British Columbia·Analysis

Pollsters vindicated in B.C. election after 2013 miss

Throughout the B.C. election campaign, polls were derided and dismissed after the 2013 failure. But the polls called it correctly this time.

Final B.C. campaign polls had put the Liberals and NDP in near tie

The polls suggested the B.C. election would be the closest in decades. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

Four years is a long time to wait for vindication, but pollsters in British Columbia finally got it last night when the results of B.C.'s provincial election closely matched the final polls of the four week campaign.

In 2013, the polls missed the election call dramatically. Surveys suggested the NDP's Adrian Dix would win a wide victory over Christy Clark's Liberals by some seven points. Instead, the Liberals were re-elected and beat the NDP by just over four points.

But in 2017, polls suggested it would be the closest B.C. election in decades and voters didn't disappoint — just two seats and a few thousand votes province-wide separating the B.C. Liberals from the New Democrats.

The B.C. Liberals narrowly won the popular vote with 40.9 per cent of ballots cast, compared to 39.9 per cent for the NDP. The Greens, at 16.7 per cent, followed in third place with the party's best showing in its history and more than double its performance in 2013.

This matched the polls almost precisely. Five major pollsters (Forum Research, Insights West, Mainstreet Research, Ipsos and the Angus Reid Institute) put out numbers in the last week of the campaign, pegging the NDP's support to be at either 40 or 41 per cent. The Liberals were estimated to have 39, 40 or 41 per cent support among decided voters.

B.C. elects a minority government, for now

6 years ago
Duration 4:45
CBC Polls Analyst Eric Grenier breaks down the numbers, lays out the scenarios

It appears some polls may have slightly underestimated the Liberals, but there were signs the party would be able to outperform their numbers.

The Greens were slightly harder to pin down, but four of the five pollsters set the Greens at either 15 or 17 per cent. 

Pollster sweepstakes

B.C.-based Insights West got closest to the mark, putting the Liberals and New Democrats at 41 per cent apiece and the Greens at 17 per cent.

"We are very happy with our forecast," said Mario Canseco, a vice-president at Insights West. "This is a process that started four years ago and has taken us now to 23 correct predictions in Canada and the United States using an online methodology."

David Valentin, executive vice-president at Mainstreet Research, says that "British Columbians were worried about the accuracy of polls but, ultimately, polling was accurate in the election. The greatest challenge was the changing demographics of British Columbia."

Mainstreet predicted a Liberal majority — but the party fell just short of the mark.

"The NDP vote became much more efficient than anyone expected," said Valentin. "The fate of the government may be decided in a recount, just nine votes separate the NDP and Liberals in Courtenay-Comox. Christy Clark may still have a razor-thin majority."

Regional portrait accurate

The results of the vote show the Liberals made gains in the B.C. Interior, the New Democrats in Metro Vancouver and the Greens on Vancouver Island. This is the portrait of the race that had been painted by the polls as well.

Surveys suggested that the New Democrats would beat out the Liberals by three to five points in the Lower Mainland, overturning a five-point deficit from 2013. Almost all of the NDP's seat gains came in and around Vancouver.

In the Interior, where the Liberals made a handful of seat gains, the aggregate gave the Liberals the edge by some 17 points. The vote count suggests the Liberals won the region by about 21 points.

And on Vancouver Island, the New Democrats took a small hit in the popular vote while the Liberals, at last count, had narrowly edged out the Greens for second spot. This was what the polls had suggested would be the case on the Island, the result being two seat gains for the Greens and the balance of power in the legislature.

Grains of salt no more?

The failure of the polls to gauge the 2013 B.C. election came at a difficult time for the polling industry in Canada. A year before, pollsters missed the call in Alberta, falsely giving the opposition Wildrose a comfortable win over the long-governing Progressive Conservatives.

But the polls did better in the subsequent Alberta election in 2015, catching the surge in support for the New Democrats and projecting their eventual majority government. The black mark on the pollsters' record, however, remained in B.C. and the polls were widely derided and dismissed throughout the recent campaign — notably by Clark herself.

Last night's performance may close the book on these missteps, at least in the Canadian context. But misses in high-profile votes in the U.S. presidential election and the British referendum on leaving the European Union have put polls into question once again, despite the errors in these two cases being relatively modest.

The impact of those errors, however, was significant, overturning expectations in a close race. The same could have easily happened in British Columbia last night — a couple points in one direction or the other might have given either the Liberals or the New Democrats a solid majority.

Instead, the result is the closest in British Columbia in more than half a century. And, finally, the polls called it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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