As Christy Clark scrambled to prepare an unexpected victory speech Tuesday night, it became exceedingly clear that poll numbers deserve more scrutiny. The BC Premier was considered the underdog in the May 14 provincial election, trailing NDP leader Adrian Dix by a heavy margin during much of the race. Polling in the last few days kept Dix ahead of Clark by nearly 9%, with some pollster claiming the probability of Dix winning was 98%.
Oh how wrong they were.
Polls are not infallible, as the 2012 Alberta election already demonstrated. Sure, they might be accurate, but their results can be skewed by a number of factors.
One major factor is that polls don’t discriminate. They survey large swaths of the electorate and base the results on how people say they feel. It is very likely that on a whole, 46% of the electorate did actually prefer Dix. But the turnout rate was only 52%, and the NDP came out with just under 40% of the popular vote. A lack of mobilization on the NDP’s part may explain their low turnout, where supporters just didn’t feel the need to go out and vote. If they’re already leading by 10%, one less vote won’t change anything. On the other hand, the BC Liberal’s Get out the Vote campaign, especially targeting young voters, may have given them a strategic edge.
A possible election in Quebec in the next year will just add to the headache that pollsters are feeling.
Recent poll numbers by the Journal de Montréal have the Quebec Liberals pegged at 35%, ahead of the governing Parti Québécois (PQ) who stand at 27% and the Coalition for Quebec’s Future (CAQ) at 19%. What does it all mean? Nothing.
The Liberals are still enjoying a honeymoon period after electing Philippe Couillard as their new leader, replacing former premier Jean Charest. But the Liberal brand is still damaged daily with new revelations about shady party practices at the province’s corruption inquiry. People may like Couillard, but they will need more convincing to vote for the Liberal Party again. Were an election to roll around, Couillard would need to put a lot of effort into mobilizing his base and getting moderates who are tired of the PQ to get out and actually vote. They may be high in the polls now, but like Adrian Dix, it would not be an effortless battle.
As for the PQ, they shouldn’t be sighing in relief from the BC election just yet. While it does show they might be less threatened by the poll numbers than is perceived, their support might simply continue to drop into the future. Only recently have allegations come out of the Charbonneau Commission blaming PQ members of taking part in Quebec’s corruption culture. Further revelations may continue to harm their public image – which Premier Pauline Marois likes to pretend is spotless. On top of that, the PQ has been stagnant on the economy, preferring to place their energy on the tired battle of promoting sovereignty and picking fights with Anglophones, something most Quebecers don’t have the stomach for. Her largest swath of mobilized voters in the 2012 election, students, have also given up on the her. Failing her campaign promise to freeze the cost of tuition, Marois can say au revoir to the key demographic that helped tip her into a minority government.
The key winner here is the CAQ, who are underrepresented in the polls but likely would make a huge splash if voters were to actually go and vote. Having never governed before, the CAQ is immune to corruption allegations. Moreover, François Legault’s recruitment of former Montreal police chief and anti-corruption warrior Jacques Duchesneau only adds icing to their cake of moral superiority. These soft nationalists who tend to be on the right of many issues have the advantage of attracting supporters of both the Liberals and the PQ who are getting tired of the same old political games.
The Quebec electorate has a history of political mood swings – Orange Crush, anyone? – making predicting results very difficult. It’s easy to tell a pollster who you support on the phone, but stepping into a voting booth and feeling the weight of your decision has a funny way of making you rethink your choice.
Polls should only be used as a very rough guide in testing the political mood of a constituency; it should not be a crystal ball for the future.