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Illustration by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Do political polls <br/>harm democracy or serve <br/>the public interest? Add to ...

Two seasoned pollsters have written a spirited defence of their practices, warning that limiting political polls would allow politicians and even the media to "push their own distorted view of public opinion."

"Canada's pollsters should remember that they perform an important public service," Ipsos Reid's John Wright and Darrell Bricker argue in an article circulated to reporters. "Our polls speak truth to power."

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The pair put pen to paper in defence of their craft as a result of a two recent pieces by Canadian Press reporter Joan Bryden, in which she quoted some pollsters critical of the "confusing and conflicting numbers" that are being tossed about in media polls in advance of a potential spring election. Much critical commentary ensued.

Quoted in her article is former official pollster for the Reform Party, Andre Turcotte, who is now a communications professor at Carleton University. "Pay attention if you want to but, frankly, they don't mean anything," Mr. Turcotte said in summing up the value of all horse-race polls.

Mr. Wright suggests that pollsters who feel this way should quit. "If they think the profession they are in and the craft they perform for their clients and media partners are so flawed, they should just shutter their windows," he said told The Globe in an interview.

In their article, Mr. Wright and Mr. Bricker contend the view that political polls in Canada are not based on adequate samples and are prone to error is "ridiculous."

"Nobody in the world does true random samples for political research," they write. "Another, nobody has ever conducted a random sample for a political survey in Canada, EVER. True random samples take too long, are too expensive, and are overkill for the task at hand."

They also say they do not "cut any corners" on their surveys despite the fact the media doesn't pay "commercial rates for political polls."

But they do express concerns that some pollsters may be "torquing" results. "More than once we've been shocked by some of the polling analysis reported by the press," they write. "Maybe some of the people who are being quoted should follow their own advice on this, because they have occasionally said some pretty questionable things."

EKOS Research president Frank Graves, meanwhile, takes a similar view of the importance of media political polls - decrying the notion they are "harmful to democracy" as "nonsense."

"Best to leave it to the occluded machinations of the back room political pollsters and leave the media and public to speculate in a state of ignorance or worse rely on the uniformed speculation of the punditocracy? Please!," Mr. Graves said in an email.

Suggesting the track record of political pollsters is not as "egregiously flawed as one might surmise from the article," he argued the practice is "an essential mirror of public judgment on their political choices which elevates debate and disciplines politicians to at least keep some connection to the preferences of the entire society."

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