The Globe and Mail has shifted to victory mode this week, with columnist aftercolumnist smugly asserting that the Conservatives are coasting to victory. Theonly question left is whether the party will reach the magic threshold of 40-45 per cent to win a majority of the seats. The Globe‘s polling firm, StrategicCounsel, claims that the Conservatives still have room to expand their support,particularly in Quebec and urban Ontario. The sky’s the limit, it would appear.
But if one takes a critical look at Strategic’s polling methods, and comparesthem to polls prepared by other firms, things don’t look as if they’re in thebag yet for the Conservatives.
For instance, as Simon Fraser University political scientist AndrewHeard points out on his elections website, anumber of the polling firms are rolling decided voters in with what pollsterscall “leaners,” people who don’t actually have strong views about the parties.People in this group only give an opinion because they are pressed by interviewers to doso. Heard argues that such leaners are “quite volatile and [can] either changetheir party preference or even decide not to vote at all.”
A glance at the Strategic websitereveals that this lumping of decided and “leaners” is just whatthey are doing. When we combine this questionable practice with the ratherlarge margins of error factored into their polling, the Conservative advantageall but disappears.
For instance, while Strategic’s national margin of erroris just + or — 2.5 per cent, that figure shoots up in a host of regions whereConservative support is claimed to be improving: 7.4 per cent in Montreal, 6.4 per cent in theGTA, and 7 per cent across all of B.C. Strategic does not report any levels ofundecided voters.
If we turn to the other polling companies a different picture emerges. SESreports that 14 per cent of those surveyed are still undecided, with 13 per cent undecided inOntario, and a whopping 20 per cent undecided in Quebec. SES also asks respondents ifthey are “leaning” toward any party, but by providing an “undecideds”percentage they at least are more honest about how much room there still is fora shift in voting intentions before Election Day.
SES also provides adifferent picture of the Conservative “momentum.” First of all, the spreadbetween the Liberals and Tories is much closer — just 7 or 8 per cent — rather than the13-14 per cent spread reported by Strategic. SES also reports a much closer racebetween the Liberals and Conservatives in Quebec (19 per cent versus 22 per cent), Ontario (34 per centversus 38 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (39 per cent versus 32 per cent). Curiously, Strategic doesn’treport results for Atlantic Canada, one region where the Liberals are in thelead.
Other polling firms offer even more stark alternatives to the pro-Conservative polling numbers coming from Strategic. Leger reports federalvoting intentions both in terms of firm commitments and then with the additionof “leaners” and “undecideds.” Counting only the firmly decided, the Liberals andConservatives are neck and neck with 26 per cent and 27 per cent, with 20 per cent not willing tocommit. Adding in “leaners,” the Leger figures still show a more competitiverace, with the Liberals at 32 per cent and the Conservatives at 34 per cent.
And if we break down such figures in terms of where parties are strong or weak,or where they can conceivably win seats, the whole picture becomes morecompetitive. Thus we should be less impressed by province-wide polling numbersand more interested in how that plays out in places where Liberals orConservatives have a shot at winning.
The fact that the Liberals are leadingin Montreal is much more important than the province-wide figures for Quebec asthat area is traditionally a stronghold for the party. The fact that theLiberals are leading in the Greater Toronto Area will limit a Tory sweep of the province. Andtheir strength in the Maritimes will give them a boost in seats as that area ofthe country is over-represented vis-Ã -vis other areas of the country.
Of course, if things really are so volatile electorally, why are the media andpollsters like Strategic reporting what Canadians believe in such a skewedway? The papers and pollsters claim they are only providing necessaryinformation to the public — all to help them make more informed decisions. Butthis doesn’t explain why The Globe and Mail and Strategic choose to suppressthe number of “undecideds.”
An ungenerous interpretation might point to the factthat Strategic is run by Conservatives (Allan Gregg was a longtime Conservativepollster) or that The Globe, and their corporate backers, would like to see aConservative government. But in so many ways the Liberals have also been agood friend to corporate Canada. After all, the Liberal government fell inlarge part because Paul Martin was so desperate to demonstrate his fidelity toCanada’s rich with a whopping corporate tax cut.
The real reason that so much of the media coverage is focused on polling, andso many millions of dollars are spent on doing polling, is to ensure media andcorporate control of the political agenda. Constantly harping on the horserace, particularly between two largely indistinguishable parties, is a way ofcorralling voters into an American-style two party system and obscuring theissues that voters might want discussed.
If individual voters can be convincedthat everyone else (i.e. other voters) are moving in a particular direction (i.e.toward the Tories) then some will opt for the Liberals as a reaction,particularly soft New Democrats. Though many complain that the NDP themselveshave become a bit corporate lately, the fact is that they are still perceivedby voters as representing something different from the Liberals andConservatives. This degree of competition, weak as it is, represents a degreeof uncertainly for Canada’s corporate media that they would like to eradicate.
After all, the corporations have themselves covered — they win with either theLiberals or Conservatives. But if neither wins an outright majority, as islikely as long as Canada retains a multiparty system, they are not as useful orcontrollable. Thus when the media rush to embrace and proclaim theinevitability of a Conservative victory — they are not merely reporting theynews, they are trying to create it.