Is it possible to manipulate a poll?

by Aaron Wherry

Dave Climenhaga suggests the Greens are trying to game the polls in Calgary Centre.

So it is significant – though impossible to criticize – that a Green Party organizer emailed committed supporters a note headed “There is another poll tonight – be sure to pick up,” not long before the latest survey. “Word from Chris Turner’s Head Quarters is that another poll is being conducted at this very moment,” said the email from Green Party Volunteer Co-ordinator Natalie Odd to committed Turner supporters. “Please be sure to pick up any calls your receive this evening!”

The emails were followed up with phone calls to supporters, although the pollster actually appears to have called a day later than the party expected. In addition to such emails and calls, Mr. Turner’s supporters posted similar messages on Facebook and some people distributed the call-display number the polling company was using.

This bit of gamesmanship seems to involve two assumptions: that it’s possible to manipulate a poll and that a good showing in a poll can precipitate a good showing on election day. The sample sizes used so far in Calgary Centre have been relatively small, but I’m not sure what the relative odds are that something like this could be pulled off. I can imagine that poll numbers could influence turnout and the result, but what are the odds that alerting supporters to the possibility of a poll would result in enough people responding to a survey who normally wouldn’t to significantly impact the results of that poll? I invite any and all mathematicians in the crowd to sort that out.




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Is it possible to manipulate a poll?

  1. Funny. If the Conservatives did this, your outrage and/or snark would be more palpable.

    • Funny, people who can’t see into the mind of others OR see into alternate realities tend to think they can do both.

    • Unlikely, as it would be no more effective a tactic. It’s why nobody pays attention to reports of “they’re knocking down all my signs” during an election. It happens to everyone, and it doesn’t make any difference to the result. Just like this.

  2. Polls can be manipulated just by the wording Aaron.

  3. Did anyone stop to consider that the poll results in general for Calgary Centre may be a bit of a wash? (and that by extension a lot of polls will become less relevant?) I think what is MORE plausible is that people are really really really really sick of the media trying to create stories out of half-arsed polls, reporting on the ‘never-ending’ horse race. After the last election as an example, I vowed to always choose ‘other’ or ‘none of the above’ when answering polls….when given an open choice, I always say Communist…is that who I vote for? of course not, but making these polls as inaccurate as possible is my new passive aggressive way of responding to this ‘game’ of electoral shenanigans that seems to be pervasive in the world of government now…….just a thought, I know I am not the only one who views most polls these days with distain.

    • Polling is still accurate, because such things are accounted for. Pollsters know (based on previous polls and election results) how many people are likely to lie to them, and they adjust the results accordingly. Most of the time, the numbers that lie are in proportion to the rest of the results (approximately the same number of Liberals will say they are Conservative, and Conservatives will say they are Liberal) that its a wash. As for telling them you’re a Communist, that cancels out the other guy who tells them he’s a Fascist. See? It all balances out in the end, and you’re left with reasonably accurate results.

      • Dan…..I didn’t bring this up, but perhaps now I will. You are assuming that the polls are done with the utmost in integrity and with the questions being neutral and well-researched……I don’t think I am making a huge leap here to suggest that there are some pollsters with agendas, and there are some pollsters who are just bad at what they do……and some media outlets with either little to no expereince in how to ‘filter’ the wheat from the chaff, compare apples to apples or with the background to actually draw conclusions from polls which, in the end, makes for muddled results at best……and whether intentional or unintentional, the results are becoming less and less accurate and more and more of the story.
        Also, I can appreciate what you say…..but I very much doubt that the polling world has a bead on the amount of dissatisfaction people find themselves in with the whole ‘horse race’ merry-go-round we seem to be on, in other words, I would have agreed with you a few years ago….but now? not so much. I don’t think the margin of error you are talking about is something pollsters know how to gauge for anymore.

  4. About 128,000 people in Calgary Centre. 88,500 eligible in 2011. @50% turnout ~ 44,000.

    Poll size say 400 people. 400/88,500 = 0.5% of eligible voters . Say 1/3 successful phone call (I’m pulling that out of thin air) so 1.5% chance of getting phone poll on a given night.

    So, if 200 GPC leaning voters (out of say 1000 – the reaminder who ignore) heed the advice and hang by the phone awaiting a poll call, and would normally NOT normally pick it up (highly unlikely if they are active in the election) one can expect 3 more voters (200 x 1.5%) (I’m gonna say that only 1 out of these 3 keeners would not normally pick up) so 3/3 = 1 new GPC supporter in the poll out of 1000 in the database/twitter list.

    1 new person out of 400 polled = 0.25% improvement.

    But then, there was a 25% chance (based on most recent polls of GPC support) that this new keener GPC displaced an existing phone answering GPC supporter. So, knock it down to 0.2% improvement in standings. Well within margin of error.

    - My rudimentary (and by no means expert) analysis. Open to dissing.

    Bottom line – Yeah, stay at home. Keep the streets and roads, bars and coffee shops less full. It’s critical!!!

    • I work with research and stat/heads all day long. If anything, you might be a bit generous on that 1.5% chance of getting a call, as any number of factors can alter the actual pickup rate. A good playoff hockey game can expand the calling pool, while that same call during playoff time in Toronto could see the pick-up raio go way up, shortening the odds. But your basic premise is right on.

  5. This is very normal practice these days; during the last provincial election in SK, the SK party regularly sent all its supporters links to all online polls, and also flooded call in lines with partisan folks. Surely they don’t think they can influence the telephone poll; maybe they want to make their supporters feel more involved and to the moment, and invoke more commitment to vote on e-day.

  6. ???

    Well the Fed polls didn’t see an NDP Opposition, the Alberta polls didn’t see a PC win, and the Ont polls didn’t see a Lib win…..Hell, US polls were claiming a ‘tight’ race, and then a Romney landslide…..so why anyone is still paying attention to polls is a mystery

  7. Or, it simply a useful [seemingly reasonable] excuse to call the possibly faithful and remind them the election is still in the offing.

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