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Politicians, experts cast critical eye on polls

by Archives September 23, 2008

WINNIPEG (CUP) – With the election in full swing, polls have invaded the airwaves and coffee shops – but what do they really tell us?
“Polls are snapshots. They tell you what opinion was, in a moderately accurate way, at a given time,” said Ken Gibbons, politics professor at the University of Winnipeg.
In order for poll results to accurately represent the population, polling companies will first take a sample, a randomly selected group of people, representing different ages, genders, ethnicities, incomes, regions and careers.
According to Scott MacKay, president of Probe Research, often the sample size for national elections is anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000 people.
Polls are often used by politicians during an election.
Anita Neville, Liberal MP for Winnipeg South Centre, uses polls, but views them skeptically.
“Last election, the polls had me in a dead heat with the Conservative candidate. In fact, I was ahead, but the pollster factored in some things that placed us in a tie,” said Neville.
According to Gibbons, political parties will often conduct their own internal polling. They do this because during an election, political parties really need to know where they stand.
Generally, politicians know there is an error margin in polls and that national polls do not accurately reflect the opinions of a province or of a constituency.
With an electorate of 20 million people and a sample size of 1,000 people in a national poll MacKay thought Manitoba would receive around 30 interviews, which is not enough to properly represent the diverse opinions of the province.
“The typical error margin for 1,000 to 2,000 sample is two-and-a-half to three per cent,” said Gibbons.
For example, this means that if party A has 37 per cent of Canadians’ support and Party B has 39 per cent, there is a chance that party A could be ahead with about 40 per cent with party B trailing with about 36 per cent.
It is not law for polling companies to make public their sample size and error margin, but according to MacKay, it is an industry expectation.
“For people to have confidence in the poll, they should have a sense of the sample size and error margin,” said Gibbons.
For the next few weeks, Canada will be inundated with the results of polls of various flavours.
From: “Who do you see as Canada’s next Prime minister?” to: “What is more important, the economy or abortion?” the numbers will show where Canada stands.
“There are more polls than there ever have been,” said MacKay. “Maybe there are too many.”

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