Liberals gain momentum, up 1.8% since last poll
Ipsos Poll shows 40% of voters think NDP, Liberals, Tories are basically the same
Margin narrows again in 3-way race
What do all of these headlines really mean? What exactly is a poll? How do campaigns use this information? Does it really matter?
This election is anything but normal. Not only is this the first ‘fixed date election’ but it is a much longer campaign than previous elections. There is waaaaay too much time for political pollsters to run numbers and try to decide general sentiment out there. But there is a major flaw in the way polls are presented these days: most people don’t truly understand the intricacies involved.
As a social science student, I’ve learned about research methods and methodology. While I am by no means an expert, I do understand polls. I know some of the questions I had when I first looked at them so I thought I could help you understand a little more the limitations behind polling.
The concept of polling rests on the assumption that the opinions of the people sampled accurately represent the opinions of many. This isn’t necessarily true. There is something called the “margin of error” which describes the uncertainty or miscalculation possible in a poll. In theory, the more people are surveyed, the smaller the margin of error. Unfortunately, many polls fall victim to a number of biases that significantly skew their results despite their small margin of error.
One of the biggest issues that comes into play in today’s world, is the ability to get a representative sample. Pollsters used to be able to use the phone book and predictive dialing to get a hold of people, but today most people use a cell phone as their primary mode of communication. Some don’t even have landlines anymore. It becomes difficult to make sure that you are reaching a representative sample of the population (a subset of a statistical population that accurately reflects the members of the entire population). Who are the people likely to answer a political poll? Who are the people likely to answer a landline?
For interest sake, look up the Roosevelt v. Landon Presidential election polling disaster. It’s a lesson that we all need to keep in mind today.
At the end of the day, the only poll that really matters is the one on election day. Keep that in mind when you see the next headline.