Last week I equated politics to sports in an effort to show you just how “unboring” politics really are. Here is another example.
Handicapping the horse race.
One of my favourite summer jobs during university was as a mutual agent at the Hiawatha horse track in Sarnia. I loved the races and became pretty astute at betting, especially after being taught how to read a program by a pair of horse owning twins who knew their stuff. They told me to weigh all the factors provided in the program and to pay little or no attention to the odds. Odds were just a guess, and anything could happen. I became a fan of betting on the long shot now and then. Win or lose, it always made for an exciting race.
Horse racing is all about the odds. Odds are determined by several factors: How has the horse been racing and behaving lately? Is it on any medication? Who are it’s parents, and where was it trained? How have the other horses been racing by comparison? This is called “handicapping the horse race”. Assigning a bias, if you will, based on various criteria.
Your goal when studying the program and tally boards and deciding on your bet is to determine which horse(s) you think – weighing the odds and options – has the potential to give you the greatest return for your wager. Watching the tally board you see the numbers change up and down, depending on how other people are betting. When wagering, you choose according to what you know, what you’ve learned and your what your gut tells you to do.
Sounds a lot like politics, doesn’t it?
Except in politics, the program isn’t a neat little booklet full of odds and statistics. Instead it’s ads on TV and articles in news papers. It’s televised debates and the topic of discussion on radio shows. It’s snippets and sound bites of promises and politicking.
And then, there are opinion polls.
When I think of opinion polls, I remember the phone invariably ringing at dinner time and my mum saying, “Don’t answer it! We’re eating!” If there was an election going on, my dad would jump to answer it regardless. He loved the pollsters and never turned down an opportunity to share his opinion.
Opinion polls started long before the telephone became a staple of nearly every household. The first polls were conducted by postcard, mailed to all voting age residents in an area. The cards returned would be tabulated and averaged into an “educated guess”.
The same equation is used for the telephone polls. A random (we are told…) sampling of the population is called and surveyed on various questions. These questions can range from your opinion of a candidate, which party you would most likely support if you were to vote that day, or more directly, which Prime Minister you would choose. The data is collected and tabulated into an average.
For example: Out of 1000 voters, “X” would vote for A and “Y” would vote for B. Divide the totals for each candidate by the total number of voters, and you get “Z”. Easy enough if it were a two party system, but much more difficult and divided in a multi-party system.
Polls, at one time, were thought to be a very accurate indicator to the outcome of an election, usually only being off by a few points. Look out for that dark horse though! On election day in 1984, Brian Mulroney, who was trailing in the polls throughout the campaign, made a 9% leap. He came out on the other side of the gate to win a landslide majority. Nobody saw that one coming.
There are many factors that can contribute to disproportionate results in polling, especially in today’s technology era. Many households are giving up traditional landlines and are opting for cell phones or Skype. This is especially true among the younger population. You also have those with call display who won’t answer their phone if they see an unknown number. This makes it difficult to get a representative sampling of the population. Because of this, polls have become increasingly less accurate and have virtually lost any weight they may have held at one time.
The biggest fans of polls are the media: print, radio and television. If they’ve got a great story (usually negative “great” stories. Rescuing kittens won’t make it to the headlines during an election) along with a riveting poll number, it gets people intrigued. It sells. It keeps them coming back. It’s an opportunity to spin the stories from the campaign trail and keep selling more.
It is not unusual for poll numbers to be manipulated with stories in an attempt to sway voters in a certain direction, according to the bias of the media outlet presenting the results. This can backfire, however, ending in a surprise result like we saw in 1984.
My advice to you is to be critical when looking at poll numbers, and take them with a grain of salt, unless you are provided with the following information:
- How many people were polled in the sample?
- Who commissioned or requested the poll, and what (if any) is their political bias?
- What does the pollster have to gain from conducting the poll?
- What area of the country was polled?
- What was the average age range and social demographic of the people polled?
We aren’t usually provided with these answers when we look at polling results, and if it is provided most people don’t pay attention to it, so a little critical thinking can go a long way. Spin placed on the results and stories in the media can help or hinder a campaign. It can sway public opinion and create a “herd” mentality. “Everyone else is voting for “A”, so I will too!” (Don’t do that. Ever.)
My opinion on polls: Don’t believe the hype. There are so many variables at play in polling that the only true test of public opinion falls on election day. Take a lesson from the horse races when making your decision. Read the program and carefully weigh the information. The numbers are an educated guess and shouldn’t be used to make your final decision. And don’t be afraid to bet on the dark horse, if your gut tells you to do so. It just might come out the big winner.