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B.C. premier-elect Christy Clark pauses during a news conference at her office in Vancouver on May 15, 2013, after winning a majority in the provincial election Tuesday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
B.C. premier-elect Christy Clark pauses during a news conference at her office in Vancouver on May 15, 2013, after winning a majority in the provincial election Tuesday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

How the pollsters got it so wrong in the B.C. election Add to ...

“One lesson we’ve learned from last night is we probably shouldn’t stop [polling] four or five days before the election day. And we learned that in Alberta,” said Mr. Bozinoff, the Forum pollster.

Media coverage, meanwhile, feasts on any poll that comes out. Mr. Seccaspina said that’s a problem – polls are a snapshot, not necessarily a predictor.

“I think part of the story here is how they’re reported. And I think they’ve got to stop being reported that this is indicative. People change their minds,” he said. “Bottom line is voters matter, elections matter and I think we really need to get away from the polls being the news story.”

The work in determining what went wrong began before the results were in: Ipsos Reid did exit polling on Tuesday, interviewing 1,400 voters. Among those who decided their vote before the campaign, the NDP held a huge lead; among those who decided during the campaign, the Liberals led, the exit poll found.

Negative ads run by the Liberals “had a slaughtering effect,” Ipsos Reid said, concluding: “campaigns matter, negative advertising can have a huge impact, and motivating voters right down to the wire can have a huge influence.”

X-Factors

Undecided voters are one of many moving targets giving pollsters trouble. Another major challenge is voter turnout.

Preliminary figures show turnout was at 52 per cent in B.C., which was similar to 2009 levels but well below 2005 levels. At that level, it’s difficult to predict who will show up.

“It depends election to election who gets their vote out, and I think the B.C. Liberals got their vote out,” said Sarah Weddell, vice-president of Hill and Knowlton, which used an online poll five days before the election to find the Liberals down six points. “What happened on election day was the NDP vote did not show up,” added John Wright of Ipsos Reid.

Another factor is vote-splitting. B.C. and Alberta each had four-way races. Ms. Redford benefitted from a slumping Liberal vote, while Ms. Clark benefitted from a slumping Conservative vote. The B.C. NDP, meanwhile, lost ground to the Green Party.

Some first-generation Canadians are also difficult to poll, and in some cases prefer to be polled in their mother tongues, Mr. Reid said. That left question marks in B.C. regions with heavy visible-minority populations.

And in B.C., Alberta and Quebec, incumbent parties did better than expected, Mr. Graves noted.

“All three came back in the late stages and registered 10 points ahead of where they were in the polls. ... So, obviously, there is something going on,” he said. Ekos’s phone poll, on the eve of the election, found the NDP up five points. “It gets discouraging, frankly. You’re doing this to try and hone your skills. And when it doesn’t work, it’s no fun.”

What now?

It’s back to the drawing board for some pollsters – though not all. Mr. Wright, for instance, says Ipsos is satisfied with its methodology, saying voters “upset their own apple cart based on everything they’ve seen, read or heard.”

Some pollsters are juggling how to blend polling models. Online panels are used widely in consumer research, and tend to reach young people. Phone calls, meanwhile, tend to target older people and face a declining response rate – people aren’t as likely these days to talk honestly to a pollster.

“We’re evolving to [online] methods that, in a way, favour the younger voter, and the younger voter is not a traditional voter … the election process favours older people,” pollster Barb Justason said. Justason Market Intelligence’s online poll had the NDP up 14 points on May 10, only to see them lose four days later. The industry has a methodology problem, she said.

“We’re dealing in a world where we cannot produce a probability sample, no matter how hard we try, hold our breath and spin around three times. We can’t do it,” she said.

Abacus Data said it used the same methodology to much stronger results in Ontario’s election, but will review it. “I think there’s a number of things we need to consider. It’s certainly a wake-up call for a lot of us,” CEO David Coletto said. Abacus’s poll, early in the campaign, found the Liberals down 10 points.

Calgary pollster Bruce Cameron said the industry needs a mix of social-media monitoring, online responses and live telephone polling to get the best picture.

“It’s not about going where the puck is. It’s about anticipating where the puck will be,” said Mr. Cameron, who accurately predicted Ms. Redford would win and didn’t poll in the B.C. race. “It is an amazing [Clark] comeback, but the seeds of it were there.”

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