Don’t believe the robopoll headlines on Rob Ford

07 Nov

rob_fordOne of the most alarming things about this whole Rob Ford debacle is how cynically the media is viewing the people of Toronto, as evidenced by the blind acceptance and/or misinterpretation of a poll that suggests his support may have actually grown since the infamous crack video was confirmed by police.

Many news organizations and even entertainers such as Jon Stewart and those kooky Taiwanese animators are hinging their reports on a poll conducted by Forum Research on Halloween night, right after Toronto police chief Bill Blair confirmed the existence of a video in which Ford is seen smoking crack and uttering ethnic and homophobic slurs. According to the 1,032 Torontonians polled, the mayor’s approval rating actually went up by five percentage points, from 39 to 44 per cent.

Given the rather serious revelations – that the mayor not only broke the law by using illegal drugs and that he said some ugly things, but also that he covered it up for months with lies and possibly with even further criminal behaviour – the findings seem to be more than a little counter-intuitive. Or at least they are if you consider people to generally be upstanding and right-thinking most of the time. Excuse me for sounding naive, but I do.

Part of the problem lies with Forum Research and its methods, which hinge on interactive voice response technology – otherwise known as robocalls. Such methodology has obvious advantages; an automated system can call and poll a large number of people cheaply and it can ask the same questions of everyone polled. There are no human slip-ups, misread questions and so on.

On the other hand, robocalls also have a big downside, since few people do anything but immediately hang up on them. As a recent Globe and Mail story on the technology explained, “An IVR poll done in a single evening can have a response rate of 2 per cent or lower.” For all of our foibles as a species, it is obviously a little harder to hang up on a human than a machine, which calls into question just what types of people actually stick around to answer these automated polls.

That’s a big factor in why they can be wildly inaccurate. While Forum Research claims victories such as having the most accurate prediction in this year’s B.C. election, it has also had its share of spectacular failures. Last year, the company predicted a comfortable majority for the Parti Quebecois the day before the provincial election, with the actual results turning out as anything but as the PQ only managed to scratch out a minority government.

Similarly, Forum also predicted a bare majority for the Wildrose party a day before last year’s Alberta election, yet the party ended up getting clobbered by the Conservatives.

Other polling companies who use actual humans to make calls, but who don’t want to be seen slagging competitors, are understandably wary of those using IVR. “[They’re] a magnificent representation of people who answer landline calls from numbers they don’t recognize,” one pollster tells me privately. “Every method has issues but robocalls always make me queasy.”

The rest of this problem can be attributed to the media itself, with many outlets choosing to either not read Forum’s survey or to ignore or downplay the rest of its findings. Most reports fixated on the slight increase in Ford’s approval rating, as if that might indicate that he would fare well in a re-election bid despite all of the scandal. Yet Forum’s surveys, whether they’re accurate or not, have also pointed out that nearly two-thirds of respondents – or 59 per cent – believe the mayor should resign.

That seems to be a pretty strong counter-indicator of his re-election chances. Indeed, a separate Forum poll conducted on Monday shows that TTC chair Karen Stintz would defeat Ford in an election.

Many observers seem willing to believe that Ford can in fact get re-elected, seeing as he managed to get into the mayor’s office in 2010 despite his drinking, pot smoking and liberty-taking with the truth being relatively common knowledge. But those were different times. Much of his support came as a reaction against the decidedly left-hand turn that Toronto politics took under his predecessor David Miller. A lot of middle-of-the-spectrum voters were willing to look the other way on the frat-boy antics if it meant a stop to “the gravy train.”

That goodwill is long gone. What’s left is a confessed drug user, alcohol abuser and habitual liar. Does anyone really – and I mean really – want to vote for such a person?

Dubious polls, media misrepresentation and general cynicism for the human species aside, the question isn’t whether such a person could get re-elected, but rather whether there’s really anyone actually left who would still vote for him?


Posted by on November 7, 2013 in government


3 responses to “Don’t believe the robopoll headlines on Rob Ford

  1. Marc Venot

    November 7, 2013 at 12:18 am

    The CBC just has shown that Marion Barry, mayor of New York in the 1990s, was arrested for the same trouble, went six months in the slammer, and got reelected at the next election.
    Why someone who have the power, the most potent drug, has to shoot himself?

    • Patrick

      November 7, 2013 at 9:31 am

      Marion Barry was the mayor of Washington D.C., not New York.

  2. russellmcormond

    November 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Municipal elections have low voter turnout, and little attention paid to that level of politics — worse in places like Ottawa and Toronto which have a federal and provincial government (respectively) housed within the city.

    Given that, is the voter turnout and attention to the mayoral race all that different than those willing to stick around and respond to a robocall? People notice the Toronto mayor now because of the media attention, with that same media giving the actual mayoral race little attention.

    It isn’t like those paying attention ahead of time didn’t know that Rob Ford wasn’t mayoral material (or someone competent in any leadership roll), but that didn’t stop him from getting elected. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got elected again as long as there is enough time between now and the election for people to have fallen apathetically asleep again.

    Rob Ford is a product of our democracy and its failing citizenship, clearly one of the warts.

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