Alberta Votes·Point of View

Alberta election polls hold influence, even if they're wrong: Janet Brown

Independent pollster Janet Brown says polls matter, even if they are wrong, because they can influence voters who believe them to be true.

Longtime political watcher says polls can influence how people will vote

Pollster Janet Brown says if the public believes polls to be true, they can influence how people will choose to vote. (CBC)

So what have there been now, five or six polls released in Alberta since election was called?

Given that we're not even at the halfway point of the campaign yet, there will be many more to come.

The polls so far have been shocking — suggesting the 44-year reign of the PC Party may be coming to an end. Pollsters, political scientists and strategists have been debating in the media and on Twitter over whether the results are accurate. And I've certainly weighed in with my own opinions.

However, in the last few days, I've started to wonder less if the polls are accurate, and more if the voting public thinks they are accurate.

Polls matter, even if they are wrong, because if the public believes them they can influence how they will vote. And, if that happens, perception can become reality.

I don't believe polls impact most voters, but they don't need to. They can impact a small number of voters, and in a close race that can make all the difference.

On election day, most voters will simply vote for the party they like best. For others, the choice will be "strategic."

The strategies

Sometimes people feel more strongly about who they don't want to win. So, they vote to defeat the front runner. This kind of strategic voting is often encouraged among "progressives" in Alberta, but it takes co-ordination.

In this election, there's a website called 1 Alberta Vote that is designed to encourage people who would otherwise vote for the Liberal, New Democrat, Green or Alberta parties to unite behind a single candidate to defeat the PCs.

But conservative parties can leverage this stuff too.

Strategic voting was at play in the 2012 election. With several polls showing the Wildrose would win, the PCS targeted the malleable progressive vote to convince a large number of Liberal and NDP voters to abandon their parties and vote PC to prevent a Wildrose victory.

Then there are those hoping for a minority government.

After the 2012 election, I asked a poll question about whether people were hoping for a minority or majority government, and approximately one in six voters (17 per cent) said they were hoping for a minority when they cast their ballot. We've never had a minority government in the 110-year history of Alberta, but there's an argument to be made it can better serve the province.

Voting for the winner

So, there are voters who will look at polls to figure out which party is most likely to win, and which will come in second. And then vote for the second place party. So far it hasn't worked, but who knows this time around.

Then there is the idea of voting for the winner. 

It's argued that voters in some ridings (particularly rural ridings) want to be represented by an MLA who is in government — any government — because they see great value in having someone who represents their local interests around the caucus table. So it's said that many of rural seats won by the Wildrose in the 2012 election were won because voters believed the polls that said the Wildrose would win.

This time around, if voters believe the PCs are headed to defeat, this kind of strategic voting could cause upsets in seats that have long been considered safe PC seats. Polls tell you the party may lose? Vote against the local candidate.

Now, voters sometimes face the conundrum of liking one party, but liking the local candidate from a different party.

If they are convinced by the polls that the party they prefer is going to form government, some voters may take a gamble and abandon their party for the one of their preferred local candidate.

It's a "we're going to win, so might as well vote for Monica even though I don't like her party" kind of thing.

2015 election strategies

In the upcoming election, all these various strategies can play out in different ways.

Perhaps the apparent surge of the NDP will convince some traditional Liberal voters to get on the NDP bandwagon. Or, perhaps it will convince some Liberals to shift to the PCs, and some PCs to shift to the Wildrose.

The apparent surge of the Wildrose may convince some traditional PCs to get on the Wildrose bandwagon, or it may convince Liberals and NDs to vote PC to block Wildrose.

This is the stuff that keeps the parties "backroom boys" up at night. With traditionally low voter turnout, even a couple hundred votes one way or other can get a candidate elected. And as go the candidates, so goes the party. Everyone is fighting over slivers of electoral pie.

But here's the thing with trying to parse out strategic voter intentions based on polls: it only works if enough voters interpret the polls in the same way, and adopt the same strategy.

If Albertans believe that a three-way race is shaping up in this election, the strategic voting options become endless, and predicting the outcome will be very tricky.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet Brown

Alberta pollster

Janet Brown is a longtime political commentator and pollster in the province.

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