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  • Writer's pictureKara Holm

Polls are Power. The real-world influence of applied research.

(Halifax, October 3, 2019) I'm reposting this blog from 2015.... since we're in election season in Canada. This year's polls have been quite flat since the Writ dropped, despite some pretty interesting revelations about the leaders and some "hot" issues. My observations about the importance of polls as tools to shape outcomes are even more true today than in 2015.


I have an unusual disease. I love elections. This is not my fault. My father was a provincial politician (elected for 20 years), so policy and strategy were normal topics of discussion around the dinner table in our family. I worked on my father's campaigns, long before I could vote.

The first election I was able to vote in was the 1988 federal election. The ballot box question was free trade. I was a political science student at McGill at the time and I remember feeling very bold when I decided not to support Dad’s party federally. Since that election, I have voted for all three major Canadian parties at one time or another, either federally or provincially. (I am not alone: I have seen statistics that suggest anywhere from 60%-85% of Canadians do not have a "hard" commitment to a single party.)

Voting is a serious matter for me, and although I feel well informed on most of the key issues, because I am interested and do the research, I often find it difficult to make a decision. What if I don’t like the local candidate but love the party leader? What if I agree with some key policies, but there’s one policy issue I just can’t reconcile myself to? It is always a calculation to arrive at the right decision (for me!) each and every election. And it always involves compromise.

There was a time when voting made me feel powerful. Now I think responding to polls is the most important way we can shape our government. I have come to this conclusion over a number of years. It is a commonly held view that political parties determine their policies through polling. Many pundits and commentators suggest that parties no longer lead from an ideological position; they follow the public. I do not entirely agree with this point of view. It occurs to me that the way in which political parties and thought leaders - most notably the media and think tanks - use polling is insidious: they are shaping the public dialogue through the polls.

Whenever I am called to complete a public policy survey I always respond. I also participate in a Nanos Research online survey. By responding to surveys I can see what issues the parties and influencers like the media are interested in and how they’re framing the questions to shape the public dialogue. This comment about how the questions (and answers) are structured is significant. Research like polling is a valuable tool but it can be used to promote a specific outcome. Surveys can be structured to get the result the client wants. For example, the Nanos survey I completed earlier this week asked me:

With Canada’s aging population, do you feel it is urgent, somewhat urgent, somewhat not urgent or not urgent that the long term health needs of seniors be an issue addressed in the current Federal Election?

Please take a moment to consider how this is a loaded question. The question is framed to help write a headline. The only way participants can answer, that does not involve the use of the word "urgent", is to say they are “unsure”. There were no questions before or after this one giving participants a list of issues that the parties are addressing in their platforms to rate in order of priority. Participants were asked to comment on this single issue without offering any context about how this issue connects with the respondents' bigger world view. The language of urgency is embedded by the pollster and the client, not the public. And it will be activated by the media who are complicit in this way of framing the way we talk about issues - in fact most of the publically released polls are commissioned by media consortia. Of course the public is also inclined to accept polling as objective and true because of the way in which the findings are presented. Personally I would be in favour of polls that were more neutral and could generate unbiased results that actually reflected the views of the public and did not put words in our mouths.

Another example of how the process impacts the findings and validity of research can be seen when election results have unforeseen outcomes. In recent Canadian provincial elections pollsters and media have been "surprised" by election results that did not align with their forecasts. How can this happen? It happens in part because of voter distribution and the challenges of the Westminster Parliamentary system, but there is another structural issue that causes inaccuracy that is related to the polling process. Any election-related survey I have completed online or on the phone neglects to ask two critical questions:

  1. Do you normally, mostly or occasionally vote in federal and provincial elections?

  2. Do you intend to vote in this coming election?

These questions should, in my opinion, come before asking which party or leader I like the most or which issues matter most to me. The popularity of the candidates and parties is only relevant when the respondent will actually be marking a ballot on E-Day. I would have a lot more faith in the poll if it said something like 60% of the people surveyed plan to vote in the upcoming election. Of those people, 30% are undecided and so on. That would provide a much more realistic estimate and would be a better guide for strategic voters. The way intention to vote is currently reported, in my opinion, influences people to behave in a way they might not behave in if they had better information.

So what does all this have to with businesses and the customer experience? Most of my clients have chosen to use market research to help them make business decisions about product development, amenity identification, or better to understand customer satisfaction and guest experience, and, finally, to identify where opportunities for new or business growth might exist. Businesses would obviously benefit from a better understanding of their customers, not just as they relate to their businesses but as they relate to the world.

I am a huge fan of research and recommend it often, even though there are risks and limitations. When I work with clients, I make sure everyone is focused on a common understanding of the question we are trying to answer in order to get the most out of our research investment. The question needs to be tied to a business objective, but we have to be certain that we are not structuring our research in order to achieve the result we think we want. That is not good business.

Research is a valuable business tool. Henry Ford famously said: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Few businesses have the insight into the public mind that Ford possessed. He was a visionary, he led from the front, introducing the world to a product they did not know they wanted or needed. Ford understood the public so fully that he made them into his customers.

While the general public may have difficulty imagining new ways of doing things, or find it challenging to anticipate how they would respond to a new product or service, they are really good at telling you what is important to them, what motivates them, and how they are feeling. The information is available to businesses that care to look, but businesses must ask the right questions in the right way, using neutral language, so as to allow the public accurately to tell their story, not yours.

In the final analysis, the political parties are using research to support their efforts to achieve power (ostensibly to build the government they think will best serve the people, more realistically so they can achieve and maintain power). My concern is that the way political parties and the media use polling is not designed to gain voter insights, it is used to shape the dialogue and influence opinion and behaviour. It is a subtle difference but an important one. And one that businesses should consider when planning their research.

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