How do we consume polls?

At this point in the campaign, observers are watching and learning from the polls, using them top help make their decisions.

Stage 3 – Until death (or divorce) do us part

The third stage of the campaign is where the political momentum moves ahead of the polls, and they can only catch up. At this stage, partisans love the polls and marry them, if they show their party leading, and they abandon them if they show their party losing: “Polls can’t be trusted anyway, I’ve always said that” is a common refrain.

The political observer at this point is looking to the polls to validate a choice he or she has probably already made, and if the polls don’t validate their choice, they ignore the polls.

The uninvolved voter, who has only just started paying attention to the campaign (and the polls) at this point, may take the latest findings as an imprimatur -“ the party that’s leading is the choice of the people, so it’s my choice too”. This kind of thinking can be prevalent in elections where policy differences between the parties are not great, such as 2004.

At this point, the punditocracy are using the polls as backboards for their rim-shots of political analysis, bouncing ideas off them and challenging their impact. It is customary, as the campaign winds to a close and there is less and less time for a major upset, for commentators to start saying the polls are inaccurate, depending on how well they support the pundits’ case.

At this point, observers have either married the polls they agree with, accepting them fully, or have divorced the ones they don’t agree with, ignoring them from now on.

There is a special Canadian dimension to this stage of the election. If late polls show one party clearly leading, and destined for a majority, often voters transfer their votes to their second choice parties at the last moment, to avoid concentrating too much power in the government’s hands. This has happened to the Conservatives in the past, especially in 2006. This time, we may see it happening to the NDP if they are seen to be clearly leading in the final poll.

How this campaign is different

During this campaign, this third stage has been characterized by the amazing ascent of Jack Layton and his NDP through the ranks, in Quebec, and later, across the country.

When the first polls started to reflect this movement, just before the Easter holiday, many qualified pundits blamed it on a “rogue poll”, the mythical 19th out of 20 polls that ISN’T accurate to within plus or minus so many percentage points. Then more polls started rolling in. First the NDP pulled even with the Bloc in Quebec, then pulled ahead, Then they pulled even with the Liberals across the country, then pulled ahead. As this is being written, the final polls are likely to show the NDP in first place nationwide.

This has been a truly remarkable set of circumstances. For a national party to increase their electoral preference from the low to mid-teens to over 30% in two weeks is unheard of. And it has an unheard of effect on poll watchers. For once, they haven’t put the polls to bed in the final days of the campaign. Every morning brings new amazing news, and it’s clear that the polling prowess of the NDP is having a positive feedback loop effect on their support. The more people realize that others are willing to vote NDP, the more they are willing to do so to. This is rare at this late stage of a campaign, but the NDP’s national momentum is a very rara avis indeed.