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The pollster who couldn't shoot straight

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I confess to being a bit obsessive about polls and pour over as many as I can especially regarding federal politics and the issues that drive it. For a number of years I relied on -- and lauded -- one particular pollster, Nik Nanos. There were two reasons for this: one, he was uncannily accurate leading up to elections and predicting their results, and two, he wasn't trying to make the corporate world or the Harper Conservatives look good which some pollsters, like Strategic Counsel, seem to do a lot. He wasn't disengaged from the fight for the country and his polling questions often reflected that.

That was then and this is now. By ‘this' I mean some rather odd emanations coming from Nik's shop -- odd and wrong. First, he didn't get it even close to right the last election. And then, in January, he came out saying the whole issue of shutting down Parliament was a big yawn that no one cared about. Nanos told the Globe on Jan. 5 that prorogation was unlikely to have a significant influence upon voting behaviour.

"Will this annoy the opposition parties? Absolutely." But ordinary Canadians are unlikely to be upset by a two-month pause in partisan politics. According to Nanos "Especially since, from the perspective of voters, there really isn't a big issue that requires the emergency attention of the House of Commons."

Ouch. Poor Nik. 230,000 Facebook names and 60 simultaneous demos with 25,000 people later...and, oh yes, Harper down in the polls by 10 percentage points (or nearly one quarter of his previous share of public opinion).

This was odd for Nanos not just because it was so totally off the mark but because it seemed counter-intuitive to his polling history. People were pissed off because their democracy was being trashed and Nik was saying things that were a little too soothing to Harper and his thugs.

Stepping into the breach was the Rideau Institute (disclosure: I am on their advisory body) which did a self-selecting poll posted to on CAPP (Canadian Against Proroguing Parliament) site, aimed at figuring out just who took part. Over 340 signatories answered eight questions. The results were surprising and encouraging;

"...despite the perception that CAPP members are university and college students or recent graduates with active social lives, half of the respondents are 45 years of age or older. Thirty-four per cent of the respondents are 31-44 years of age and 16 per cent are aged 18-30. ...the respondents are politically engaged people: 88 per cent described themselves as either somewhat or very engaged in federal politics. In addition to this, 96 per cent of the participants indicated that they voted in the last federal election."

The margin of error in such a poll is obviously fairly high - but even so, it was revealing of who is using Facebook to express their views. These are not people jumping on the next political bandwagon -- they are the people who determine elections.

Now Mr. Nanos has taken it up a notch with a perverse poll asking people whether or not governments should actually listen to anything anyone says on the social media. According to the Globe's Michael Valpy, Nanos claims a poll he did showed that only a "small minority" (oddly for a pollster he offered no hard numbers) of young Canadian adults "...think social networking forums should sway government."

Nanos himself said: "They see it as an enabler of political discussion, and a kind of low-entry political transaction. But that shouldn't be confused with [the political intentions of] the broader population and whether a government should change or modify its policy just because of something that's on the Internet. We should delineate between Facebook as a mobilizing force in politics and Facebook as having political heft in the ballot box."

Nik, Nik, you have to quit drinking your own bathwater. Is this actually supposed to encourage people to use your services? (I am thinking here of the dozens of civil society groups and unions who use social media -- the ones you just insulted.)

The Harper government shouldn't "modify its policy" based on 230,000 people and 60 demos? You're kidding, right? A whole lot of Conservatives are scared spitless at the huge drop in the polls -- a drop that is holding steady now through several surveys.

And as for "low-entry political transaction" just what does that mean? Is low level a level for stupid, thoughtless people, Nik? I guess high level is calling up the PMO and having a chat with the President, er, Prime Minister. Since when is it a bad thing to make it easy for people to engage in democracy? Because it's easy, it's not legitimate? People's anger over Harper's trashing of democracy is just as legitimate on a Facebook page as it is in an email or letter to a politician.

Mr. Nanos will have to offer some sort of explanation and proof of his proposition. He should be arguing that this is a fabulous use of the internet. One of the reasons people don't engage in politics by writing to or even emailing a politician is that the likes of Harper and Company have made it clear they don't give a damn about what people think.

People are now so over-worked and overwhelmed by their daily lives that the traditional methods of engaging in politics have become all but impossible for most "average voters." The vicious partisanship of the Harper Conservatives is deliberately intended to disillusion people and make them disengage. Anything that counters that trend is positive.

Better sharpen your pencil, Nik. Or get off the bus.

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