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Pollsters bet on a tight race in 2004 federal election

The Story

It's the tightest election race in decades. Paul Martin's reeling Liberals appear to be neck-and-neck with Stephen Harper's newly-merged Conservative Party. It's a horserace that has politicians, journalists and voters hooked on daily polling results. But as we see in this election night clip, the voting results now pouring in show that the results aren't that close - and that the polls were wrong. Did people lie, or change their minds? A panel of pollsters and pundits discusses. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: June 28, 2004
Guest(s): Donna Dasko, Allan Gregg
Commentator: Keith Boag
Host: Peter Mansbridge, Rex Murphy
Duration: 6:08

Did You know?

• Paul Martin was sworn in as prime minister on Dec. 12, 2003, taking over from the retiring Jean Chrétien.
• In the campaigning leading up to the June 2004 federal election, Martin's Liberals were struggling under the shadow of the sponsorship program scandal (over the misuse of funds designed to raise Canada's profile in Quebec.)
• On election night, CBC parliamentary bureau chief Keith Boag said that for the first time in 25 years the CBC didn't have a good idea who would be the victor.
• In the end, Martin came out with a minority government of 135 seats out of 308, better than the 115 some polls had predicted. But it was nowhere near the 172 seats Jean Chrétien earned in 2000.
• The Conservative Party of Canada was formed after a Dec. 3, 2003 vote to "unite the right" — a merger of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance party (formerly the Reform party.)
• The new party hoped to make a breakthrough in Ontario, but couldn't match the numbers that the Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties achieved individually in 2000. Some pundits felt the new party was too right wing for traditional Progressive Conservative supporters. The Conservatives took 99 seats across Canada in 2004.
• In Quebec, the Bloc Québécois made big gains at the expense of the Liberals, though they did not sweep the province. They captured 54 seats.
• The New Democratic Party was unable to hold the balance of power, taking 19 seats nationwide.
• More than one-third of all ridings were decided by margins of victory of less than 10 per cent of ballots cast. In 16 of these "swing ridings", the difference was less than one per cent.
• Days before the vote, many polls put Stephen Harper's Conservatives in the lead, some even speculating he could achieve a majority.
• The CBC's Ira Basen described the pollsters' work as a "spectacular flameout" and a "very public humiliation".
• Basen said the heads of polling agencies quickly point out that polls are simply "snapshots in time" and cannot predict future voter preferences. Frank Graves of Ekos Research went so far as to say, "the possibility that all the polls were wrong is highly unlikely." Most pollsters said voters simply changed their minds in the dying days of the campaign.
• Jane Armstrong of Environics told CBC that about 10 per cent of voters actually decide whom they will vote for while marking their X on their ballot.
• Some pollsters said the sponsorship scandal had less impact on Liberal voters than expected, indicating that voters seldom change their voting habits.
• Federal election polls are very high profile (Nick Nanos of SES Research called them "the World Cup of polling" — a huge spectacle that happens every four years) and they make the news almost daily. But for most polling companies, media-funded polls on federal elections are not profitable. They are seen as loss leaders that raise the company's profile for more lucrative work related to consumer spending habits.
• Angus Reid, founder of polling firm Ipsos-Reid, acknowledged that it's increasingly difficult to get people to respond to polls. Due to answering machines and call display, half of all calls never reach a human being. When they do, 80 per cent of the people they reach now refuse to answer questions. To get 1,000 randomly-selected Canadians to respond, they may have to phone 10,000 people. Reid called it "the big dirty secret of the industry."
• The 2004 Liberal victory produced Canada's first minority government since that of Joe Clark 25 years earlier. It was the ninth minority government since Confederation.
• Martin's Liberals held power for 17 months, helped in part by support from the NDP. The government was toppled by a no-confidence vote on Nov. 28, 2005. A new election was scheduled for Jan. 23, 2006.


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