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The lawn signs are out and politicians are across the country shaking hands and kissing babies. Every day there are new polls out telling us how they’re faring with the public, but how do we know whether to trust these numbers, and how do they affect voters?

Shachi Kurl is the Executive Director at Angus Reid Institute, a not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization. She dropped by The Social to help us understand how polls are constructed and how to interpret what you read.

How do the polls work?

When it comes to federal election polls, tens of thousands of Canadians are involved in an online panel to make sure the sample represents Canada’s diversity as accurately as possible. People can volunteer to participate, but it does not guarantee they will be selected because participants are chosen at random. You might be wondering, “Won’t only the loudest voices be heard?” There’s no need to worry! Participants are recruited from many different sources, including Facebook and text message. People from all walks of life are sought out and an eye is kept on groups that are underrepresented.

Putting polls in context

When polling data is released, the context is often missing. We often hear that it’s a tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives; however, it’s important to look at trends in the data and voter turnout. The Conservative numbers are pretty constant, but they are not increasing. In spite of that, they have a demographic advantage with more support from older male voters, a demographic that can be counted on to show up and vote in elections. The Liberal numbers fluctuate frequently, but they have more potential to sway NDP or Green Party votes. Their main concern is that their supporters, typically younger Canadians, are less likely to vote.

Voter complacency

What we see in the polls can impact how people vote on Election Day. Voters may think their party has a lead and be too complacent to vote, which can affect the end result. Some suspect that this is why Hillary Clinton lost the election even though polls showed her in the lead. Voters also face the dilemma of strategic voting – voting for your second favourite party when your first choice doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a matter of voting with your head or your heart.

Do scandals affect polls?

What happens to the polls after a scandal? When a scandal like Trudeau doing blackface emerges, it doesn’t always affect the polls as drastically as you might think. While voters felt awful in the moment, Trudeau still survived after everyone was given a few days of contemplation and discussion. Other factors, like a great debate, can improve the public’s views on a leader, like we saw when Clinton won against Bush and Kennedy won against Nixon.

 

Remember to think about all of the relevant factors when you read a poll: How many people were polled? Who conducted the poll? Which questions were asked? Also consider its timing and context in Canadian politics. Hopefully you’ll be able to make more sense out of the next election poll you come across!