BOOKS

Prophets by numbers

Claire Hoy takes on the rise of political pollsters

E. KAYE FULTON December 4 1989
BOOKS

Prophets by numbers

Claire Hoy takes on the rise of political pollsters

E. KAYE FULTON December 4 1989

Prophets by numbers

Claire Hoy takes on the rise of political pollsters

MARGIN OF ERROR: POLLSTERS AND THE MANIPULATION OF CANADIAN POLITICS By Claire Hoy (Key Porter Books, 234 pages, $24.95)

There was a time, not so long ago, when a voter’s influence extended beyond the ballot box. Voters counted. In some cases, they met eye-to-eye with politicians, who dutifully returned to Ottawa with their complaints or their accolades. It was old-fashioned, even quaint, but sometimes the method of communication worked. These days, politicians pay heed to a new oracle: a computer printout, compiled and analysed by a political pollster from the replies of a scientific sample plucked at random from statistical data. And pollsters claim that their faster, more sophisticated method offers exactly the same results as direct contact with the electorate. As Claire Hoy writes in Margin of Error, pollsters hold a common credo: “With proper stirring, a cook can taste one spoonful and tell how the entire pot of soup is doing.” Some soup.

What critics say about the validity of polls might also apply to Hoy’s own attempt to decipher both the soup and its cooks. His ingredients are there, but the mix is of questionable nutritional value. Instead, Hoy, a veteran political writer who is now a columnist for Southam News in Ottawa, seems to revel in his reputation as a scribe with a caustic, even cranky, pen. The sole quote on the book’s dust jacket, from the Canadian publishing magazine Quill & Quire, warns: “In the kennel of Canadian journalism, Claire Hoy is a pit bullterrier.” His last book, Friends in High Places, an acerbic portrayal of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, earned him few friends at 24 Sussex Drive. But the author was not looking for friends.

Nor is Hoy on the prowl for any here. Allan Gregg, one of the country’s most influential pollsters, refused to return his telephone calls—which may have prompted Hoy to write in Margin of Error that “for all his blathering about methodological and philosophic purity, Gregg, like all other pollsters, has an amazing ability to come up frequently with results that mesh perfectly with the pre-survey desires of his corporate client.” There are indications, however, that the renegade Hoy is mellowing. His reputation in Ottawa is that of a spinner of

tales, some of them tall. But the chapters that deal with the inexact science of polling and its colorful history suggest that he has at least examined material in the National Archives.

There is a clear need for a critical look at the use and startling abuse of political polling in Canada, as well as at the powerful cadre of prophets-by-numbers that rules it. Anyone who sat through the federal election in November, 1988, could attest to that. During a sevenweek period, Canadians were subjected to a dizzying succession of polls—four a week, or 26 of them at the national level and at least 250 at the local and regional levels. Polls spouted the likes and dislikes of voters in an endless flood of percentages. They destroyed the Liberals, then brought them back to life. They chastised the Tories, then returned them to power. They spat out free trade and, at one point, had the stock market scrambling. According to Hoy, they once even warned Mulroney that he creates a negative reaction when he removes his eyeglasses while speaking.

The central thesis of Margin of Error is, that methodology has replaced ideology “as the new god of politics.” Hoy offers examples of polling abuse that add a chill to that proposition. He quotes an unidentified Newfoundland Liberal who said that provincial party strategists deliberately fabricated a poll that showed leader Clyde Wells ahead during the election campaign of April, 1989. Said the insider: “Hell, as it turned out, we were a lot closer than the socalled legitimate polls anyway. At least we picked the right winner.” And in a startling incident, Hoy writes that Conservative strategist John Tory told him that a pollster tipped his party a day in advance to a controversial Gallup poll during the 1988 federal election that put the Liberals ahead of the Tories and led to a lV2-per-cent drop in the Canadian dollar.

Polling has come a long way in Canada since Mackenzie King’s Liberal government tiptoed into the market in 1942 by having Gallup secretly gauge the resentment of Quebecers to wartime conscription. It became an art in the 1960s, despite John Diefenbaker’s scathing conclusion that polls were for dogs. By the 1980s, it was a costly epidemic during a decade, writes Hoy, “in which polling has become not just a political tool, an early-warning guidance system, but an occasional substitute for policy itself.” And governments—as well as the media—have skirted the issue of limiting the role of pollsters.

Former New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield, no fan of polls himself, told Hoy that for all its sophistication, polling remains “the collective recounting of uninformed people at 8:30 on a Wednesday night.” On the other hand, Hoy quotes one polling advocate as saying, “Why shouldn’t the public know what it thinks? The government certainly does.” The dilemma about percentage politics remains. However, stirring up the numbers-soup, as Hoy does, presents no pleasing recipe. In the end, Margin of Error merely leaves the reader hungry for more substance.

E. KAYE FULTON