Don’t put too much weight on this week’s opinion polls

On Monday, two opinion polls came out that purport to indicate voter intentions in the upcoming leadership races.

I say purport, because, as far as I can tell after writing the stories, there are some questions that arise from the way the polls were conducted.

The first poll was done by Mainstreet Research. They’re a large polling firm that often conducts surveys in advance of federal, provincial and municipal elections.

Mainstreet released data from three polls. One looked at the voting intentions of the province if there were a provincial election held today. That poll is reliable, but all that can be gleaned is how things look right this moment. The company says that could change as each party chooses a new leader.

Mainstreet then took a look at federal donor lists, identified those who live in Saskatchewan and called both Conservative and NDP supporters at the national level, screening them for whether or not they’re provincial party members. They asked the donors who they supported in the upcoming election.

This is a trickier one. Mainstreet did find about 450 members of each provincial party to poll, and those people’s opinions certainly count.

But I’d question whether it’s representative of the average party member and voter.

For instance, the Saskatchewan Party has gained many new members ahead of a vote that will see the province gain a new premier. Some of those voters, pundits have speculated, aren’t planning to be long-term party members. They just want to choose the next premier. Some unions have even encouraged members to sign up for a Sask. Party membership to have a say in Saturday’s vote.

Furthermore, not every party member can afford to donate federally. I would argue most don’t.

On the Sask. Party side as well, you’re likely to find some cente-leaning folk, such as Gord Wyant, who associate more with the federal Liberals than with the Conservatives. Those who do donate big bucks to the federal Conservatives are more likely to lean towards the right wing of the party, towards candidates like Cheveldayoff.

This, unfortunately, seems to be a nuance lost on some media outlets. I read some stories from big city media outlets who seem to miss the nuance and difference between the general poll and the poll of party donors.

On the NDP side, things get a little muddier.

Unlike the Sask. Party and the federal Conservatives, the provincial and federal NDP are the same party. If you have a provincial NDP membership, you also belong to the federal party.

This is what makes leadership candidate Trent Wotherspoon’s press release slightly confusing.

His concern that only federal donors were consulted, and not provincial supporters is understandable. But still, in the NDP that distinction is less prominent than with the Conservatives and the Sask. party, two separate entities.

Wotherspoon’s numbers are also suspect. At no point in his statement is there an indication of how the polling was done. If it was done during door-knocking campaigns, or if it was at campaign events, it could easily be slanted Wotherspoon’s way.

He points out Mainstreet doesn’t have access to the people he’s signed up. True, but what about the people Meili’s signed up?

Meili didn’t put out a statement Monday, but during his recent visit to Prince Albert, he was reasonably confident. He has showed a fundraising advantage over Wotherspoon, without accepting any corporate or union donations.

That too, though, can be questioned. Fundraising doesn’t necessarily lead to votes.

All the above considered, it doesn’t seem like the numbers provided by either Mainstreet or Wotherspoon, are a fair picture of where people stand, at least as far as the leadership races go.

Then, there was the second poll released Monday. That one was done by Insightrix, online, answered by SaskWatch Research members.

Insightrix had difficulty finding Sask. Party members to complete their poll, and had to target additional respondents. Still, they only heard from 104 people. That sample is far too low to be meaningful.

But the fact that Cheveldayoff had a lead amongst the general sample and in the Mainstreet poll, looks good for his campaign.

The larger issue here is polling in general. Insightrix did their survey online, while Mainstreet did theirs over the phone.

During the US presidential campaign, much was written about how the pollsters were wrong. Some said the math was wrong.

The math was right. Likely, the data was bad. You can’t find that surprising. In order to answer an Insightrix poll, you have to be signed up to their service. That means there is only a certain pool of people you’re asking each time a survey comes up.

There are also issues with phone surveys. Lots of people don’t respond to those types of calls, though one could reasonably argue it’s more random than the online sample.

Still, all these results need to be taken with a grain of salt – the math is only as good as the data. While Mainstreet has been doing this for a long time, reports in The Atlantic and the New York Times indicate that the quality of data and accuracy of polls has been steadily decreasing for all companies over the past few election cycles, at least in the United States.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the same is true in Canada.

That brings us to the last reason these polls may not show us what people are really thinking – the ranked ballot.

The Sask. Party is choosing their new leader using the ranked ballot system.

Each voter will choose his/her favourite candidate in order of preference. If the top choice doesn’t get at least 50 per cent of the votes, the candidate with the least percentage of votes will be knocked out; party members who voted for the knocked-out candidate will have their votes transferred to their second choice for leader.

Cheveldayoff may by the first choice of many, but based on the polling data we have, it’s doubtful he can win 50 per cent on the first ballot. That’s where that ranking comes in handy.

If Scott Moe, for example, is the most popular second choice, he may win.

Talk around political circles is that may be the case.

But, as with these polls, no one knows for sure. We’ll just have to wait for Saturday to find out.