During the May 2015 election campaign in Britain I received an email from the editor of the Daily Telegraph urging me to vote Conservative. I was on his mailing list because I subscribe to one of the Telegraph’s services on the Internet. I laughed out loud when I read it.
It is well-known that newspapers are biased and the Telegraph is fairly right-wing, but I was startled by the brashness of the letter. I had never run across anything so blatant in the secular press. The notion of balanced and unbiased reporting formed no part of the Telegraph’s philosophy. The editor threatened all kinds of calamity if Labour was elected, and the Labour leader was presented as a buffoon who couldn’t even eat a sandwich properly (an unfortunate and widely circulated photograph of the Labour leader eating a sandwich was not flattering).
I didn’t take his advice; I am not a British citizen, nor do I live in the U.K. I couldn’t have voted Conservative if I’d wanted to. As it happened, the Conservatives won handily, confounding the pollsters, who had predicted a much closer race between the governing Conservatives and the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats, who had complained loudly when what they considered unscrupulously manipulated poll results had shown them in a far distant third, actually won fewer seats than the poll had predicted.
Our own election proceeds apace. I get regular, breathless updates from two political parties, urging me to give them money, and the polls assure us that the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP are locked in a virtual tie. As of this writing the Conservatives are slightly ahead, but by tomorrow they may have slipped back into second or third place and one of the others may have hopped into first.
According to a radio journalist I heard the other day, there are two things Canadians love: voting governments out of office, and close races. In this election it would seem the pollsters are almost pandering to us. Daily, sometimes hourly, updates are published on the Internet, and we can’t help but wonder if the party leaders fashion their approaches according to what the polls are saying.
Each party has its own method of sampling public opinion, and its own reasons for presenting its platform the way it does. Stephen Harper appears confident, if not arrogant, in his approach, although he has said that he will resign if his party doesn’t form the next government. He fancies himself a good economic manager, and he has deftly tapped into an anti-Muslim mood that simmers beneath the surface of the Canadian conscience.
Justin Trudeau appears to be a thoughtful young man, but “young” is the operative word here. The Conservatives have pointed out, ad nauseam, that Trudeau at 43 just isn’t ready to lead the country, and their submoronic attack ads seem to be having some effect.
Thomas Mulcair presents himself as a gentle moderate and tries to focus on issues rather than personalities, though he, too, dismisses Trudeau as a callow youth. Trudeau and Mulcair have few kind words to say to one another, although they are united in their opposition to Harper.
Writing in the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom said, “the Liberals and New Democrats appear to be suffering from what Freud called the narcissism of small differences,” where people with minor differences can be more combative than those with major differences.
“If Trudeau and Mulcair end up splitting the vote in a way that allows Harper to win,” Walkom concluded, “the two opposition leaders will have much to answer for.”
According to the polls, this seems to be the direction we are moving in. But how seriously should we take the polls? They claim to be accurate to within a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, but often they obviously aren’t — as was the case with the recent British election.
So, should we allow polls to influence our voting? Clearly not. We can allow them to entertain us, but as John Diefenbaker famously said in 1971, “dogs know best what to do with polls.”