Strategy of the Strategic Counsel

The Strategic Counsel released a poll today regarding the federal party numbers and the Globe and Mail headlined with the result today: Liberals widen gap in poll.

Now, how can this be you might ask. In a week when the Conservatives have been relatively quiet and in a week where the Liberals have been dogged by David Dingwall and with other scandals it just doesn’t seem to add up. Seems counter-intuitive.

Consider that polling, when done right is a science. However, when it is manipulated well, it’s a black art.

The poll which made today’s Globe and Mail (and CTV tonight) had 21 questions, the final one asking how one would vote if an election were held today. While questions 17-20 ask the respondent to judge the party leaders, questions 1-16 are generally missing.

We can look at the methodology of the Strategic Counsel from their most recent past poll which asked the “headline question” of voter intent. The Strategic Counsel conducted one such a poll in July.

Similarly, the poll asks a myriad of questions before the headline question and notably voters are not prompted by similar questions before they vote.

Let’s take a closer look at the questions posed in the July poll.

Q1. Thinking back over the year, what would you say is the most notable achievement of this minority government in terms of accomplishments and legislation passed?

First, this question assumes that the Liberal minority government achieved something as it asks if there is one that is most notable. It also prompts the respondent to think that the Liberals have accomplished something since they formed a minority government. “Notable achievement” is also a biased phrase because whether or not you agree with the budget (for example), it is an “achievement” and this language implies that this is positive. This question is biased to favour the Liberals.

Q2. And which of these activities would you say is the most notable achievement, is it… The health care accord with increased federal spending, Same sex marriage legislation, Tsunami relief effort, Agreements with provinces for substantial federal funding of day care, Off shore oil deal with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, or the significant increase in social spending through the budget?

This question provides a list of choices to the respondent and reminds them of a list of “achievements” by the Liberals. You might not be surprised to find out that 60% of respondents answered “Don’t know” or “The minority government has accomplished nothing” to Q1. However, when prompted with a list of “achievements” laced with positive descriptive words such as “accord”, “agreement”, and “deal” only 12% couldn’t pick a notable achievement. The poll has manufactured accord with the first question’s assumption that the Liberal minority government has made a “notable achievement”. The stage is set.

Q3. Overall, would you rate the performance of the Liberal Minority government as very good, good, poor, or very poor?

This is generally a fair question, however it does not mention the names of the other parties and seeds the mindset of the respondent with only one of the answers to the final “headline question” that indicates voter intent.

Q4. And how about the operation of the minority parliament. Would you say Parliament has been working very well, somewhat well, not very well or not very well at all?

This question is not as fair, however. The question shifts from the “Liberal minority government” to the “minority parliament. Thus, if the respondent answered unfavorably to Q3, he/she can then justify any legislative frustrations with the system.

Q5. And if you had your way, would you prefer a minority government or a majority government?

Liberal leaners are likely to choose a majority and Conservative leaners would be happy with either so long as their party is at the helm.

Q6-9. For each of the following leaders, I’d like to know if your opinion of them has improved, stayed the same or gotten worse in the last year?

Generally a fair question.

Q10. If you had your way, would you like to see (ROTATE The Liberals,The Conservatives, The NDP, and in Quebec, The Bloc Quebecois) keep or replace their current leader?

This question does not favour the Conservatives. Only Stephen Harper, as a federal leader, has faced a significant challenge to his leadership by other parties and in the media. The Globe and Mail, as we have seen, has been manufacturing a leadership “crisis” in the CPC for some time. Whether or not a crisis exists, it is within the mindset of the poll’s sample and thus it biases the respondent against the Conservatives under the leadership of Stephen Harper.

Q11. As you know, the federal government enacted legislation legalizing same sex marriage. Following the next election, do you think the government in power should allow this legislation to stand or should they attempt to repeal the legislation?

The Liberal position is favoured here as the words “enacted”, “legalizing”, “allow”, and “stand” are constructive words while “attempt” and “repeal” are negative. One can assume that the Liberals would not go back on the SSM legislation, so the respondent can make the connection as to who would “attempt” to “repeal”. This question favours the Liberals.

Q12. Gay rights advocates have been making the case that since gays are now allowed to marry they should also be allowed to adopt children as couples. Overall are you very supportive, somewhat supportive, not too supportive, or not at all supportive of allowing legal recognition to gay couples to adopt children?

Any social psychologist will tell you that this is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. Specifically, the “foot-in-the-door” and “confirmation bias” techniques are used here. Some Conservatives supported same sex marriage and this is generally recognized by the voting public. Thus one could conceivably vote Conservative and support SSM. However, cognitive dissonance describes a mental incongruity when one generally supports the premise of an issue but feel conflicted when they would otherwise draw the line at the next step. This is called the “foot-in-the-door” technique. A voter might go through the mental exercise and say “I’m a Conservative voter that supports SSM. However, if I support SSM then why wouldn’t I support gay adoption? It seems that Conservatives wouldn’t support gay adoption, therefore, I must be a Liberal”. Therefore, the question forces the respondent to assume that SSM is a fact and asks him/her to extend their thinking into something that they might find themselves generally agreeing with due to cognitive dissonance.

Q13. The G8 meeting of the major economic powers is taking place in Scotland this week. Which of the following is the most important global issue that you would like to see the major powers deal with?

Generally a neutral question.

Q14. If the federal election was being held tomorrow, do you think you’d be supporting the Liberal candidate in your area, Conservative candidate in your area, the NDP candidate in your area, or the Green Party candidate in your area or (Quebec only) Bloc Quebecois candidate in your area?

Here’s the headline question. It is the only question that really matters in the context of the news and it is the motivation behind the commissioning of the poll. Further, as reporters digest this polling information, Q14 is the most interesting question and it will be the most widely discussed (more often exclusively). Ask yourself whether or not a more accurate poll result would have been obtained if this question were asked first?

Furthermore, imagine this headline question was preceded by a question asking the respondent not about the “most notable achievement” of the Liberal government but of the “most admirable quality” of Stephen Harper’s leadership. Imagine also if the respondents were asked to choose from a list of generally positive attributes. The results would become skewed more favourably towards the Conservatives. The Strategic Counsel heavily prompts the respondent into thinking positive thoughts about the Liberal party before they are asked about voter intention. This is especially dishonest as the co-sponsors (the Globe and Mail and CTV) are likely to only report the results of the pre-biased voter intention question. Of course, polling only serves to influence public opinion as well so you can see how this becomes a manipulative political cycle.