Murky and contradictory poll results, weird timing, unlikely to divert media from its dubious narrative about Alberta’s NDP

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PHOTOS: “Press 1 if you support the Wildrose Party …” With the right digital equipment, the whole family can have fun with demon-dialler public opinion polls, even down on the farm in rural Southern Alberta. Below: Novice political columnists learn how to cover the news in Alberta.

According to news accounts of last week’s Mainstreet Research demon-dialler poll, Albertans broadly support their NDP Government’s policies, including the plan to implement a $15 minimum wage and the call for a higher levy on carbon emissions, policies the Wildrose Opposition disdains.

Yet this is the same poll from about which news stories on Tuesday stated categorically meant Albertans no longer support Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP but pine for Brian Jean and his Wildrose Party, the one that’s so bitterly opposed to the policies Albertans indicated they like.

ReportersSo what’s with that?

It’s always possible that the poll got both seemingly contradictory aspects right – Albertans have told pollsters they support NDP policies for years while voting for the dreadful Progressive Conservatives.

Moreover, no sooner did the incompetent Jim Prentice finally lead the PCs lemming-like over the cliff on May 5, Albertans began to be subjected to a massive and unrelenting propaganda campaign about the supposed failings of the NDP by all the usual suspects on the neoliberal right. Count on it, by the way, this is only going to intensify in the weeks, months and years ahead.

So, yes, it is possible that the campaign by wishful think tankers, ideological academics whose publicly financed operations are topped up at the corporate trough, and the ever-reliable mainstream media is having the desired effect. Much of this is being funnelled through the now-openly partisan Postmedia empire, which now controls all the daily newspapers in both of Alberta’s largest cities.

In fairness, it’s also true that some, not all, of Mainstreet’s polls got it basically right in the weeks leading up to the May 5 election. The pollster tended to do better when it did surveys on normal business days, not weekends and the like. So there may be some merit to the pollster’s claim that interactive voice response survey technology is getting better and more accurate.

I doubt that’s the explanation this time, though. It’s just too soon.

The simpler and more likely explanation is that the June 30 poll got something wrong. To prove that assertion, however, we’ll have to wait for a few more post-election public opinion surveys to see about that.

In the mean time, while we’ll be hearing lots of media commentary phrased with great certainty about how the Mainstreet poll “spells bad news” for the NDP or proves the “honeymoon’s over,” none of this comes close to proving the Notley Government is already in a tailspin.

If there are no more polls for a spell – quite possible, since the NDP is so early in its mandate – readers can count on it that this poll will be trotted out repeatedly for months to “prove” the NDP is done for.

That might work, seeing as the purpose of a lot of polling nowadays is as much to cement ideas in the minds of voters – to establish a narrative – as it is to show what voters’ thoughts and intentions actually may be.

Remember the relentless campaign in 2011 and 2012 to persuade voters that the “upstart” Wildrose Party (upstarted with loads of corporate energy industry cash, as it happened) was “soaring in the polls.” It was based for months on a single public opinion survey, and it almost worked.

Still, given the unexpected recent success of the NDP, you have to wonder if Alberta voters were in fact paying better attention than the media and right-wing outrage industry gave them credit for doing. Part II of the Mainstreet poll story, with more nuanced information on what voters think about policy, suggests this might be so.

Regardless, it’s a fair to raise concerns about a demon-dialler poll conducted in a single day, which happened to be a sunny one, and furthermore happened to be the day before a national holiday. I couldn’t find any information about the hours the pollster was in the field, but it’s also reasonable to ask how late into the evening Mainstreet’s automated dialler machines called Albertans to get more than 3,000 responses, and how many phones they had to call to get that number.

I can tell you this with confidence, though. I’ve purchased a meaningful amount of polling over the years for former employers and I would not pay money for a poll that was conducted in a single day, and a nice day at that, hours before a national holiday. Indeed, it is said here, no paying customer with a sophisticated knowledge of polling would.

So why, you ask, would a pollster conduct a public opinion survey this way?

Well, I can’t speak for Mainstreet, of course, but in their shoes I might do the same thing in partnership with the only print media show in two big towns to drum up interest among paying customers in my polling business.

Let me make it perfectly clear that no criticism of Mainstreet is intended by this statement. It would be a perfectly reasonable strategy to make inroads into a crowded market with lots of interest in your product but not that many people willing to part with good money for it.

That said, it behooves voters to treat all such surveys with an appropriate number of grains of salt. Journalists should too, of course, but nowadays that’s all but a lost cause.

The more interesting question is why the media covers this story the way they did, and why they rushed into print with Mainstreet’s conclusions about party support without the balancing information from the same poll about what voters thought of party policy. That part ran on a later day.

Only the media can answer that question and, if past performance is any guide, there will be no answers.

As to the conclusion which we’re likely to hear over and over again that the results of this poll spell bad news for the Notley government, that’s quite a reach.

Indeed, the level of support for the government’s policy strongly suggests the opposite, unless the public’s skepticism about whether some of those policies will work, also illustrated by the survey, proves justified.

Given our level of understanding about the economics of how modest, scaled minimum wage increases work, for example, there’s every reason to believe this will be a policy triumph for the NDP.

Regardless, despite its flaws, last week’s Mainstreet poll is important because it is bound to be used, repeatedly, to establish a narrative about the NDP that serves the purposes of the NDP’s political enemies.

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Categories Alberta Politics