Calgary polling fiasco leaves Postmedia, pollster with egg on their faces, critics furious, and mayor safely back in office

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PHOTOS: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the marbled hallways of the Alberta Legislature. He was reelected to his third term on Oct. 16. Below: Mainstreet Research pollster Quito Maggi (Photo: Mainstreet Research), Mainstreet Executive VP David Valentin (Photo: Twitter), Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt (Photo: CBC), and Calgary pollster Janet Brown.

Postmedia, the newspaper chain that operates both the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun, says it has put its relationship with Mainstreet Research “on hold” in the wake of the election-night revelation the Toronto-based pollster’s opinion surveys in the lead-up to Calgary’s mayoral election were spectacularly out to lunch.

Another factor in Postmedia’s decision may have been the reaction by officials of the Toronto-based polling company to criticism by Alberta academics and other pollsters of problems they identified in the polling data, such as young voters showing up as supporters of the conservative challenger.

What the Postmedia action really means, however, is not so clear.

A story published by the company’s newspapers on Saturday contains few details on what will actually happen while the relationship of about three years between the pollster and the newspaper company is “on hold,” or what Postmedia means by that phrase. Postmedia will await the results of Mainstreet’s assessment of what went wrong, said Gerry Nott, Postmedia’s vice-president of content, in a statement quoted by the Calgary Herald’s story.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for big changes, either in the relationship between the two companies or in Postmedia’s use of polling results in ways critics say interferes with the democratic process.

The backstory goes something like this:

Throughout the campaign leading up to the Calgary municipal election on Oct. 16, Mainstreet produced a series of public opinion surveys for the Herald and the Sun showing progressive-leaning Mayor Naheed Nenshi trailing his most serious conservative challenger, former Progressive Conservative Party president Bill Smith, by double digits.

In one case, a Mainstreet poll placed Mayor Nenshi 17 points behind Mr. Smith – which, if true, would have been slam-dunk territory for the conservative challenger.

As has been noted earlier in this space, Alberta conservatives badly wanted this outcome to advance their narrative progressive politics are kaput in Alberta, especially Calgary, and voters are swinging back toward the right.

In the same time frame, however, public polls by several other polling firms showed Mr. Nenshi in the lead, though by smaller margins – as did, we are told, unpublished private polling done some political campaigns.

This naturally raised suspicions among some of Mr. Nenshi’s supporters, who suggested Mainstreet was basically producing push polls so Postmedia could advance Mr. Smith’s campaign. As the headline on a CBC report described the argument, observers suspected Mainstream “co-ordinated polls to influence Calgary mayoral race.”

But it was the academics and other pollsters, not Mayor Nenshi’s campaign strategists, who raised red flags about Mainstreet’s results most vocally – and it was the academics and pollsters who felt the sting of the polling company’s response.

The controversy moved to social media after several commenters expressed their concerns to a Postmedia reporter covering one of the polls, and their criticisms didn’t make it into Postmedia’s next report. Political scientists Duane Bratt of Mount Royal University and Melanee Thomas of the University of Calgary took to Twitter to call out the Postmedia for omitting their concerns.

This prompted a response by Mainstreet Executive Vice-President David Valentin, who told radio station 660 News in Calgary the day before the election that when the results rolled in the next day, in the words of the reporter, “it will be payback time.”

“We’re going to be going through the case study and singling people out and showing what exactly it is they said and did,” Mr. Valentin told 660 News. “And I think anyone who comments to the media should expect that their comments are going to receive scrutiny after the fact. I think that’s fair.”

Critics of Mainstreet’s data and approach took that as a threat.

In the event, Mr. Nenshi’s victory by about seven points the next day settled questions about the accuracy of Mainstreet’s polling, if not the argument.

On Oct. 19, Mainstreet President Quito Maggi published an extremely long post on the company’s website apologizing for the poll results and describing what he referred to as an “unexplained error” as proof “that even a good sample can be wrong.” Mainsteet will launch “a root and branch review” of what happened, he vowed.

The same day, in a string of 15 Twitter posts, Dr. Bratt accused Mr. Maggi of “bullying and intimidation” and refused to accept an apology proffered by the pollster.

Respected Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown entered the fray the same day with a public Facebook post saying she was “flabbergasted that Postmedia has not reported on this or taken any action – even though it’s been well covered by 660, Metro, the Globe and Mail, and CBC.”

“A couple of brave souls who work at Postmedia have reached out to me ‘off the record’ on this,” she wrote. “But there has been complete silence from the many others I have interacted with over the years. I get it though. They are being bullied into silence by their employer just as I was bullied.”

On Saturday, Postmedia finally admitted it had egg on its face with the story about its relationship with Mainstreet being put on hold.

Whatever caused the wrong numbers, Ms. Brown told me in an email, “Calgarians deserved better than an election that was dominated by horserace polls, an overarching false narrative, and precious little discussion about the issues voters care about – taxes and economic stimulus.

And whatever Postmedia’s motives were in covering the election the way it did, it seemed to have had the effect of lighting a fire under Mr. Nenshi’s supporters, who got out to the polls in droves, and possibly also of lulling Mr. Smith’s campaign into believing it could cruise effortlessly to victory.

Categories Alberta Politics