Friday, May 28, 2004

Where do you stand on polling?

What are we to do with opinion polls during a federal (or any other, I suppose) election. A story in today's Toronto Star says the Liberal support is slipping towards a likely minority government. OK, so what are we supposed to do with that? Can we all stop worrying about this election and just concentrate on our lawns, or barbeques, or whatever? Sure, we can follow what's going on, but stories like this do make it seem like the whole thing is a bit pointless, don't they?

The Globe and Mail's Hugh Winsor has another take on the polling issue in a story about duelling pollsters which features a battle between two pollsters on seat projections.

Polls are everywhere in this election, even at the CBC, which has made a point of noting that they won't be featuring "horse-race" polls in their coverage. (So I guess we won't find out which horse is going to win the Belmont next week.) But that doesn't mean the CBC isn't polling. They still intend to feature polling on what voters are thinking about on issues and stuff, just not on who might or might not be leading in voter preference right at this particular moment.

Yesterday, in an interview on the CBC Toronto morning show, John Laschinger, well-known Canadian campaign guru, said he'd prefer that polls predicting the outcome of campaigns were done away with completely and he congratulated the CBC for not doing them. I'd have to agree. Whether they are accurate or not is one question. But I don't think there's any question that they skewer the campaigns when they come out. Of course, they're not the only thing skewering things these days. Blackberry's and similar instant-communication devices have injected a whole new dynamic into the coverage. Reporters covering the various campaigns are inundated with e-mails from rival camps spinning the lastest story even before one campaign event is over, as this analysis in the Globe points out today.

Back in the "old days"...

The speed of communications today is amazing, and it's created all kinds of challenges for the media. Thinking back to my own experiences with political campaigns, I feel like an old man telling war stories. In the 1995 Saskatchewan election, I had to beg and plead for a special budget from the Leader Post and the Star Phoenix so we could rent three cellphones for the reporters covering the Liberal, Conservative and NDP campaigns. Our thinking was we could talk to each other from the various buses and get quotes and responses the same day. Alas, it usually didn't work very well, since cell phone coverage was so poor we usually couldn't get a signal in the small towns we were visiting.

The lack of "instant communications" in earlier elections also created opportunities for campaigns to try to outwit the reporters. I remember the first federal campaign I ever covered was the 1988 federal election. I joined the Brian Mulroney leader's tour when it swept through Saskatchewan. There was no such thing as "instant communications" back then. Some of the Mulroney crew may have had cell phones, but not the reporters. I had arranged to join the tour in the morning, after Mulroney gave a speech to a breakfast audience at a downtown hotel. Although Mulroney was the prime minister, the security was wonderfully lax for the campaign coverage. I introduced myself to one of the officials as a reporter with the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and was invited to hop on the campaign bus with the other reporters. Of course, Mulroney wasn't on our bus...he had his own. But away we all went, heading down the road towards Saskatoon. I can't remember exactly why the PM was travelling by bus between the two cities, since he usually flew everywhere. But drive we did. And along the way, I got my first taste of big-time political organization.

Not too far out of Regina, our buses pulled into a farm owned by a major Tory supporter, where the PM met local Tory supporters and a number of area MPs and candidates. The farm photo-op was standard fare back then, and was carefully set up to give some nice pictures for the TV people to go with the usual soft-ball comments about farm aid, although the details escape me. It was a nice day and it gave Mulroney a chance to stand in the sun, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, tie loosened and listen earnestly to someone tell him how tough things had been for the area's farmers. Then everyone was back into the buses and away we went. But as we hit the highway, it was clear that something was up. Or at least, to my innocent eyes, it seemed that way, as Mulroney's "wagonmaster" and his staff huddled at the front of the bus. It turned out that we were going to make an "unscheduled" stop along the way, so that Mulroney could talk to some real, genuine local people about the current farm crisis. This was interesting. Although I'm struggling to remember, I think there had been some criticism of Mulroney for dodging voters at his campaign events, which may have been why our buses finally pulled into Davidson and stopped at the Husky car-truck stop, for a little walk-about.

Inside the Husky restaurant, the tables were filled with people, who all seemed thrilled to meet the Prime Minister. They shook his hand, and answered his questions with thoughtful answers. For about 15 minutes, he made his way around the restaurant, accompanied by TV cameras, sound men and reporters struggling to get their tape recorders close enough to capture every comment. But alas, for the reporters, there wasn't a negative comment to be found.

Since I was new to this whole business, I wasn't sticking close to the PM. Instead, I stood at the side, watching the media circus work it's way through the small restaurant. But off to the side, I noticed a guy with a notebook and a camera and I asked him which outlet he was with. It turns out that he was a freelance reporter, working for one of the major magazines. But he wasn't travelling with the Prime Minister's entourage. Instead, he had been in Saskatchewan for several days. It turns out that the night before, he had been talking to a local Tory organizer who had bragged that there was going to be a major "impromptu" media event in Davidson the next day.

Intrigued, he had shown up early in the morning at the Husky, where he had been told Mulroney was going to visit. Although the PM wasn't scheduled to visit until after lunch, local Tory supporters arrived at the restaurant at 9 am and began filling all the available seats in the place. They wanted to make sure that nobody from the NDP or Liberals were able to get into a position to be able to embarass the PM. Every time a "real" person came into the restaurant for a coffee or a meal, a table would be cleared for the customer, then promptly filled up again with Tories as soon as they left.

This went on all day, until the Prime Minister's "impromptu" visit, which didn't actually happen until about 3 pm. But thanks to the loyal, local Tories, things went off without a hitch, the PM met a lot of happy locals and the evening news showed him wading into a filled local restaurant to meet with "real" people. It was all very nicely done.

Unfortunately, I can't recall the name of the reporter I met that afternoon, or remember how that incident worked into his story on the campaign. After all, it was only one small event in a six-week campaign, and the kind of thing that happens every day. But it opened my eyes to just how much work goes into the staging of these political events. It was an education that I was able to put to good use for the next eight years, as I continued to cover politics in Saskatchewan and across the country.

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