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Van Island Greens Tout Supportive Poll, but Others Contradict

Figures used on handbill suggest Tories not a threat, but further surveys show otherwise.

By Andrew MacLeod 1 Oct 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Green candidate Glenn Sollitt's campaign manager said they are no longer distributing the August poll.

The Green party campaign in Courtenay-Alberni liked the results of an August poll so much, it printed hundreds of copies and distributed them with its flyers.

One critic called the figures dubious, however, and said that spreading them was intellectually dishonest and a disservice to voters. But the Green party official involved was unapologetic, and said that people should vote for what they believe in and ignore the polls anyway.

In an election where there are widespread efforts to encourage strategic voting to defeat the Conservative government, it's the kind of discussion that's happening in ridings across the country.

Approved by the official agent for Glenn Sollitt, the Green party candidate in Courtenay-Alberni, the handbill has a bar graph with the results of an Insights West poll from August 2015. It shows support on Vancouver Island for the NDP at 39 per cent, the Greens at 32 per cent, and the Liberal and Conservative parties tied at 15 per cent.

"Vote Green," it says. "The time is now!"

The handbill does not say so, but the result suggests the Green party has a chance of winning and the Conservatives do not, so anyone concerned about splitting the anti-Conservative vote needn't worry.

Question of sample size

The poll was part of a wider online survey, however, that only included 815 people throughout British Columbia. Insights West gave the poll's margin of error for the entire province as plus or minus 3.5 per cent, but for the smaller region the margin of error would be much higher.

Mario Canseco, the polling company's vice president of public affairs, said sometimes people like a particular result and use it for their own ends. "Once you put something out there, it becomes public domain," he said. "Because it's a public survey, they're free to use it the way they want to."

So when Insights West did its next survey, the company increased the number of people it sampled on Vancouver Island to 395, a significant increase from the 150 to 200 it would usually survey in the region. "All of the commotion the [first round of] numbers created, we thought the onus was on us to go back."

That survey showed the NDP at 34 per cent on Vancouver Island, the Greens and Conservatives tied at 24 per cent, and the Liberals at 16 per cent. Province-wide, the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 per cent.

Meanwhile, yet another Insights West poll, a September telephone survey commissioned by the Dogwood Initiative advocacy group, included 301 people in only Courtenay-Alberni.

That result showed the NDP at 30 per cent, the Conservatives at 25 per cent, the Liberals at 10 per cent and the Greens at nine per cent. It suggested a close race between the NDP and Conservative candidates, Gord Johns and government whip John Duncan, with the other two parties trailing.

That poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Best available data?

"The riding level number we've picked up specifically shows that [Green] Glenn Sollitt is way back in fourth," said Kai Nagata, Dogwood's energy and democracy director.

Nagata said he could understand why the Greens would want to use what's available to push back against the argument that they couldn't win and would split the anti-Conservative vote. "Any fourth place party has to fight that."

But the party should use only the best available data rather than jump on anything that's convenient, he said. "It is a disservice to voters to share old and highly tenuous polling data," Nagata said. "It's intellectually dishonest, I think, to suggest the Conservatives don't stand a chance in any of the ridings on Vancouver Island."

Greg Sabo, the Green party's campaign manager for Sollitt, said they are no longer distributing the August poll, though he could not say when exactly they stopped. He said the campaign printed a few hundred copies and gave them out with their flyers until they ran out.

"We were distributing that because it was the information we had at the time," he said, acknowledging it was a result the party liked. "We're not distributing it anymore."

All such results should be treated with skepticism, and voters should think twice about trying to vote strategically, he said. "It's a poll, and polls always seem to be wrong," he said.

(Canseco, by the way, calls the perception that polls are always wrong the "Luongo effect" after the former Vancouver Canucks goaltender, referring to the fact that people seem to remember the few that pollsters miss rather than the many times they get it right.)

"That 'split the vote' thing is very irritating," Sabo said. Even with good polling data, it's impossible to know ahead of time who is going to win and there are frequently surprises, especially at the riding level, he said. "If your beliefs are in line with a particular party, vote for that party."

It won't be the Green party's fault if Stephen Harper wins another election, he said. "If the Conservatives get back in, it's the fault of Conservative voters."  [Tyee]

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