October 14, 2010
Shortly after I arrived home last Friday night, my phone rang. The caller was a woman asking if I would take part in a poll on “local issues.”
Intrigued, I said yes.
I reached for a pen as the pollster started to fire questions at me.
Did I think I was better or worse off than I was four years ago?
Did I plan to vote in the Toronto election? Did I have a favourable, somewhat favourable, somewhat unfavourable or very unfavourable opinion of Rob Ford, Joe Pantalone, Rocco Rossi, George Smitherman?
Who was my second choice? How would I rank the chances that I might change my mind between now and voting day? Do endorsements influence my opinion?
I answered most of the questions because I’m intrigued by the role that polls are playing in this election.
Indeed, a wave of fresh polls to be released over the next 10 days will likely have a direct impact on whether Ford or Smitherman is the next mayor.
These polls will signal whether Smitherman is closing the gap on Ford and whether the “anybody-but-Ford” movement is gaining or losing momentum.
The first of these polls came out late Wednesday, with an Ipsos Reid survey for Newstalk 1010 suggesting Smitherman and Ford are now in a dead heat.
While political purists attack the media — often rightly — for focusing too much on the polls, the reality is that opinion surveys are a factor in campaigns. Leading candidates get more fundraisers, more volunteers and more press coverage.
At the same time, there’s the old question: Do polls shape opinion or do they measure it?
Academics are convinced that polls published late in a campaign can influence a tight election.
And then there is the “bandwagon” effect of polls that can lead to strategic voting, in which people vote for their second-choice candidates because they seem to have a better chance than their first choice of beating a despised candidate.
This is the scenario shaping up in Toronto with the “anybody-but-Ford” campaign, where Smitherman and Pantalone are arguing that anti-Ford voters should rally behind them.
In truth, all candidates fixate on polls. They go to war with pollsters when the numbers are low and are thrilled when they’re up.
A good example is John Laschinger, campaign chair for Pantalone, who became irate when the Star released its latest poll three weeks ago.
“Quite honestly, I’m not sure whether to be indignant or just amused,” Laschinger said in a press release. “This poll seems to come from quite a different universe than the one the rest of us are living in.”
The poll, conducted for the Star by the Angus Reid polling firm, had Pantalone at 15 per cent, while Ford was at 39 per cent, Smitherman 26 and Rossi just 8 per cent. Laschinger declined an invitation to show any internal polling that indicated any significant deviation from the Star’s findings.
Rossi is also upset with the polls, which have resulted in calls for him to quit and to some of his campaign team switching to Smitherman.
In another sign of “poll panic,” Ford’s team last weekend “leaked” a survey it had commissioned to a Toronto Sun columnist, who reported breathlessly that the “anybody-but-Ford movement” has “not gathered steam.”
For obvious reasons, most journalists ignore polls paid for by candidates. But the Sun jumped all over the Ford poll, which had Ford at 49.5 per cent. The Sun even quoted a Ford staffer as saying that anti-Ford talk is “upsetting people” and pushing up Ford’s numbers.
The polls to be released in the coming days will focus exclusively on the horse-race aspect of the campaign. At this stage, pollsters aren’t interested in issues and neither are the candidates.
Besides their campaign insight, the surveys will also provide entertainment value because it will be fun to watch how Ford, Smitherman, Pantalone and Rossi react to what voters told the pollsters.
For the record, I told the pollster I would not be voting for Ford.
He isn’t even my second choice.
Bob Hepburn’s column appears Thursday. email@example.com