Faye Roberts

Faye Roberts, Scout Public Affairs

From now until election day you will hear about the latest and greatest polls, versions of which will pop up weekly from various sources. These polls are meant to give voters an indicator of where each party is positioned in the standings at that point in the race.

Polls are undertaken for a number of reasons and their influence on a campaign varies.  A lot depends on who commissioned the poll in question. Some polls are commissioned and released by the parties themselves to demonstrate growing momentum and seek to draw undecided voters into their tent. Maybe people will be motivated to bolster the underdog or jump on the bandwagon of the leading team.

Polls are interesting and make for good headlines, but ultimately the source and motivation for the poll often influence the outcome. That’s not to say there aren’t non-partisan, well-intended pollsters out there. However, predicting the outcome of an election race with accuracy at any one point in time is extremely difficult and even pollsters themselves are identifying the challenges in today’s environment.

As it has with most things, technology has changed polling dramatically, affecting the volume of polls generated and the type of data gathered.

Traditional polling methods relied on phone calls to homes of constituents and a list of questions. Today’s virtual obsolescence of the home phone and limited ability to pin-point voter locations with cellphone lists has changed all that.

Polling now uses online surveys as well, but this form of outreach also poses geographic challenges and can deliver a new margin of error based on anonymity and/or out-of-country responses.

So what is a business owner to do when faced with news about polling results?

First, read the news with a critical eye. Look for the background on who commissioned the poll. How was the data collected? What is the stated margin of error? Knowing these key points will help you discern if the poll is interesting and useful as an indicator of where support is moving in the election, or if it’s merely designed to grab a headline.

Second, remember that the election period runs until Oct. 19. Political people will tell you that a week is a very long time during the campaign. A lot can change between now and election day. Polls, by their very nature, measure support at a given time and we need to place the results in that context.

Third, as a business owner, polling data doesn’t change the way you operate your business or affect your interest in the election. Polls are unpredictable – and even pollsters will tell you it’s getting harder and harder to make accurate predictions of election outcomes. It’s still a good idea to follow campaign news, familiarize yourself with the election platforms of the major parties and prepare to work with whoever is elected as your local representative.

In keeping with interest in polling, Politics Plug-In reached out to a few people from the Waterloo Region to ask them whether they pay attention to coverage about polling and if they think the data is helpful. Here are the results (for full disclosure, the sample size was small and respondents were contacted by email):

Patti McKague, PR and communications professional: “I think it’s interesting commentary, but I also know that things can change through the course of the election campaign and that the polls themselves can even drive how people vote. They are telling, but not definitive.”

Etta Dileo, Owner and Lead Communicator, The Write Approach: “This election more than any other I would be interested in local polling.”

Laurie Paleczny, President, Dash Digital Group: “I do pay close attention to polling information, in particular as the election draws closer.”

A good summary of polling methods and processes can be found in this Globe and Mail story, “Everything you need to know about political polling.”

Top photo: Undecided? How ironic… by Vanessa Pike-Russell is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.