By Kirk Winter

With a federal election call less than five weeks away, Canadians are about to be inundated by a tsunami of polling. Most pundits expect a poll to be released at least every second day over the life of the fall campaign.

Canadians are baffled by the wide variations in the typical polling released at election time, and some even wonder if polling has any value at all. Former Prime Minister Diefenbaker was quoted as saying, “The only value polls have is for dogs.”

Most politicians agree that polling is an art rather than a science. For the reasons listed below, experienced political hands realize that there are so many statistical aberrations in polls that their value is much less than what the average political observer might expect.

The first thing party operatives understand is polling is very expensive. Political parties want to have the data on hand but don’t want to spent too much on just one snapshot of the Canadian electorate. Polling costs can be reduced by limiting the number of people contacted, and the number of questions asked. The quicker the information can be gathered, the lower the bill will typically be. Most pollsters agree that between 1,200 and 1,400 interviews will give them a relatively accurate snapshot of Canada as a whole with respondents from all regions of the country. Hiring a phone bank to do that kind of calling can be quite pricey, and that leads to some polls with fewer than 500 respondents being given credence by the popular press when in reality these polls have little statistical value.

Some polling firms cut costs by hiring offshore phone banks to do their data collection. Many of their operators struggle with English and the data they gather can be questionable at best. One firm in the last federal election used Filipino call centres and their data was significantly outside the mainstream.

Most Canadian polling companies still cannot access Canadians who have only a cellular device. Cellular providers jealously protect the personal data of their cell phone users and only share that information in-house for other marketing purposes. That leaves traditional polling companies with only access to the dwindling number of Canadians with land lines, and the data gathered from this group typically skews more conservatively as land line users are often over the age of 65.

Canadian polling firms also only gather data in French and English. As many as 25 percent of all Canadian voters struggle with our two official languages and would be as likely to hang up on pollsters as answer their questions. Polling numbers from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are always taken with a grain of salt by experienced operatives who realize that one in four voters in Canada’s three largest cities will only express their political preferences on voting day.

As we approach this federal election, be careful with these polls that will purport to have the authoritative numbers regarding Canadians’ intentions on Election Day. Perhaps Prime Minister Diefenbaker was right when he said, “The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.”