The Daily Mader – May 4, 2011

Pundits and pollsters and nerds — oh my!

TALKING ABOUT TALKING ABOUT POLITICS: You know who didn’t see these election results coming? Everyone. You know who that includes? The Parliamentary Press Gallery – you know, that stable of cracker-jack reporters who spend all their time covering federal politics. In a way it’s hard to blame them – as noted, nobody saw this coming. But if anybody were to spot the warning signs, wouldn’t they?

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: Part of the problem, as Rick Mercer rather pointedly noted, is that gallery reporters aren’t assigned to cover the campaign, really; they’re assigned to cover leader’s tours. And nothing really happens on leader’s tours. And so a reporter touring with a leader won’t — can’t — really be expected to report on how the election is playing among the… what’s the word… electorate. To my knowledge, the only national political reporter or columnist to give an inkling of the coming Tory wave was John Ivison, who noted, on April 22:

There is anger in the herbivore community about Stephen Harper’s failings — some of it is even justified. But the evidence on the doorsteps suggests it does not extend beyond the politically engaged into the suburbs, where people have to get up in the morning.

So maybe reporters should have spent a little more time on suburban doorsteps, and a little less time on leaders’ tours? (But then Ivison himself has defended the leader’s tour.)

WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE PPG?: I can’t help but wonder, though, if the problem is more structural. The members of the press gallery are all bright, hardworking folks who spend all of their time covering politics. Sure, that can give you unparalleled expertise. But it’s also sure to give you all sorts of strongly-held opinions about the subjects of your coverage that you’ve formed on the basis of a thousand facts and circumstances that the average voter doesn’t know about, or care. It pains me to say it, but the best example is probably Andrew Coyne’s endorsement of the Liberals. I mean talk about out of touch: not even the Star endorsed the Liberals. Heck, it’s still not clear that Michael Ignatieff endorsed the Liberals. Coyne’s piece was thoughtful, well reasoned, and — if not persuasive — certainly thought-provoking. But I think it’s fair to say that he didn’t exactly capture the mood of a nation. As I say, though, I think this sort of myopia is unavoidable given the time and attention that the PPG devotes to national politics and its participants. Maybe when the writ drops we should send the gallery on vacation and have the city beat reporters cover the campaign.

100% OF POLLSTERS ARE WRONG: That being said, when it comes to getting the election wrong, the reporters didn’t come close to the pollsters. Frank Graves of EKOS was all over twitter yesterday apologizing for his firm’s missed calls. You can guess why. A pollster can’t make his bread off of one federal election every two-to-five years; he’s got to pay the bills in the meantime. (In fact I suspect that the pollsters don’t make much, if anything, off of a campaign.) A pollster’s regular clients are corporations and nonprofits looking to do market research. Like any consumer, those folks want to make sure they’re getting good value for money; if they’re not, they’ll take their business elsewhere. And so a federal election campaign is, in a very important respect, a sort of national market-research trade show. Every pollster sets up a booth and starts giving out his wares, free to all comers, in the hope that the quality of his goods will attract (and retain) customers. Let’s put it this way: if your orthodontist had janky teeth, wouldn’t you think about switching? You and I can feel a bit sheepish for failing to predict a Tory triumph. But for pollsters it’s really no laughing matter.


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