Alberta's election polls miss the mark

Monday's election results have some Albertans scratching their heads about all those public opinion polls that pointed to a much different outcome.
Alberta Premier and PC Leader Alison Redford speaks to the media following her majority win in the provincial election in Calgary Tuesday. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Monday's election results have some Albertans wondering about all those polls that suggested a much different outcome.

Polls had the Wildrose Party ahead for most of the Alberta election campaign, but it was the Progressive Conservatives who ended up with a comfortable majority win that underlined the wide discrepancy between the polls and the results.

The stunning win has raised questions about the reliability of polls, their ability to capture late shifts, their methodology and even their proliferation in the Alberta campaign.

In a Calgary coffee shop, some were still processing the political upset that wasn't.

"I'm baffled," said Godfrey Budd. "How did the pollsters get it so wrong? How did this happen to this extent?"

'The polls were fine. They just didn't do enough of them.'— Political scientist Keith Brownsey

Cynthia Moore thinks it’s because pollsters aren’t getting to a big chunk of the population.

"They're not getting to young people, because young people don't have landlines," she said. "I don't answer my phone if I know it's a pollster. So I think that's the big question: who are they actually speaking to?"

Moore said the polls were probably right at some point in the campaign and the result changed because people reacted to the polls.

"I don't think the polls are necessarily wrong all of time, but our system is so dynamic that it changes and it changes so significantly over even a few days that a poll a week ago means absolutely nothing," she said.

Pollster concerned about profession’s credibility

Bruce Cameron, head of the Return on Insight polling company, maintains he was close — he predicted a Tory government, but not a majority. Other pollsters anticipated a Wildrose coronation.

"I mean clearly something's wrong," he said. "I am concerned about the impact on the credibility of the profession."

Pollster Bruce Cameron said it's one of the most volatile elections he has ever worked on. (CBC)

Cameron questions the methodology some companies were using.

He says online surveys and automated phone polls are generally cheaper for media companies, but limited — they need large samples to be representative.

Cameron says telephone polling done by live interviewers, who can clarify questions, are a better gauge.

But he said polls are a snapshot in time.

"And this was one of the most volatile elections I've been involved with," he said.         

Saskatchewan premier weighs in

Alison Redford says her Saskatchewan counterpart Brad Wall put it best when he jokingly summed up the Alberta premier's pollster-defying win.

"He said when political parties start negotiating with pollsters now, they may ask for the Alberta discount," Redford told reporters in Calgary Tuesday.

The Saskatchewan premier says he doesn't know if anyone can explain why the polling was so off.

He adds that the results speak to the importance of a good ground game, especially door knocking.

Wall — a self-confessed political nerd — says he watched the election carefully because Alberta politics mean a lot in Saskatchewan.

Redford's strategy: ignore the polls

"All of the questions that so many of you asked me based on a lot of those polls didn't reflect either what we were seeing or what I was hearing or feeling," she said.

It was left to the academics to grapple with the disparity.

'I can't think of a swing that size in the last 48 hours in any other Canadian or American election. I think it was unprecedented.'— Wildrose's Vitor Marciano

"The polls were fine. They just didn't do enough of them," said political scientist Keith Brownsey with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"There was a [late-stage] trend toward the Conservatives and it didn't measure that."

Pollster Allan Gregg of the firm Harris-Decima said pundits also failed to factor in a built-in advantage for the PC incumbents.

"I had seen it years and years and years ago, and [what] is so easy to miss in the provincewide and nationwide polling — but especially at the provincial level — is the strength of incumbency," said Gregg.

"These Progressive Conservative MLAs in the last election got 80 per cent of the popular vote. These [voting] people could be very, very mad at the government but still love ol' Jim."

Unexpected swing came late in the game

Vitor Marciano of the Wildrose said the late-stage migration was breathtaking, with 12-point swings in some places.

"I can't think of a swing that size in the last 48 hours in any other Canadian or American election. I think it was unprecedented," he said.

"This is why we hold elections and we don't decide governments based on polls."

Meanwhile, locals are still taking in the results of Monday night's election.

At a C-Train station in the riding of Calgary-Fish Creek, Wildrose candidate Heather Forsyth was victorious — but aside from one other riding, the rest of the city is Tory blue.

For Kelsey Cameron, this is not good news.

"I wanted the Wildrose to win so I was disappointed," she said, adding anti-climate change, homophobic and racial comments made by Wildrose members probably lost a lot of votes for the party.

With files from The Canadian Press