Nfld. & Labrador

Robocalls, 'push polling' need to be addressed, say Liberals

"I have never seen this virus infect Newfoundland and Labrador," says Gerry Byrne.

'I have never seen this virus infect Newfoundland and Labrador,' says Gerry Byrne

Gerry Byrne says polls are sometimes used as political 'weapons.' (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's political landscape has shifted following the results of Thursday night's election, with the province's first minority government in place since 1971.

But it's the environment of election campaigns and "push polling" that need a closer look, says Liberal Gerry Byrne.

"We're going to have to have a discussion about this," said Gerry Byrne, speaking with CBC after being re-elected in the district of Corner Brook. He said polls are increasingly more political than scientific, and are often used as a "weapon."

But the managing director of Abacus Data says it's the politicians making the polls political.

Tim Powers is a political commentator. (CBC)

"I certainly didn't hear Gerry Byrne complaining during the 2015 election when Abacus was reporting ... that the Liberals were doing exceptionally well and on their way to winning a majority," said Tim Powers.

Powers is a frequent political commentator and considered a run for the PC leadership after Kathy Dunderdale resigned in 2014.

A 'virus' infecting the province

Byrne is a long-time politician under the Liberal banner, previously sitting as a federal MP before making the move to provincial politics.

This is the first election campaign he's run in 23 years of public life where he said he's dealt with a toxic undertone, referencing NL Strong.

"I have never seen this virus infect Newfoundland and Labrador, this thing that we called NL Strong," Byrne said. 

"This 'push polling' that has now come into our province is very unexpected ... This is not a place that I ever would have anticipated that kind of political activity to occur."

Devin Drover told CBC News NL Strong does not work with any particular party or candidate. (Devin Drover/Twitter)

NL Strong is a group linked to Ontario Proud, a right-wing Facebook-based organization said to be instrumental in Doug Ford's victory. The group raised hundreds of thousands in corporate donations and churns out memes, videos and posts in support of Ford and the federal Conservatives.

It turns out that NL Strong is led by former Crosbie communications director Devin Drover.

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball also addressed the NL Strong robocall effect when speaking to media after his win in Humber-Gros Morne.

"The electorate spoke tonight. Ches Crosbie didn't get what he was looking for. He ran a very dirty campaign, one where the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have been exposed to robocalls on Mother's Day," Ball said.

"This came with the endorsement of Ches Crosbie. He could have said no to that, he decided to do it. It's one thing that Ches said yes to, and that was robocalls."

Crosbie has denied any association with NL Strong.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie denied any associated with NL Strong. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

Calling a spade a shovel

Byrne said the kind of questions asked by NL Strong robocalls were designed to get a certain response: a pro-Tory one.

"Let's call a spade a shovel here," Byrne said.

In Byrne's opinion, the kinds of questions being put to people in campaigns like NL Strong's are pushing voters to lean more toward one answer than another.

To him, it puts a harsher light on political polling as a whole.

Did the polls influence voters on election day? (CBC)

"As of this morning we had a poll that came out, that suggested a majority Conservative government. Polling is no longer, in my opinion, a scientific process or a genuine effort to get at public opinion to determine it.

"It's now become a tool, and in some respects it's become a weapon. It's actually pushing a particular point of view, as opposed to reading it."

But conflating NL Strong robocalls with polls done by firms like Abacus, Main Street or MQO is wrong, Powers said.

So is there a conspiracy of pollsters? Perhaps it only exists in Gerry Byrne's mind.- Tim Powers

"NL Strong is an advocacy group. Abacus is a polling organization," he said. "We shouldn't even be compared. I don't think any of the other polling companies should be compared."

He also doesn't believe NL Strong did Crosbie any favours.

"I think we're still a bit of a different political culture and some of the tactics and approaches that NL Strong use likely were not very helpful."

Most polls predicted PC win

As for the polls predicting a PC win, it's true that most of them did put the Tories ahead. 

Even Abacus' poll showed the PCs with 42 per cent support, followed by the Liberals at 37 per cent and the NDP at 15 per cent. Another six per cent said they'd vote for other candidates.

Political insiders, Powers included, typically say they take poll results with a grain of salt.

Most polls predicted more support for the PCs than for the Liberals. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press )

But Byrne said this is a new campaign era, with robocalls and all, and how much weight polling results are given may need even further scrutiny.

"There has to be some guidance to this because it does — it's done to influence voting behaviour," he said.

But Powers says that's nonsense.

"Interestingly this suggests that Gerry Byrne has raised that somehow there was a bias at play when Abacus had the PCs at 42 — which is exactly where they ended up." 

Were the polls really that far off?

Sure, he said, each poll predicted different results, but they were very different polls in an election that was closer and more difficult to predict than usual.

"I think if you dig into all of the different polls you did get the sense that there was a close election and there were factors that on the day could influence the outcome," he said.

Undecided voters, for example, clearly played a big role in the results, he said, and the pre-election polls picked up the large number of people who didn't yet know who they'd vote for on the day.

He also points out that the Abacus poll showed 53 per cent of those polled expected the Liberals to win.

"So is there a conspiracy of pollsters? Perhaps it only exists in Gerry Byrne's mind."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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