CBC News Federal Election

Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

Taking the pulse of polling
By Ira Basen

June 3rd, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

On most days, it’s hard to predict what the lead story will be in the nation’s newspapers and newscasts. Of course, those predictions gets considerably easier during an election campaign, and they get very easy indeed on the days when the results of a new public opinion poll are ready to be revealed. Only a major non-campaign story can knock a poll result out of the headline.

There are several reasons for this. On a purely practical level, the news outlet that paid for the poll wants to get the most bang for its buck by giving it maximum exposure. On that level, polls are the best news that money can buy.

Second, most reporters, if not necessarily most viewers and readers, are more interested in covering the horse race aspect of the election than its policy side. The results of a “who would you vote for” poll is like crack cocaine for political horse race junkies.

And finally, the announcement of a poll temporarily reverses the uncomfortable relationship that often exists between the politicians and the press on the campaign trail. On most days, the media depend on the politicians to provide them with the story of the day. The “news” coming off the leader’s bus is more often than not, the “news” the party wants to come off the bus. But on poll days, the tables are turned. It’s the media, or more specifically, the media outlets that sponsored the poll, that have created the news, and the politicians are obliged to respond to it. The tail finally gets to wag the dog.

Some media outlets are not comfortable with the idea of making news rather than reporting it. In this campaign, for example, the CBC has decided not to commission voter preference polls, and it will restrict its coverage of polls conducted by others. This is a bold move for the CBC. TV news is an intensely competitive business, and down-playing the horse race stories while the competition is leading with them is a potentially risky strategy.

But it is a risk well worth taking. Polls are starting to take up a large amount of space in the modern campaign. Sometimes it seems as if everything else that happens is just filler, a way of marking time until the next poll is released. There are growing concerns about the accuracy of many of these polls, but that is only one reason to be wary of their use. Today, polling and pollsters have become as much a part of the election spindustry as campaign ads and party strategists. In fact, sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the spin doctors and the pollsters.

It wasn’t always that way. Public opinion polling in Canada began in the 1940s as an outgrowth of market research. While asking consumers about toothpaste preferences, why not also ask them to put on their “citizen” hat and find out what they think about issues such as old age pensions or public ownership? One of the pivotal figures in making the transition between market research and political polling was psychologist George Gallop, whose American Institute of Public Opinion began life in the 1920s doing consumer research, but by the mid 30s, had branched out into opinion polling as well.

In 1940, Gallop and a young Canadian researcher at Princeton named Saul Rae, who went on to become a distinguished member of the Canadian diplomatic corps and the father of an Ontario premier, published a book called The Pulse of Democracy, that established a democratic rationale for public opinion polling. “Democracy,” they argued, “is a process of constant thought and action on the part of the citizen.” The critical issue facing government was how to determine what the great mass of its citizens was really thinking. The rich and the powerful would always be able to make their voices heard above the crowd. Scientific, objective polling would provide a voice for the voiceless. It would be the “pulse of democracy”.

In 1941, Gallop opened Canada’s first professional polling firm, the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion, and began doing extensive opinion polling for the Liberal government of Mackenzie King. Rival parties were much slower to appreciate polling’s potential, and that helped propel the Liberals to an unprecedented string of twenty- two consecutive years in power.

Over the years, the pollsters’ power and influence has become almost mythical. They now occupy some of the turf once held by journalists. At one time, if you wanted to know what Canadians were thinking, you would ask a reporter. He or she could tell you what they heard in the coffee shops and curling rinks of the nation. Now, journalists ask pollsters to come and tell them what is on the minds of Canadians.

Most networks and newspapers have their in-house pollsters on retainer. In recent years, many of them seem to have developed an expertise in campaign strategy and tactics as well as interpreting data. Recently, on CTV Newsnet, Darrell Bricker of Ipsos-Reid was commenting on the Liberal’s “bizarre” election strategy. “They’ve polluted the water,” he declared, “and a lot of that water is splashing back on them now.” And then, as if he suddenly remembered he was a pollster and not a party spin doctor, Bricker added, “don’t take my word for it, we spoke to Canadians.”

Indeed they did. The pulse of democracy is now being measured by cash-strapped undergraduates, on the line with a thousand randomly selected, disembodied Canadians with nothing better to do that evening than answer a stranger’s questions. The CBC is right to question whether this has all gone a bit too far. Hopefully, one day, others may too.

Past Spin Cycles

Ira Basen has been with CBC Radio since 1984 as a documentary maker, senior producer and executive producer. He has written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus, and has taught a course titled "Spin: PR, Journalism and the Search for Truth" at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Ira's book on public relations and the media will be published by Penguin Books in 2005.

You can subscribe to Ira's column and have each new edition e-mailed to you.

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