Sunday, December 17, 2006

Poll smoking, the December edition

We admit we have to continue to rely on our regular emailers for analysis of the ongoing saga of the Probe-Free Press quarterly poll results, the latest of which was featured Saturday.

But it didn't take much help from others for us to realize there is something very interesting going on at Probe and the higher minds at Winnipeg's broadsheet. However, other folks have helped with some of the following observations that we have cobbled together here.

First off, it’s worth noting never has an instalment of the provincial vote intention numbers required such an advance set up as these.

Probe's Chris Adams wrote a dense three-part snoozer in the editorial pages the week before these numbers came out, boiling down roughly to the point that each party needed middle-of-the-road voters and women to win. Thanks Dr. Adams.

Then, when the numbers appear, gone are the previous triumphal statements from Probe's Scott McKay about the death spiral of the NDP and the meteoric rise of the Tories. Hmm, why is that?

Well, it might be partially due to the fact that the Tory "lead" that had them so excited a few months ago has completely evaporated even in their own numbers. They also discovered that any of the Tories’ gains have been in rural seats (and if they had any better data, they would realize it's pretty much isolated in seats the Tories already hold).

Also they have finally woken up to the fact that Gary Doer and the Manitoba NDP are super, super strong in Winnipeg -- the key to the whole enchilada.

But could it be that Probe and the Free Press have realized, as this space has been pointing out for some time, that there have been some wild oddities in Probe's numbers that don't seem to synch with other info out there?

One such oddity was admitted to in Saturday's story.

"The NDP are ahead of the Tories in the city centre, the southeast, southwest and in the northeast. The Tories enjoy a lead in the northwest, which McKay said is likely a statistical anomaly, considering it is the only quadrant of the city where the Tories have no seats at all." (Emphasis is ours.)

Right, in the quadrant of the city where there are no Tory seats, team Huey is ahead. Nonsense, of course. And it’s written off as a mere "anomaly".

Well, another anomaly is one that McKay doesn't point out, regarding his assertion about the NDP leading in the southwest quadrant -- where the NDP currently has 5 ½ seats (with half of Fort Rouge crossing the Assiniboine into the city centre) out of 9 ½ seats.

They haven’t posted the news release on this yet, so we haven’t seen the breakouts, but for the NDP to be leading 47 to 33 in Winnipeg, and “losing” in one quadrant, it’s pretty safe to assume the lead in the southwest quadrant is significant, too.

So it's worth thinking about the likelihood of the NDP carrying a significant lead in the southwest where three of these seats just came into the NDP fold for the first time ever in 2003, by small margins (Fort Garry – 87, Seine River – 732, St. Norbert – 735).

Plus the other four non-NDP seats are REALLY non-NDP seats, with comfortable PC majorities (and in the case of River Heights, a comfortable Liberal seat which could only really be challenged by a strong Tory).

So, either the NDP is poised to pick up a couple of seats among the following: River Heights, Charleswood, Tuxedo and Fort Whyte -- or Probe may have another major "anomaly" in their numbers.

We are also reminded of Angus Reid’s comments that we have quoted in the past (here and here) about the lack of good public domain polling, because media organizations aren’t willing to pay for the good stuff. We believe this view is still valid here.

We will also repeat our complaint that Probe doesn't attach the leader's names to the vote intention, which discounts popularity (or lack thereof) of leaders and increases ambiguity between federal and provincial parties -- so it doesn't do a great job of replicating a theoretical provincial election.

And the other longstanding beef we have is that the very surface nature of the surveys, tacked onto Probe’s quarterly omnibus product which focuses largely on other clients’ questions, like investing and beer preferences, gives the numbers – flawed or otherwise – no context.

Specifically, there is no reason offered as to WHY we are seeing the changes in the numbers. So, in the past, McKay simply guessed about apparent falling NDP fortunes, but he had no data to back that up with.

In this instalment, though, McKay’s fervour has clearly been tempered, so he doesn’t even hazard to guess why things are shaping up the way his numbers are suggesting, except to say: "The urban electorate must feel somewhat satisfied with the NDP…They are projecting an aura of stability and centrism, which Winnipeg voters are looking for."

Still a bit of a stretch, as he has no idea what the urban electorate is looking for, because it doesn’t appear that he asked them.

In the meantime, though, let’s look for some hints as to why support for Doer’s NDP may actually be increasing inside the Perimeter and declining in Tory rural incumbent seats.

What major event or issue could have taken place since the last published survey that could move these numbers?

Well, a good candidate for this might be the pause (or moratorium) on new hog barns accompanied by new water quality rules – something that is likely much more popular in Winnipeg than in some rural seats.

This issue could be one clue. But as we said, Probe and the Free Press don’t know, because apparently they didn’t ask. (We note that in their last outing they did ask about top issues, which they may have done this time. But without linking those issues to voting intention in the survey’s methodology, it’s a pretty meaningless exercise).

Another interesting thing is there would seem to be absolutely no negative effect on NDP support of the OlyWest controversey whatsoever in the two quadrants, the northeast and the southeast, that contain the neighbourhoods adjacent to the proposed controversial slaughterhouse.

Overall, though, we suppose we should congratulate Probe for finally coming to the realization that the NDP is still in great shape to win in an upcoming election.