How do we consume polls?

April 29, 2011

Our relationship with the polls during an election is fickle and transitory – it goes through stages, just like a relationship between humans.

Stage 1, Getting to know you

At the beginning of an election (or before one is called), the casual political observer will turn to the polls to see what the relative strengths of the competing parties are. Who is up, who is down, what the recent trends have been.

This sets the stage for the opening phase of the election, and allows partisans to assume their game faces – spunky underdog, always scrapping; serene frontrunner, floating above the fray; middle-of-the-pack striver, trying to punch above its weight.

In this federal election, this stage of the campaign (and the polling) was marked by favourable reviews for Stephen Harper, who had comfortable leads across the board.

This is the stage of the relationship where people start feeling out the polls, getting to know their favourites. No one is leading the relationship yet, both parties are just getting comfortable and gathering information. People use the polls to set their expectations for the coming election, they neither adopt nor reject them.

Stage 2, Going steady

Once the campaign gets rolling, the polls start moving, and the trends become more important than the raw numbers. Who is moving, who is stalled , and where the movement is coming from.

The political observer is a little less casual now, and consults the polls more frequently. The polls are published more frequently. They become the story, and the “horse race” is reported in every headline.

At this point, we start using polls to inform our judgment. For those who aren’t dyed-in-the wool partisans, this is an opportunity to inspect the prospects of the competing parties – no one wants to be seen backing a loser.

In the middle of this stage of the relationship, we go on an important date – the debates. The debates are often when most observers start to take notice of the campaign, and there is often significant movement pre- and post-debate. It is as if this is when we take the date to meet our parents – do they measure up, do they get along. After this point, things start to move very fast.

It is at this point that the polls start influencing the editorial writers and bloggers. They are paid for their insight, and in the middle of a frantic Canadian federal campaign, there is little insight to be had apart from the polling data.

Convincing-sounding theories for the a particular poll movement are advanced, debunked and resurrected. Very often the causal narrative is turned on its head, and the pundits will come up with an explanation for a poll shift after the shift has occurred.

This stage of the current campaign was marked by favourable reviews for Michael Ignatieff, and a sense that the Liberals were slowly gaining ground on the Conservatives. This was the narrative of the middle third of the campaign.