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BC Premier Christy Clark during a press conference at the BC Legislative Building in Victoria, Tuesday March 27, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)
BC Premier Christy Clark during a press conference at the BC Legislative Building in Victoria, Tuesday March 27, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)

Robert Matas

Politicians and those pesky polls Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty or Alison Redford or Greg Selinger or any of the leaders across the country who have been re-elected as premier were about the same place we are now, one year out from an election.”

Premier Christy Clark, responding to questions about the B.C. Liberal Party’s poor showing in the most recent opinion polls.

An Angus Reid Public Opinion online poll of 802 British Columbians, released this week, found that the B.C. Liberal Party was bleeding support. Nearly one in three who voted Liberal in the last election now say they would vote Conservative; one in five say they would vote NDP.

The NDP had the support of 50 per cent of decided voters, the Liberals had 23 per cent and the B.C. Conservative Party, 19 per cent. The poll, conducted May 7 to 9, had a margin of error of 3.5 per cent.

Ms. Clark’s initial response was to attack the pollster. “I think the Angus Reid poll contributes to the growing cynicism about, first of all, polls in general, and second, Angus Reid’s accuracy,” she said during a conference call with reporters while on a trade mission in Asia.

Pressed by a reporter, Ms. Clark tried out several different responses.

She took the long view. “We’re a year before an election. We got a long, long way to go until we get there.” She dipped into history for analogies, drawing comparisons with polling in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba.

She circled back to dump on the pollster for missing a shift in opinion in the recent Alberta provincial election. She questioned the accuracy of telephone polls, although Angus Reid Public Opinion does online polling. She concluded with a sweeping condemnation: “We always see these guys get it wrong.”

However, Angus Reid on most occasions gets it right. A review of its track record shows that its polls were accurate in eight Canadian provincial elections and two federal elections over the past five years. In an anomaly, the pollster was far off the mark in the recent Alberta election.

Ms. Clark is justified in looking to Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba for some comfort.

A year before the Ontario election, Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals were trailing the Progressive Conservative Party by 12 percentage points, according to an Angus Reid poll. The Liberals won the election with the support of 38 per cent of the electorate, three percentage points more than the Conservatives.

In Manitoba, Angus Reid pollsters said the NDP had the support of 37 per cent of decided voters a year before the provincial election, nine percentage points less than the Progressive Conservative Party. The NDP won re-election with 46 per cent of the votes, two percentage points more than the Conservatives.

The Alberta numbers told a similar story. The Progressive Conservative Party had the support of 27 per cent of decided voters a year before the election; the Wildrose Party, 42 per cent. On election night, the Conservatives won re-election with 44 per cent of the vote, 10 percentage points more than Wildrose.

But the re-election of incumbent premiers did not indicate the polls were wrong a year earlier. Opinions shifted before voting day.

Angus Reid successfully tracked the reversals in Ontario and Manitoba leading up to the election, releasing numbers just before the vote that were close to the final results. On the other hand, the agency was spectacularly wrong in Alberta.

Mario Canseco, vice-president at Angus Reid, attributed the failure to pick up a last-minute shift in opinion in Alberta to the difficulty of polling on the weekend before the vote. The election was on a Monday and pollsters have trouble finding people to poll on the weekend, he said.

The current B.C. poll is telling Ms. Clark where the Liberals stand a year before the next provincial election, not predicting results a year in advance. Ms. Clark did not have to attack the credibility of the pollsters to make that point.

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