you that the numbers clearly show that Canadians are rebuffing Justin Trudeau and his vision for Canada in favour of what they are selling.

Under proportional representation, popular vote numbers would convert directly to seats in parliament, which makes a lot of sense. It would turn the will of the people directly into representation in equal numbers. But, we don’t live in a system of proportional representation, we live with the archaic system of first-past-the-post.

Under first-past-the-post, a system that Justin Trudeau promised to do away within 2015, the popular vote means almost nothing. All that matters is seats won, and the only way to ascertain what may come on election day is to know what the polling is at the riding level. The reality is that popular support is a black box for the public. It’s like painting you a rainbow in shades of grey: you may get the idea but you’re missing the whole picture.

The parties are smart and strategic. They know what ridings they need to win and are almost certainly running internal polling in those ridings to know what their chances are. Will they share this information with the public? Not a chance. The Liberals can’t risk losing the ‘strategic vote’ and the Conservatives can’t risk losing the perception of momentum. In order for them to continue their posturing, Canadians simply cannot know the actual terrain of this election.

Close poll numbers make for great television entertainment. No one tunes in to watch election coverage when it’s a perceived blowout—we want a horse race and tight poll numbers give us one. Close polling creates conflict which draws viewers and advertising dollars. Why would those in the business of media cut themselves off at the knees by telling Canadians that they aren’t exactly sure what the outcome will bring, or that the race doesn’t look to be all that exciting?

The reality is that this race is not nearly as close as it seems. the Conservatives’ numbers have indeed bumped up, but are most likely a result of consolidating their share of the vote in ridings they are already likely to win, not making new ridings competitive. It’s wise to remember that the 2019 Conservatives under Andrew Scheer won the popular vote with a full percentage point more than the CPC is currently polling and still failed to prevent a Liberal minority.

So what’s the outcome going to be after all the votes are counted? Undoubtedly there will be seats that shift from red to blue, blue to orange, and orange to red—elections always have surprises in store. But, without riding by riding polling it will pretty much all be a surprise to the public. Anyone who tells you otherwise is pushing a political party line or trying to make a buck. That much is all but certain, no polling required.

A veteran political strategist with 15 years experience in the US and Canada, Roberts currently serves as Executive Director of the Centre for Canadian Progress, Managing Director of Jewish Currents Magazine, and Co-Host of the political podcast New Left Radio. He can be found on Twitter at @joe_roberts01.


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