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people vs. polls

Progressive conservative party leader and Alberta premier Alison Redford reacts during a speech to her supporters at her final campaign stop in Calgary, Alberta, April 23, 2012.Reuters

It's been fun watching the pollsters and pundits twist and turn, trying to explain away their abject failure in predicting the outcome of Alberta's provincial election on April 23.

As near as I can follow, they weren't wrong. No sir. The results they had so confidently crowed from the rooftops – a sweeping Wildrose majority, the end of the Progressive Conservative dynasty – weren't so much wrong as they were "not correct." Apparently, a massive stealth conversion occurred on Sunday evening, akin to Saul on the road to Damascus – though on a much wider scale. Darn those sneaky voters! Didn't they know they had a script to follow?

Except, of course, that the polls were wrong. They were as absolutely wrong as wrong could possibly be, and for the pollsters to try to squirm out of it now suggests that theirs is an "unfalsifiable" science. Which is to say, not a science at all.

No matter. I've always felt polls were more a form of entertainment than anything you would want to predicate behaviour on. Sort of like watching sports analysts tell you fervently, and with something approaching absolute certainty, that the Vancouver Canucks are going to go all the way this year! Just look at the numbers! How could they lose! (Not a knock on the Canucks; at least they make the playoffs.) I live in Calgary, which was supposedly "ground zero" of the culture war between the centre-right and the far-right, yet I never felt any groundswell of anger, no "throw the bums out!" sentiment brewing below the surface.

However, poll after poll suggested there was a groundswell of anger under way. So I thought, "Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm living in a bubble." I live in Garrison Woods, an amiable neighbourhood not exactly fuelled by anger. It's part of Alison Redford's riding, in fact, and on the first day of the campaign, as soon as the writ was dropped, she came to our street – which would suggest it was considered a safe place to start.

But it turns out that Garrison Woods was more indicative of Alberta than people realized. I wasn't the one living in a bubble – the pundits were.

The fact that so many of them (I'm looking at you, Andrew Coyne!) were predicting, with the sort of misplaced confidence only pundits and weathermen can exude, just such a groundswell tells me they were relying wholly and utterly on the polls. They weren't talking to people in these ridings or taking their own reading of the situation – they weren't making any real effort beyond perusing the latest poll numbers over breakfast.

But polls are only as good as their methodology, and given the wildly inaccurate results they produced in Alberta, it may be time for pollsters to reconsider their approach. Instead of phone calls and online questionnaires, I suggest they go door to door instead.

My friend Jean-Claude Munyezamu knocked on a lot of doors during the election. Originally from Rwanda, Jean-Claude, a taxi driver who talks to a lot of people, is a community organizer and youth soccer coach. He's always juggling several projects at the same time and is consistently ahead of the curve. He was among the very first volunteers to sign on for Naheed Nenshi's 2010 campaign for mayor. He was a volunteer in Alison Redford's leadership campaign at the outset, and then again in her riding this last election.

When Jean-Claude told me Mr. Nenshi was going to win, I told him he was crazy. When he told me Ms. Redford, the third-place candidate, would take the PC leadership, I told him he was crazy. And when he predicted the PCs would win handily on Monday – well, I listened.

He used the same reasoning to predict both Mr. Nenshi and Ms. Redford's upset victories.

"Nenshi is what Calgary really is," Jean-Claude said. "A youthful, energetic city brimming with optimism and ideas. He appeals to the best of who we are."

Similarly, he said, "Alison Redford is what Alberta really is." Namely, a socially progressive, fiscally prudent, small c-conservative place where it is understood that a strong economy benefits everyone. She was no climate-change denier. But neither did she want to shut down the engine that is driving Canada's economy.

Jean-Claude was at Ms. Redford's swearing-in ceremony in the capital in the fall, and even during the lowest depths of poll-stoked predictions that a sweeping Wildrose victory was nigh, he remained upbeat that the PCs would win. Why? Because he had been knocking on the actual doors of actual homes and talking to actual people.

"I must have knocked on 200 doors. I only had two people tell me they were determined to vote Wildrose – even people who had Wildrose signs on their front lawn," he said. "So when I read that our riding was one that was supposed to be neck-and-neck, I knew the polls were wrong."

Next time around, to spare themselves further embarrassment, the pollsters might want to consider eschewing automated phone calls and online surveys, and knock on a few doors instead. Either that, or simply ask Jean-Claude what he thinks.

Will Ferguson's newest novel is the global thriller 419 .