A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
As the clock keeps ticking, I am rapidly approaching the exalted state of old bugger. In other words, I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve done a few things. I’ve seen a number of elections come and go — some good, some bad, some indifferent. However, I’ve never been asked or harassed into giving my opinion to an election poll. The telephone has never cut across dinner, somewhere between the string beans and the ice cream; the deadpan voice of Nanos, Ekos or Ipsos Reid has never asked me for my opinion. This doesn’t bother me much because, honestly, if I was bored that night, I’d probably lie. But I do wonder why.
First of all, in times of non-election, the phone rings all the time. I have any number of people concerned about me. They want to know every detail about my personal hygiene, how I get to work, or how many adult beverages I drink per day, on average. (One? Two to five? More than five? More than five!) I even get calls from Tammy, the robot who insists I’ve won a free vacation in Fort Lauderdale and some guy who wants to solve my credit card debt, among other things. The only thing I’ve ever done to deserve this kind of attention is subscribe to a couple of magazines and park my posterior in a target demographic. Yet, when my country wants to renew its commitment to democracy, nobody gives a damn what I think.
Secondly, I’m the guy they want. I always vote. I’m aware of the issues, such as they are. I’ve always been in everybody’s target demographic – Undecided. I usually make up my mind around half-time in the election cycle, and despite my obvious conservative leanings, I’ve voted Liberal enough times to qualify for a red scarf. You’d think that every pollster and most political parties would definitely want to know what I thought about Health Care or F-35 jetfighters, not to mention which way I plan to scratch my ballot. Nope, not a bit of it, and this isn’t the first time — it’s every time – since Trudeau swept me off my feet when I was a child. What’s the probability of that, with a margin of error plus or minus 3.6 percent? I’m beginning to think these polls might not be the be-all, end-all political weathervane they claim to be. In fact, I’m beginning to seriously question their methodology.
I understand that polling is not an exact science. Political parties and the media use polls to follow broad trends, not to predict elections. But it strikes me that daily polls are taking polling beyond the point of absurdity. Personally, I think pollsters hire a bunch of unemployed telemarketers and turn them loose. They track the answers of the relatively few people who don’t hang up on them and present the raw data to the number crunchers. The number crunchers (Nobody has ever seen them, by the way) apply some kind of voodoo mathematical formula to the whole mess, and voila. The polls pronounce the Liberals are falling out of the race in B.C. or the NDP are gaining ground in Quebec — or vice versa. These folks talked to approximately 2,400 people, chosen at random, and they’ve got the cojones to make statements like that? It beggars the imagination. There are 308 political ridings in this country; divide that into the number of people they talked to, and you get fewer than 8 people per riding. In some places in this country, you can talk to eight people and never step outside the family. Our country is so big it makes the poll numbers useless. For example, according to one poll, the NDP have 20% of the vote and the Bloc Quebecois have 7.8%. But in the end, the NDP are only going to win about thirty-five seats, whereas the Bloc will take over fifty. In Canada, it doesn’t matter who likes you, or how much: it matters where they like you. The polls don’t reflect that.
Then there’s also this idiot plus or minus margin of error, which can be as high as 6 percent. Three questions? How do they know what the margin of error is? If they do know it, why don’t they fix it? And finally, how come it keeps changing? Has anybody ever gone back 20 years, looked at the polls and then compared them to the actual results of the election? That would certainly give an accurate measure of the margin of error. Then, there’s that whole “correct 19 times out of 20” business; I don’t think anybody knows what that means.
Polls are a strange exercise in diagnosing political thought. In reality, at least in Canada, they’re practically useless; at best, they’re only ever close. I can’t say for certain, but sometimes I think pollsters get a little beyond their per day, on average consumption of adult beverages. They say, “Screw the phones!” and go into the back room and start throwing darts or rolling dice. That’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain the mystery of why two polls from the same time and place can be so different.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what I think: nobody’s asked me for my opinion, anyway.