As the old political cliché goes, polls are just a snapshot in time. But an increasingly poll-hungry media world, the ebb and flow of public opinion often shapes a campaign's narrative.
A quick reading of Corporate Research Associate's latest political poll may give many Progressive Conservatives cause for concern. Within the last nine months they have gone from a 10-percentage-point lead over the Liberals to five points behind. The Liberal lead is still within the poll's margin of error but it points to a trend that has seen the PCs losing support and the Liberals clawing back into the race.
Before Liberals start celebrating too much, seasoned partisans will point out that polls will fluctuate during the campaign. But the immediate campaign narrative at the start of the campaign became what happened to the Tory lead, do the Liberals have momentum and have New Brunswick voters forgiven the Liberals for some of their unpopular decisions?
If the next round of polling shows the continued trend, the narrative will only solidify and any campaign missteps by the Tories will become magnified. The reverse is also true: if Alward jumps out to a lead, the stories from the campaign buses will become about the resurrection of the Tory leader.
Parties can ill afford to make any serious gaffes in an election campaign, but if the narrative is already against a party, polls can only inflict further damage. Any political watcher has seen it before; a gaffe is amplified exponentially after a bad poll and is attributed to a dysfunctional campaign or how any change in campaign staff or focus is a result of the sagging popularity numbers.
Support levels for the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives will garner the most media attention in the coming days. However, when the CRA poll is combed through a bit more carefully a series of other numbers may become more important to the overall election.
The undecided rate is still at 41 per cent. Don Mills, the president of CRA, said on Thursday that the undecided vote normally breaks along roughly the same lines as the decided vote. That is consistent with most quantitative research theory but that is still a high degree of undecided so close to an election.
So the question quickly comes, how many of those 41 per cent will show up to vote or are they so disenchanted with the system that they decide to stay home on election day?
CRA's polls often show a high degree of undecided voters. The company's poll two weeks into the 2006 election showed the undecided level was 37 per cent.
The PC war room must be more than a little concerned with the high degree of undecideds because if a person hasn't already turned against the Liberals for a series of serious political miscalculations, the biggest being the botched NB Power deal, how likely are they to switch over to David Alward's camp in the next four weeks?
The Tories can look to one element in the poll for some comfort. Mills said it is rare for a government to be re-elected with a satisfaction level of less than 50 per cent. The Liberals scored 44 per cent in that question in the August poll. The pollster says that number can show an undercurrent of frustration with the governing party that could haunt it on election day.
But the best news out of the poll may come for the province's smallest parties, the politicians that really do not have a shot at a cabinet position after Sept. 27. The combined percentage of popular support for the NDP, Greens and People's Alliance is 23 per cent. And now consider the NDP only received five per cent of the popular vote in 2006.
So almost 25 per cent of New Brunswickers are telling a polling firm that they are willing to cast their vote for a non-traditional party. If that number holds up, and that is admittedly a very big if, that could have a massive impact on the election's final outcome.
It could mean a few NDP candidates are elected and possibly a member of the Greens or the Alliance. But it could also mean hotly contested four- or five-way races that force parties to get out every vote in order to win.
Polls are only a snapshot in time but this snapshot shows the 2010 election campaign may be an entertaining 32-days.
-- Daniel McHardie