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Pollsters on Ontario discrepancies: 'Stop focusing on the horse race'

Tory supporters watch as results begin to come at Tim Hudak's Ontario election night headquarters in Niagara Falls on Oct. 6, 2011.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

One pollster reported that Tim Hudak's Conservatives were edging Dalton McGuinty's Liberals by three percentage points. At the same time however, another firm had the Liberals ahead of the Tories by 10 points.

This was Tuesday morning, two days before Ontarians cast their ballots.

With a surge by the Liberals that stopped just short of a majority, the Ontario election was a tight affair that sometimes produced head-scratching polling news.

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In the end, the Liberals captured 37.6 per cent of the popular vote, with the Progressive Conservatives behind at 35.4 per cent and the NDP at 22.7 per cent and the Greens at 2.9 per cent.

The morning after, various pollsters were trying to reconcile the discrepancies.

The Ontario Liberals were "assured of a minority" and "poised for historic three-peat majority," Ipsos Reid said Tuesday in announcing a telephone poll for Global News, CFRB 1010 and the Ottawa Citizen.

Ipsos Reid said the Liberals would receive 41 per cent among decided voters, the Tories 31 per cent and the NDP 25 per cent.

That same day, the polling firm Angus Reid announced in a press release, titled "Tories Edging Liberals But Ontario Race Could Turn in Final Hours." that an online survey it conducted from Monday to Tuesday morning showed the Tories were at 36 per cent and the Liberals at 33 per cent.

"The Progressive Conservative Party has recovered some grounds," the firm said of its survey conducted for the Toronto Star.

The Star published the results, saying it was the final major poll of the campaign.

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But later that day, Angus Reid began to conduct another online poll, which yielded very different results.

"We wanted to track the election right to the last minute so we want back in the field Tuesday afternoon," Angus Reid managing director Jaideep Mukerji said in an interview.

"There was volatility among Ontarians . . . We knew it was going to a very tight race."

The later poll ,which wasn't commissioned by the Star but conducted on Angus Reid's own account, Mr. Mukerji said, predicted the Liberals would get 37 per cent, the Conservatives 33 per cent and the NDP 26 per cent.

"We're happy we caught that shift," Mr. Mukerji said. "There were some Liberals at the last minute who got cold feet about voting conservatives."

The pollster who worked for The Globe and Mail and CTV, Nanos Research, however released similar numbers two days before Angus Reid's final poll.

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The Nanos three-day rolling poll that ended on Monday pegged the Liberals at 37.7 per cent, the Tories at 33 per cent and the NDP at 25.8 per cent.

"We nailed the Liberals support exactly right," Mr. Nanos said in an interview, expressing happiness that the poll yielded results that held up later in the week.

Mr. Nanos said voting intention is a key benchmark because it is the rare type of polling data that can eventually be compared with actual numbers.

"From a purely research perspective, elections are really the only empirical data points to check for quality," Mr. Nanos said.

For Ipsos-Reid President Darrell Bricker, whose firm had the Liberals ahead by 10 points, there was some ribbing on election night.

Sun News correspondent David Akin pointed out the numbers of his media outlet's pollster, Abacus Data.

"Final Abacus poll: LP 37 PC 34 NDP 24; actual results at 2302: LP 37 PC 35 NDP 23 Over to you @DarrellBricker," Mr. Akin wrote on Twitter.

"Congrats to David. We said it was close to a majority, that's what it was. End of story," Mr. Bricker tweeted back.

In an interview, Mr. Bricker said it was more important his firm was correct in predicting that the Liberals would get a minority and be close to a majority.

"We get into these silly games about claiming we're the most accurate. When you look at the numbers overall, the industry actually did pretty well," Mr. Bricker said.

"Where we had some challenges, [where]some pollsters got into challenges, was in predicting what those votes would mean in terms of the outcome of the election. And pollsters were suggesting that it was closer than it ended up being."

Like Mr. Bricker, Frank Graves, founder of EKOS Research Associates, said comparing polling numbers to ballot box results is "a flawed yardstick of polling quality."

He said it is equally important that a pollster record trends and shifts during an election campaign.

EKOS said in a press release Wednesday that "McGuinty's Liberals appear headed towards a majority."

EKOS, which conducts automated phone polls, had a three-day rolling survey ending Tuesday that had the Liberals at 39 per cent, nine points ahead of the Conservatives while the NDP had 23 points.

However, in a later release, Mr. Graves however warned that the race was tightened. Analyzing the intentions of poll respondents who were "most likely to vote," Mr. Graves predicted the Liberals would win 38 to 39 points and the Conservatives around 34 points and the NDP 21 points.

"We have to stop focusing on the horse race," Mr. Graves said.

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