Doug Ford trumpets poll results from little-known firm that experts warn are 'flawed'

A poll from a new firm suggesting Doug Ford trails Mayor John Tory by single digits ahead of next fall’s election is "flawed" and could misguide Toronto voters, an experienced pollster warns.

The Firm Digital, a new organization, says it asked 15,000 Torontonians who they want to be mayor

Mayor John Tory has a big lead over Doug Ford according to established pollsters, so why did an upstart firm find that lead is now just single digits? (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

A poll suggesting Doug Ford trails Mayor John Tory by single digits ahead of next fall's election is "flawed" and could misguide Toronto voters, an experienced pollster warns.

The Firm Digital, a new polling agency, released the results of a poll it claims reached 15,576 Torontonians. In addition to showing a far tighter race for mayor than established pollsters suggest, it also put out ward-by-ward lists in early December purporting to show the re-election chances of local councillors.

CBC Toronto is not publishing the full polling results because of a number of concerns raised by its internal research department, primarily that the poll lacks a randomized sample.

However, Doug Ford and at least one city councillor have trumpeted the results, while the Toronto Sun also ran an article on the research — although unlike the politicians the newspaper noted the results are controversial.

Heather Scott-Marshall, president of Mission Research, says the poll relies on Interactive Voice Response (IVR), or robocalls, which she calls the wrong tool for public opinion polling.

"The risk for the public is that if they start putting their faith in IVR results, then they're just misinformed," she said, after reviewing the poll's results.

Those results only include the final numbers and a news release, lacking any further data breakdowns based on age or gender. In emails, the company has agreed to show CBC Toronto 600 pages worth of raw data but says it will not be published.

Who's responding? Who knows?

The race to win a seat at city hall doesn't begin until May, but pollsters are already active. (John Rieti/CBC)

The Firm Digital boasts its survey is the "most comprehensive public poll done to date" and says it features a random sample representing all of the city's 44 wards.

CEO Ramona Benson said 233,640 people were called as part of the survey, which translates to a six per cent response rate. She says the company recognizes there may be "biases" due to the nature of IVR polling, although it has increased it's margin of error to 4.1 per cent to account for that.

"I expect there to be questions about it because we're doing things differently than the traditional way," Benson said.

But both Scott-Marshall and CBC researchers say IVR polls shouldn't have margins of error.

Earlier this week, CBC Toronto's Mike Crawley explained why IVR polls failed in Calgary's recent municipal election, and raised questions about how much they're colouring voters' views of the Ontario election.

He notes some large polling firms are even abandoning IVR, citing concerns about reaching younger voters.   

Scott-Marshall also questions the number of people responding to The Firm Digital's poll — saying in her experience response rates can be less than one per cent — and also says it's disingenuous for the company to claim it's contacted a representative sample of Torontonians.

"They have no idea who's responding," she said.

CEO attacks Wynne in Facebook videos 

Ramona Benson heads The Firm Digital, a new polling company that says it's completed the largest poll on Toronto's mayoral race to date. (Submitted by Ramona Benson)

Benson is not your typical pollster. Using her full name, Ramona Benson Singh, she ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in Richmond Hill in 2014, and also hosts a community-level television show on Rogers. 

Recently, Benson has appeared in Facebook videos for Ontario Proud, a social media group devoted to attacking Premier Kathleen Wynne and the provincial Liberals.

She says that has "nothing to do" with her polling work.

"I am also a media personality aside from all of this stuff … because it is a disruptive world, so I do have a few hats that I wear," she said in a telephone interview.

"Yeah, I'm upset my hydro prices, I am upset about the taxes but that's … with my media personality hat on."

Benson says her company paid for the poll itself to generate publicity, but didn't disclose how much it cost to complete. 

She said the company is registered with the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA), the organization that represents this country's market research industry, and has paid the annual membership fees in full.

The MRIA said in an email that membership is pending.

Ford, Mammoliti highlight polling results

Ford says he has no connection to the polling firm but likes what he sees in the results.

Then again, he said, "I don't need a poll to tell me how well I'm doing out there."

Eric Grenier, CBC's polls expert, reported in October — one year from the election — that on average, Tory enjoys a nearly 36-point lead.  

But Ford blasted those results, alleging they're the partly the result of a online poll by Campaign Research that was biased in Tory's favour.

Meanwhile, the Sun's piece ran with the poll's numbers, but did note that some have been questioning the results.

"We published comments from a mayoral candidate, Doug Ford, on a publicly released poll. That's news," said James Wallace, the Sun's vice president of editorial, when asked about the decision. 

"Controversy over a poll is hardly grounds for suppressing a story."

Wallace said the newspaper spoke with Benson several times before publishing its story.

Meanwhile, Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti sent out a news release on Dec. 12 about the "interesting poll" looking into how popular sitting councillors are.

He used the results to criticize councillors John Fillion and Gord Perks, while highlighting the poll's finding that more than half of those surveyed in his ward would re-elect him. 

The poll also singles out results between councillors Ana Bailao and Cesar Palacio, who could square off in the next election if the city's ward map is redrawn. 

Toronto's election campaign doesn't officially begin until May 1, 2018.

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.