How many more elections until we stop paying attention to polls

Opinion research in the internet eraI have to wonder why phone polls are still news and still given so much credence both by the media, media consumers and the political class generally. Almost the most interesting thing about the Ontario election (apart from the disintegration of Tim Hudak’s written-for-buzzfeed campaign platform) has been how completely whacked opinion poll numbers have been.

Throughout my ever-lengthening life polls – regardless of the firm conducting them – have always marched in lockstep toward election day, to the point where the punditry in the 1990s was musing about just cancelling elections and declaring a poll-o-cracy.

The ubiquity of the landline, near complete coverage of the phone book, the lack of call display, made the polls almost scary consistent and a much more accurate prediction of how votes were cast.

But now you’ve got Bell executives telling student media landline use is down 50 per cent, and Statistics Canada says that only two thirds of Canadian homes have landlines.

That is huge. Pollsters are required by law to announce their margin of error which they usually put in the three to five per cent category. But now that they cannot get at one third – that would be 33 per cent – of the people whose opinions they claim to measure, surely the margin of error is now much much higher.

The roller coaster ride of polling numbers throughout this campaign is surely evidence of that. The “against all opinion research evidence” victory of the BC liberals over the NDP is surely more.

Add to the fact that so many people have call display and only pick up the phone for numbers they know – or at the very least avoid numbers that look like marketers or surveyors – and I have to wonder how long are we going to put any stock in them at all?

Surely the opinion research industry is feeling the sands shifting beneath their feet. Are they compensating. Are they trying to figure out what sort of people drop their landlines and how they’re likely to vote compared to people who keep their landlines and answer the phone no matter who’s calling.

Or are they humming along pretending none of this is happening and hoping no one notices that – to borrow a Rick Mercer line – they’re basically throwing darts?

Whatever the case, I’m going to vote today. I hope you are too.