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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Polls: The Entrails of an Election

This poll is telling us that the Tories are way in the lead, with a majority within reach.  I say again, for emphasis: this poll.  Call it a snapshot of a percentage of one moment in time, if you will; it's one of many polls we've seen this election.  One or two of them are bound to be predictive in much the same way as a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Personally, I think the Conservatives are likely to land on top - not because a majority of Canadians think they have the best plan or see Stephen Harper as the embodiment of #CPCJesus.  Rather, they have more angry people in their base than discouraged ones, meaning they are more likely to vote, and donate, etc.  They will invest heavily of their time, money and speaking points to support the only party they feel will meddle less in their lives, cut their taxes, secure their freedom of speech.

That, plus the Conservatives have always had a more effective GOTV than its opponents.  And I feel comfortable in arguing, they have demonstrated more of a systematic willingness to do whatever it takes to win (whereas for the other parties, it's some individuals rather than the culture).

All that aside, though, political people are still following the polls, responding to the polls, trumping what bolsters their team and poo-pooing what doesn't.  It's a Pavolovian thing, I think - political people get the same sort of dopamine hit from a poll that other people get from checking their social media feeds.

If you collate all the polls after the dust settles, I'm sure you will find all kinds of interesting patterns. The entrails of #elxn42 will no doubt be carefully poured over by the sorts of people who do that, looking for lessons or trends and whatnot.

How reflective will those stories be of what actually happened on the ground, though?  On any given day, we've had polls that have placed each party on top and lagging behind, simultaneously.  They're all the result of surveys and such, so they're all true for a certain slice of society at a certain point in time... to a degree.  What's not revealed by these polls is how reflective respondents answers are of their actual opinions.  

When a server in a restaurant asks you "do you want white or red with that?" they're trying to nudge you to an answer; the hope is you will just choose from the options before you.  When a poll asks you which leader you like best, then who next when you remove your first choice, or which policy area concerns you the most, it is doing the same thing.

How many polls have the optional answer of None of the Above or I'm worried about them all equally, because they all affect me equally?  Or I don't know and don't care?

One of the biggest challenges for service providers, politicians, etc. in working in marginalized communities is trust, openness and authenticity.  This is for good reason; programs will run for short durations, promises won't be followed up on, or the external leader wading in will come across as White Saviour rather than community supporter.  It is very hard to earn trust when you're seen as part of the problem, and that with just cause.

When people don't trust you, they aren't open with you.  They aren't authentic with you; more than anything, they probably just want you to go away.

To an increasing degree, Canadians on the whole are feeling marginalized in our political process. Their elected representatives represent parties first, constituents second.  Engagement takes the form of donation asks or as backdrops for announcements rather than serious conversations.  Question Period has become insider baseball - more about scoring points and hits than properly debating the pros and cons of policy.

Polls are snapshots of a much larger story, much like touching the tail and pronouncing that the elephant is like a snake.  Elections are won or lost by parties, which is a much different beast than being the process by which the populace chooses the best governance for the country.

While I'm sure the entrails of this election will provide hours of joy for many backroomers, I really hope the parties and pollsters pay real attention to the mood of the nation after the election. 

Ultimately, this process isn't about the parties and who wins; it's about Canadians and the effectiveness of our democratic process.  That's not something determined by seeing how many people picked the white over the red.

Sad part is, it's going to be harder than ever to match voting patterns with demographics due to the death of the long-form census.  If millennial turnout is low, if new Canadian turnout is low, then we have a numbers challenge our polls aren't even hinting at.

When the majority of Canadians are neither represented by nor invested in a "majority" government, we've got a problem.

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