Does it matter what the polls say in late July about a general election that will not happen until late October?
For most folks, the answer is a resounding No. Just about anything that occurs today, barring some ghastly gaffe, will be long forgotten before voters bring their minds to bear on their Oct. 21 ballot decision. It’s summer, for Pete’s sake. Enjoy it while it lasts. There will be plenty of time – in the last 10 days or two weeks of the campaign – to worry about what Justin, Andrew and the rest are going on about.
The answer is quite different when it comes from the community of political creatures – campaign managers and strategists, other backroom operatives of varied ilk, and the legions of volunteers that every party depends on.
For them, the early polls – four or five national ones in any given week plus a profusion of regional and local polls – matter enormously. For one thing. they affect morale. A bad poll depresses workers, discourages recruits, and makes volunteers question why they are wasting their time. But a good poll is political Viagra; raises spirits, invigorates workers and draws in recruits.
It is the same on the money side. One or two good polls make the cheques and credit card contributions roll in. And all it takes is a bad poll to dry up the money stream. One campaign strategist told me years ago he didn’t need to study poll results in the morning; all he had to do was check the overnight receipts.
The early polls are equally crucial to those who plot strategy or devise tactics. They need to understand the trends, to measure not only the level of hard support their party or candidate can count on, but the size and depth of their pool of “available” voters – in other words, how many loose fish will consider swimming to them.
The intelligence is crucial in this election, which is shaping as the closest in decades. As of the weekend, the online poll aggregator 338Canada.com had the Conservatives with a tiny lead in popular vote and the Liberals with a wafer-slim advantage in terms of winning enough seats to form a government.
The party gurus need polls that break the national numbers broken down by province, region and constituency. Which issues most concern voters in each subset? The economy? Jobs? Climate change? Carbon taxes? Hospital wait times? Cost of housing? Food safety? Marijuana? Clean drinking water? Donald Trump? And on and on – different concerns for different folks. For the gurus, it means many different buttons to push.
Most important, they need to know what voters think of the leaders. Neither Justin Trudeau nor Andrew Scheer, is going to win any popularity contest this summer. So their advisers have to devise strategies that will mask their leader’s flaws, play on their strengths, and exploit their opponents’ vulnerabilities.
It is no accident that, when he is campaigning in seat-rich Ontario, Trudeau spends as much time slagging Premier Doug Ford as he does belittling Conservative leader Scheer. Polling has told the Liberals that Ford is Scheer’s Achilles’ heel in the province.
The modern era of Canadian political polling began in 1962 when Keith Davey, the Liberal “Rainmaker,” hired American Lou Harris, who had been John Kennedy’s pollster in the cliffhanging 1960 U.S. presidential election. Harris quickly challenged the Liberals’ comfortable assumption that people would vote for the party because its leader Lester Pearson was a world-acclaimed diplomat. Harris’s polling revealed that Canadians in 1962 could not have cared less about international affairs. What they really cared about was unemployment.
Davey and Co. also learned, courtesy of polling, that voters did not cotton to Pearson’s beloved polka-dot bow ties. So they had him switch to conventional neckties.
Pearson did not win that 1962 election, but he reduced John Diefenbaker’s massive majority to a minority government. And he won the next two elections, in 1963 and 1965. Without his bow tie.