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Analysis
  |  
Election 2021
  |  
Media

The Election So Far Through the Lens of a Top Pollster

Darrell Bricker of Ipsos on O’Toole’s message savvy, Trudeau’s pandemic edge, whether polling is poison, and more.

Michael Harris 8 Sep 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

“It’s hard to see how any party can construct a majority today. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen but there’s nothing in the polling that shows it. Of course, something completely unknowable as I answer this could happen and the numbers could move significantly between now and Sept. 20. Other than that, we appear to be headed to a minority, but the winner isn’t decided yet.”

The words belong to Darrell Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and, in this election, chief pollster for Global News.

The Tyee checked in with Bricker with less than two weeks remaining to ask some questions about the business of polling and how the campaigns are so far shaking out. We started by asking Bricker if all polls are created equal.

“They absolutely aren’t. But the issue isn’t so much the pollsters as it is the journalists. It astounds me how easy it is to get a poll reported by the media with almost zero vetting or accountability. If no one reports them, they disappear.”

Bricker explains that when he first started in the polling business, that would never happen. Each major media outlet had their own pollster, with whom they worked closely and paid. The pay was never enough to cover all the costs, but it was enough to make sure everyone took what was happening seriously.

“Now, throw a poll up on Twitter, especially one with counterintuitive results, and you are almost guaranteed to have a journalist retweet it. If you get lucky you might even see it referred to by a columnist or appear on a digital news site. Once that happens, it’s assumed that somebody has verified the results and others start reporting it. Some pollsters interested in building brand awareness are aware of all of this and exploit it to the maximum.”

Bricker learned his trade working with Allan Gregg at Decima Research on the former Progressive Conservative party’s successful federal election campaign in 1988, then took a job with the new government. Next stop for Bricker, whose education focused on quantitative analysis in social science, was Angus Reid, then the biggest, best-known market-research firm in Canada. Bricker spent the next 30 years there, and when Angus Reid was sold to Ipsos, he stayed on, rising to the top.

Market research and public opinion polling is now a $709-million business in Canada with 2,359 companies participating. Bricker has polled in every Canadian federal election since 1988.

What would he say to people who think polling distorts the civic conversation during elections and should even be banned?

“I would argue that if the polling in the public domain is done well, it is absolutely a good thing. It serves as a reality check for everyone, including voters, looking at the campaign. It also keeps the political parties honest. In the old days the parties were notorious for leaking favourable “private polling” to friendly journalists, in order to affect the campaign narrative. Sometimes they would even make the polls up.”

Bricker explains that it is “almost impossible” to do this now, because there are enough good quality polls in the public domain that a lie stands out like a neon sign.

He hears criticisms that polls have too great an effect on the political narrative during campaigns, and can therefore affect the outcome. The latest poll is usually the biggest story in print and on TV.

But the notion of banning election polls for the media originates, he says, from “a very naive view of the world. Banning polls just pushes them underground. Political parties will still do them, and so will private interests who want to manage their business risks. Banning polls only means the media and public won’t have access to the same information as the politically connected and wealthy.”

So how does Bricker read this election so far? The issue of voter turnout could be crucial, he notes. If the pandemic produces a low voter turnout, the advantage goes to the Conservatives if old norms hold. The benefit goes to Liberals if the turnout is high.

Bricker was impressed with Justin Trudeau’s flair for campaigning in past elections. “In 2015 he provided a master class in how to connect with the public mood and personify the leadership the country was looking for. Jack Layton had that too. Some politicians are energized by the sound of the crowd and Trudeau certainly is. Brian Mulroney in 1988 was the same. He loved the competition and was energized by retail politics in the best way.”

But Bricker said there is more than one way to get the job done.

“Stephen Harper is almost antisocial, but he was incredibly disciplined, and knew how to execute a winning election strategy. He did it successfully three times. I’d say Erin O’Toole has adopted Harper’s clarity about strategy, but has also learned from Trudeau, Mulroney and others that emotionally connecting with people is an important political skill. Let’s see if it works for him.”

But what about O’Toole’s epic flip-flop on the promise to repeal Trudeau’s ban on assault-style weapons? Bricker was circumspect.

“It remains to be seen. This is going to be a busy news week with the debates. Let’s see if we are still talking about it next Monday after the debate.”

The Tyee asked Bricker if O’Toole risks losing the socially conservative element of his base with his progressive platform — the gun guys, the pro-lifers, the anti-unionists and the anti-carbon tax crowd?

“If he wins and implements this agenda, that’s when the trouble could start for him. But right now, conservative-friendly voters are so enamoured by the prospect of beating Justin Trudeau that they will let a lot slide. That’s what O’Toole seemed to be banking on, and so far he has been right.”

Bricker was noncommittal on whether or not ugly scenes on the campaign trail, including Trudeau being pelted with gravel by an angry mob, could shift the numbers towards the Liberals.

“This is a difficult one. So far, we haven’t seen an impact on the numbers from these incidents. The reporters on the PM’s bus are certainly emphasizing it, so maybe there will be an impact. Or, how they are seeing it isn’t how the public is seeing it. It needs a couple more days before we will know if it is having a meaningful effect on the public’s view of the campaign.”

Bricker does not believe that O’Toole’s campaign has been hurt by the party’s failure so far to produce a costing from the Parliamentary Budget Officer for their platform.

“The CPC has a brand advantage of being perceived as better financial managers than the LPC, fair or not. The day it is costed will be a one-day story. It’s not like the public sees the LPC or NDP platforms as any more realistic even though they have been costed.”

Although the Liberals have showcased their pitch to bring in $10 a day child care, and actually cut deals with eight provinces and territories, Bricker believes the Conservative promise to pay a direct supplement to Canadian families also has appeal. And there is a hidden factor Bricker mentions: Boomers, the group most likely to vote, may be against the Liberal plan.

“It’s a complicated issue, and both ideas have constituencies. The $10 daycare supporters probably wouldn’t be voting CPC anyway; they are more likely to be LPC-NDP switchers. The supplement to Canadian families likely works better for the CPC universe. But child care has always been more controversial than it appears in the press. Especially for Boomers, who are the group most likely to vote. Just under the surface there’s a belief that they raised their families without a lot of government assistance. They don’t know why the next generation isn’t capable of doing it too.”

One winning issue for Trudeau and the Liberals, at least by the numbers, is broad support for his key objective — putting an end to the pandemic for once and for all. Despite loud and crude protests by antivaxxers, they are a tiny faction swimming against the current of public opinion. How many Canadians support mandatory vaccinations?

“Three quarters. This isn’t really a public debate anymore. Even among the 24 per cent that are opposed, many more are hesitant than actually opposed. The true antivax crowd is small — somewhere around five to 10 per cent. But even five to 10 per cent in a population of 38 million can still generate a big crowd.”

Bricker sees the Bloc Québécois losing seats to both the Liberals and Conservatives in Quebec. He says it is “very doubtful” that embattled Green Party Leader Annamie Paul will win her seat in Toronto. As for the NDP, Bricker thinks it all comes down to turnout, and depending on a base with a mixed record of making it to the ballot box.

“It all depends on turnout, which isn’t being factored into the polling yet. The NDP constituency has a better record responding to polls in many elections than actually showing up to vote. They are younger, more transient, lower income, occasional voters. That’s not a solid core to build from.”

The last politician left standing could depend on what Bricker describes as Trudeau’s “biggest mistake”: calling the election in the first place. First, Canadians didn’t want it, and second, Trudeau may end up being judged by his cynical election call, rather than his track record in office.

“It absolutely has been his worst mistake. The election campaign has been completely taken over by why and when the election was called. Trudeau hasn’t been able to shake it.”

Bricker says dropping the writ turned the election into a referendum on the prime minister’s character rather than his performance.

“Trudeau has always suffered from a sincerity deficit that has only grown stronger over the years. The calling of the election was seen as a cynical political move by most of the public, especially his own voters. Every time he says it was for some other reason than winning a majority it adds to his sincerity deficit.”

Battleground Ontario, particularly the seat-rich 905 belt around Toronto, could be Trudeau’s Waterloo. According to Bricker, the Liberals have lost their lock on that constituency.

“The LPC won Ontario by 10 points last time. This time, depending on the poll, they are either behind the Tories or slightly ahead overall. The LPC needs to sweep the 905 if they hope to win this election. Today, at best, they are splitting the 905 and could do even worse.”

The latest polling by Ipsos shows the Conservatives holding a slim lead over the Liberals, which Bricker’s firm says seems to be solidifying. Okay, but polls have proven badly off kilter in past elections, for example the 2013 comeback victory by the Christy Clark-led BC Liberals after her NDP opponents were all but anointed by the pollsters.

Bricker defends the record of the industry in getting it right in national elections.

“There hasn’t been one since I started that the consensus of industry polls wasn’t close to the actual result. There have been some provincial elections where the record is less formidable, but in national elections the serious pollsters have a solid record.”

There have been exceptions. Bricker says that federal elections in 2004, pitting Paul Martin against Stephen Harper, and in 2019, featuring Justin Trudeau against Andrew Scheer, were the most difficult in terms of predicting the outcome. Bricker calls the election in 2004 his “worst performance” as a pollster.

“Even though we saw the Martin Liberals gaining on the Harper Tories in a limited survey we did over the weekend, we couldn’t report it because of the election laws (which have now changed). That being said, we knew it was a minority, but incorrectly thought it would be Conservative minority. I learned a LOT from that one.”

2019 was also tough to call because the CPC won the popular vote, but the LPC won the most seats. Bricker’s company got both calls right, but it was tricky. As for the polling difficulties of Election 2021, Bricker is blunt.

“I’m expecting this election to be even trickier. It is very difficult to assess how the pandemic will impact turnout for each party. That’s what’s keeping me up at night.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Election 2021, Media

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