Opinion polls come a cropper in British Columbia

Unfortunately it’s not possible for one blogger to cover local or regional elections all over the world, in addition to all the other things that are happening. But Canada is so prone to being compared with Australia – “an intriguing mixture of the familiar and the exotic”, as I called it some years ago – that it’s usually worth having at least a quick look at elections in its provinces, the equivalent of our states.

And sure enough, Tuesday’s election in British Columbia was absolutely fascinating. You can get all the results here, but they don’t tell you what was fascinating about it: they just show an incumbent government winning a comfortable majority with very little swing either way, beating its only serious rival by about 5% in the primary vote.

The remarkable thing is that this was completely contrary to the unanimous prediction of the opinion polls, which all said the Liberals would go down to the New Democratic Party.

I’ve written about it at some length in today’s Crikey, wondering if there’s a lesson for Australia: “could it mean the Gillard government, which has never been as far behind in the polls as Clark’s Liberals were, is still in a position to stage a comeback before September 14?”

Antony Green asked the same question yesterday. We both agree that the differences between electoral systems in the two countries make this sort of upset much less likely here. I don’t discount the possibility entirely, since “upsets tend to happen — by definition — without warning.” But for a variety of reasons our pollsters have a much better track record than their Canadian counterparts.

And spare a thought for Éric Grenier, trying to make a name for himself with the Canadian equivalent of Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com. In a long post overnight he tries, without much success, to explain what went wrong:

British Columbians collectively woke up and changed their minds and swung about 13 points towards Christy Clark. Or, more likely, something disastrously wrong occurred in the polling industry. …

There is no question that seat projection models like mine work. They are an effective way to translate poll results into seats. This is not voodoo magic, it is a rather simple endeavour. The challenge is being the least possible amount of wrong, which is the best that forecasters can hope for. But the models are only as good as the available information.

I have to admit that my confidence in the quality of that information – polling – has been profoundly shaken. …

This site was meant to be a way to cut through the confusion in polling and give a good idea of what, as a whole, the polls are saying. The site can still do that, but if what the polls are saying is not reflective of reality, what use is it?

I feel his pain. We all know the sorts of inaccuracies that polls are liable to, but at a fundamental level we still depend on pollsters being able to do their job. In the developed democracies that confidence is generally well placed. British Columbia turned out to be a striking exception.


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