Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Latest Calgary poll results -- possibly aided by party's sophisticated moves -- show Green Wave developing

| November 19, 2012
Chris Turner

The latest poll of residents of the Calgary Centre riding shows a Green Wave developing among opponents of the Conservative Party in the Nov. 26 federal by-election.

Organizers for Green Party candidate Chris Turner are taking a highly sophisticated approach to polling in the Calgary Centre by-election, tipping their supporters when they get wind of opinion polls in the riding and instructing them to be sure to pick up their phones and answer the questions.

Nothing wrong with this, of course -- but it should serve as a warning to undecided voters and other observers, especially journalists, that the "narrative" candidates' campaigns try to spin around small-sample polls like those being conducted in Calgary Centre can be easily manipulated by smart efforts to game the polling process.

In the case of the Calgary centre by-election, the narrative being developed by Turner's supporters is that their candidate is the only one with momentum after he appeared unexpectedly in third place among respondents to a Nov. 12 poll of riding voters conducted by Forum Research Inc.

And it may well now be true, as Turner told the Globe and Mail yesterday after another Forum Research poll appeared to confirm the results of the Nov. 12 survey, "we've got the momentum now. I know for sure we can win it. This is the most vulnerable Conservative campaign in Calgary in decades."

The Nov. 12 poll showed Turner in a strong position to vault into the lead among the riding's many voters who are opposed to front-running Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt. This would be an important consideration for strategic voters opposed to Crockatt and looking for the best candidate to whom to give their anti-Conservative vote.

The Nov. 12 Forum poll put Crockatt in the lead, barely, with 32 per cent of committed supporters. Liberal Harvey Locke was in second place with 30 per cent of those surveyed and Turner -- at that time surprisingly -- was in the key No. 3 spot with 23 per cent. NDP candidate Dan Meades had 12 per cent, according to that Forum survey.

The Forum Research poll released last night appeared to reinforce the narrative. In the survey conducted Saturday, Crockatt was back up a little at 35 per cent, but well below the 48 per cent she recorded in the first poll on Oct. 26. Locke was holding at 30 per cent. Turner had moved up again to 25 per cent. Meades' support slipped to 8 per cent.

If this narrative sounds familiar to Alberta political observers, it ought to. It was exactly the strategy used to catapult Naheed Nenshi into the lead in the October 2010 Calgary municipal election and Alison Redford to victory in the 2011 Progressive Conservative leadership race. Both really got on the radar when a poll unexpectedly placed them in the No. 3 spot in their respective contests. Nenshi is now mayor of Calgary and Redford, of course, is the premier of Alberta.

It is likely no coincidence that many of the same people backing Turner were also involved in the Nenshi campaign, and possibly in the Redford campaign as well. Indeed, Nenshi stepped into the fray last week, slamming Crockatt for not showing up at some all-candidates' forums.

So journalists and citizens interpreting the various Forum Research poll results ought to take note of the fact that the survey samples are very small -- the Nov. 12 poll had only 376 respondents and the Nov. 17 poll had 403, which means that approximately four responses could move the level of support for any given candidate by a full percentage point.

Interactive voice response surveys like these Forum polls (which is pollster talk for robocall push-button polls) tend to have lower response rates than other polling methodologies, further increasing the impact of individual respondents.

After the Nov. 12 results, media quickly picked up on the fact Crockatt's support appeared to be dramatically lower than it was on Oct. 26, when she recorded the backing of 48-per-cent of respondents. Journalists also quickly ran with the idea Turner was the candidate whose support was showing the most upward movement.

So it is significant -- though impossible to criticize -- that a Green Party organizer emailed committed supporters a note headed "There is another poll tonight -- be sure to pick up," not long before the latest survey.

"Word from Chris Turner's Head Quarters is that another poll is being conducted at this very moment," said the email from Green Party Volunteer Co-ordinator Natalie Odd to committed Turner supporters. "Please be sure to pick up any calls your receive this evening!"

The emails were followed up with phone calls to supporters, although the pollster actually appears to have called a day later than the party expected.

In addition to such emails and calls, Turner's supporters posted similar messages on Facebook and some people distributed the call-display number the polling company was using.

As previously noted, there’s nothing wrong with this, any more than it would be wrong for a politician to encourage supporters to show up at all-candidates meetings and cheer loudly. Other campaigns may also be doing the same thing.

But as citizens we need to be aware that this method of polling can produce results that do not precisely reflect the true distribution of public support at the time the survey was taken. Furthermore, we would be naïve not to realize that poll results influence voter preferences during campaigns, especially among undecided voters pondering a strategic vote against a particular candidate.

Advance polls in the Calgary Centre by-election are scheduled to open today.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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