Provincial NDP victory in Nanaimo is a defeat for pollsters

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Photo: Sheila Malcolmson/Facebook

On January 28, as the voters in British Columbia’s provincial riding of Nanaimo prepared to vote in a crucial byelection, Mainstreet Research came out with a poll showing the B.C. Liberal candidate ahead by 13 points.

If the byelection had turned out that way, the combined forces of the NDP and the Greens would have lost their one-seat majority.

But that is not what happened. On January 30, the NDP candidate, former federal MP Sheila Malcolmson, won by nearly 10 points. The Mainstreet poll from two days before the vote was wrong. In fact, it was 23 percentage points off the mark.

The B.C. NDP minority government is safe, for now at least. As long as Premier John Horgan can keep the support of the Green Party, and his own caucus, he can stave off a new election.

The Nanaimo result is important because it maintains a certain measure of stability in B.C. politics, at a time when the province has many challenges, not the least of which is to forge a healthier and more respectful relationship with its First Nations.

But the byelection result, so at variance with the most recent poll, is also important for another reason. It should give those of us who play at political punditry pause.

We tend to treat public opinion polling data as solid fact, based on what appears to be a scientific methodology. In reality, polls give us, at best, an incomplete and hazy view of the state of public opinion.

And so, when they depict the challenges facing the political players and the choices facing the electorate, it is dangerous and unfair for journalists and analysts to give excessive weight to polling data.

Do polls accurately tell the current federal political story?

Currently, the pundits’ consensus on the federal political state of affairs is very much poll-driven.

Most recent polls show the Trudeau Liberals neck-and-neck with Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives. Pundits attribute this result to the prime minister’s missteps, such as his ill-fated trip to India, and to public resistance to the Liberal government’s modest carbon tax.

Polls also show the Greens to be on the ascent, somewhat, vis-à-vis their result in the last federal election, which does not quite square with the view that there is widespread backlash against measures to deal with climate change.

As for the New Democrats, most polls have them well below their 2015 election score of just below 20 per cent. Some polls have them in the low teens.

Those numbers have led to the consensus view among professional observers that NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is not catching on with the electorate, does not connect with voters and, overall, is dragging down his party.

There may be some truth to that view. The polls might, in fact, be capturing part of the real picture -- but, at best, it is almost only a small part. Not only are polls merely snapshots in time, they are limited in their view and scope. They can never accurately and fully reflect the complex and multi-layered texture of public opinion.

To know what is going on in the public mind, we who work in what is becoming an endangered profession -- journalism -- must talk to and pay attention to real live members of the public, not just pollsters. And we should pay heed to the issues real people care about, and not focus exclusively on the horse-race numbers, the matter of who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead and who’s a behind.

The Nanaimo byelection was not an opinion poll. It entailed actual voters making a real choice.

The poll-defying result is a bucket of cold water over the heads of the too-often smug and over-confident pollster community, and it should be a warning to those who base their political analyses to too great a degree on poll numbers.

Headlines after the Mainstreet poll came out two days before the actual vote focused on the fragility of the NDP’s hold on power.

The morning after the byelection, the story, and the conversation around it, had completely changed. The headline in the Vancouver Sun, to cite just one example, read: “NDP tightens grip on power with byelection win."

There are federal byelections coming at the end of February and they, too, just might change the conversation – in this case about the state of play on the federal political stage.

Photo: Sheila Malcolmson/Facebook

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

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