BC Leadership Acclamation, PQ defeat spell big trouble for the NDP

Posted by on Apr 10, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

BC Leadership Acclamation, PQ defeat spell big trouble for the NDP

By Bruce Cameron

April 10, 2014

The upcoming acclamation of John Horgan as the BC NDP leader (nominations close May 1 and his only declared opponent Mike Farnworth just dropped out of the race) speaks volumes about the state of the party, not only in BC, but across the country.

Remember this is the same John Horgan who finished third in the 2011 BC leadership race, and who rejected running for leader last October because he “thought the party should allow the next generation to shape the future”.

But no one from ‘the next generation’ picked up the torch.

Farnworth tried and couldn’t generate any momentum or cash. Even the relatively young NDP MP from Burnaby, Kennedy Stewart, who became the lightning rod of opposition to Kinder Morgan expansion plans, decided not to run because he couldn’t break the grasp of the old guard of the BC NDP. Ditto for Nathan Cullen.

So victory goes to the old guard. But it will be a hollow victory for the tired, out-of-touch, back room cadre of MLAs and advisers who brought British Columbians such disasters as Carole James, Adrian Dix and the Kinder Morgan debacle in the 2013 election.

As NDP MLAs line up to have their picture taken with their “new” leader, they should be deeply worried beneath all those smiles.

No question the BC NDP caucus is united.

But it is easy to be united when your base is slowly shrinking to a rump of old, white, union oriented social democrats and “fellow travelers”. The old generation of NDP leaders seems unable, or stubbornly unwilling, to make the shift to the new world of high technology, innovation, and greening of the economy. They cut their political teeth in the era when top down leaders rallied the public to support great social causes. No wonder they struggle with the instant “bottom up” feedback of Twitter and Facebook.

Maybe that is why the personable, urbane Mike Harcourt, still popular across many sectors of BC society, publicly quit the NDP, a party he once led to power.

Make no mistake: the NDP is facing a generational crisis not only in BC, but all across Canada.

Case in point: The social media presence of NDP Federal leader Thomas Mulcair is a mere fraction of Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, whose online footprint continues to grow.

Even among the small group of people talking about Mulcair online in the past week, there was a net negative response. Mulcair’s gyrations on Quebec clearly caused a negative backlash, and the back room power brokers for the NDP haven’t helped by acting like deer in the headlights of the oncoming social media semi-trailer.

In examining the rout of the Parti Quebecois this week, there is a painful lesson for the BC NDP: if lose the youth vote, due to old leaders, old methods and outdated views of the new global economy, you will most certainly lose the election.

During the 2013 BC election campaign, the NDP’s lack of presence and skill in social media sealed its defeat, and at the federal level the same lackluster, ill-informed approach to the new media world exists. The NDP seems unable to attract new young supporters to the cause, many of who have gravitated to the Greens or the Liberals. Which leaves the old guard like Carole James and her team united behind their establishment candidate.

And it almost certainly guarantees another BC Liberal term beyond 2017.

Bruce Cameron, a frequent media commentator on Canadian politics, is President of the polling firm Return On Insight and Social Media ROi, which analyzes social media trends in public affairs, energy and technology.

In Search of “truthiness”: The Washington Post and the Koch Brothers

Posted by on Mar 24, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

In Search of “truthiness”: The Washington Post and the Koch Brothers

By Bruce Cameron, President Social Media ROi, March 23, 2014

On October 17, 2005, comedian/satirist Jon Stewart introduced the word “truthiness” into our vocabulary on The Daily Show. He used it to describe what Wikipedia defines as a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidencelogicintellectual examination, or facts. The word has been widely adopted ever since because it speaks to a broader desire to equate traditional journalism with facts and truths, distinct and separate from ideologies or opinions.

Traditional journalists are said to comprise “the fifth estate,” an important adjunct to the courts, the police, and elected officials in maintaining a free and civil society. But where do we fit the growing legion of bloggers, news aggregators and social media mavens? Are they in essence the sixth estate?

Independent bloggers and self appointed citizen journalists claim to act in the spirit of the fifth estate—rooting out the truth, uncovering injustice—but they often carry out this important task without the checks and balances normally associated with sound professional journalism. Those checks and balances include checking sources, verifying facts, objectively printing both sides of a story, and avoiding libelous comments and innuendo.

Imagine for a minute if the legal arena was suddenly inundated with self appointed judges and tribunals, each with their own code of conduct and rules, seeking justice and liberty for all. It would spell disaster for civil society.

So why then are bloggers and other social media aggregators and commentators not held to a higher standard?

Perhaps the social media arena is still too new to have evolved a system of checks and balances, or maybe it will always be a “Wild West” arena that assumes popularity is on par with accuracy.

However, in the quest for higher standards in social media reporting, the fight may have just begun.

Over the weekend, an important but relatively under-appreciated development occurred in the ongoing fight between advocates of building pipelines and those opposed. ROi Social Media believes that this event signals a turning point in social media reporting, where unquestioningly pro environmental writers will be placed under greater scrutiny in terms of conflicts of interest and substantiation of their claims.

What was all the fuss about? On March 20, The Washington Post ran a blog written by Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin stating that the Koch Brothers had the largest lease holdings in Alberta’s oilsands (not true), and then linked those trumped up numbers to an even more erroneous assertion that the Koch landholdings ensured the brothers’ support for the Keystone pipeline (it does not).

The story quickly went viral, initially spread far and wide by the many well-connected eco-activist groups, which view Keystone as the “line in the sand” in the battle to combat climate change. What happened next may be the game changer. After publication there were several surprisingly quick and powerful rebukes, as illustrated in Powerline columnist John Hinderaker’s letter to the editor of the Post and their strange response.

Hinderaker summed up the twisted logic that the Washington Post used to defend its original story:

“In the Post’s view, it is acceptable to publish articles that are both literally false (Koch is the largest tar sands leaseholder) and massively misleading (the Keystone Pipeline is all about Koch Industries), if by doing so the paper can “stir and inflame public debate in this election year.”

Another online commentator chimed in on the lunacy of the Post’s position. Jonah Goldberg’s comment also went viral:

“By this logic any unfair attack posing as reporting is worthwhile when people try to correct the record. Why not just have at it and accuse the Kochs of killing JFK or hiding the Malaysian airplane? The resulting criticism would once again provide “strong evidence that issues surrounding the Koch brothers’ political and business interests will stir and inflame public debate in this election year.”

This eruption of debate about the Washington Post coverage of the Koch brothers foreshadows a broader trend we see emerging: the growing realization among that many anti pipeline activists and their media allies will twist or even fabricate “facts” to suit their objectives. On the other side, the energy sector is rightfully accused of doing exactly the same thing in pursuit of its cause. Yet the pendulum is shifting back toward the centre, where a skeptical public will want more assurances about facts before making up their minds.

Can the sixth estate eventually find some sense of internal reliability or equilibrium? Let’s hope so. Otherwise, in our increasingly wired world, where more and more people get their news via non traditional sources, “truthiness” may overwhelm the truth itself.


Energy Security in a Cold Cold World

Posted by on Mar 4, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

By Bruce Cameron, President, Return On Insight, March 3, 2014

As the prospect of war in Ukraine grows, and temperatures across North America remain well below seasonal norms, security of energy supply has become a hot topic.

Increasing concerns about energy security are shifting the climate debate in unexpected ways. The heated debate over oilsands and pipeline development in North America may cool off considerably, as geopolitical events push Europe, the US and Canada closer together.

The realization of the dream of North American energy independence will foster a renewed sense of confidence and possibility, boosting the US and Canadian economies in subtle but powerful ways, despite the rise in energy prices. There are already signs of  “green fatigue” in Europe as financial pressures increase. Now the Bakken find has brought prosperity to sleepy towns across the US Midwest, along with typical boom-bust problems of congestion, pollution, domestic violence and labour shortages. In Canada’s north, billions of dollars of oilsands investments promise a “secure energy future” at least until the need for fossil fuels is replaced by renewables.

The return of a “cold war’ posture between Russia and the West provides a chilling new perspective that will lead to increased support for pipelines across America’s heartland and selective support for some projects on BC’s coast, such as the creation of LNG export terminals and the tripling of the Trans Mountain pipeline corridor.

It is easy to forget the tense standoff between East and West that dominated society’s thoughts and actions from the 1950s until the fall of communism in 1989. But recent actions taken by Russia’s state run gas company GazProm to turn the screws on Ukraine by raising prices and restricting gas supply, reveals an ugly reality: energy is and always has been a potent weapon of war.

The turmoil in Ukraine, and to some degree the overlooked violence in Venezuela, will affect the battle between the energy industry and environmentalists in several ways:

  1. Militarization will create a deepening appreciation for energy security. Poland recently mobilized troops on its eastern borders, as Russia took control of Crimean airports and border crossings, and the Ukrainian Navy was “ordered” to hand over two warships to a Russian commander. Such provocative actions will cause normally thoughtful pro environmental citizens to opt firstly for energy security, and secondly for sustainability. If the sabre rattling and political volatility in the world continues in 2014, expect the power of environmentalists to wane in proportion to the extent of militarization occurring.
  2. Vocalization: Social Media ROi has been tracking online discussions of energy, environmental and First Nations issues since June 2012. In that time we have seen a slow but steady shift toward greater assertiveness and confidence being expressed among allies of energy development. This slow awakening among those in favour of sustainable development is the reason we see neutral comments shrinking and a partial leveling of the balance between opponents of pipeline projects (who are still ascendant) and supporters (whose numbers are small but growing).
  3. Localization: Local pipeline projects all across North America may see a reduction in opposition in areas where meaningful consultations with affected communities and First Nations are taking place. Justin Trudeau’s recent quasi endorsement of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline is a good example of this shift. Another ‘localization’ trend to watch in Canada is a concerted push by conservative organizers to win more seats in municipal elections. This effort to challenge left leaning politicians who dominate most city councils in Canada (even Calgary) will involve identifying and amplifying support for economic development projects like pipelines.

In a world suddenly reminded of the audacity of Russian power and ambition, the prospect of America securing a stable supply of oil and gas from friendly, peaceful, reasonable Canada looks a lot more enticing. The moderates in Congress who will ultimately determine the fate of Keystone now have a set of “clear and present dangers” to consider: disruptions in oil supply from unstable places like Venezuela and Nigeria, rising international oil and gas prices, and a Europe divided into East and West factions.

The fight to stop pipelines will not end, but it may soften as the benefits of secure, reliable linkages between the US and Canada in energy production and transportation are brought into focus with each new act of Russian aggression.

Scant comfort for environmentalists in a cold world struggling to combat global warming.

Return On Insight integrates market research techniques and social media metrics to help clients stay ahead of fast changing shifts in public opinion.




Why Steyer’s “Sucker Punch” failed to hit the energy industry

Posted by on Jan 29, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Why Steyer’s “Sucker Punch” failed to hit the energy industry

Impact of “sucker punch” anti-oilsands ads was pre-empted (temporarily at least) by U.S. President’s talk of natural gas

By Bruce Cameron, President, Return On Insight, January 29, 2014

Over the past two days (January 28 through midday January 29), online mentions of natural gas have spiked upward dramatically. Mentions of natural gas (20,823 and rising fast) peaked almost as high as mentions of pipelines (24,640).

Why did natural gas “explode” so to speak?

Mentions of natural gas peaked much higher than pipelines or oilsands because President Obama used his State of the Union address to highlight how natural gas could help power America’s future. The resulting media exposure for natural gas, rising to 11.2 million people from late yesterday through midday January 29th, dwarfed exposure for pipelines (8.1 million) or oilsands (6.3 million).

It is interesting to note that overall sentiment toward natural gas did not improve as result of the President’s speech. By linking natural gas to the challenge of replacing aging coal powered transmission plants, the President may have unwittingly diminished the image of natural gas for some Americans. But the President did succeed in shifting the narrative away from pipelines and toward the prospect of natural gas being America’s future fuel.

The President’s speech also served to pre-empt Tom Steyer, the anti oilsands billionaire activist whose NextGen Climate Action organization ran ads targeting the Keystone pipeline. The ads likened Keystone to a “Sucker Punch” to America, claiming that Chinese ownership of some oilsands assets (Nexen, Dover, MEG Energy) revealed the true beneficiary of approving the controversial project: ‘those dirty communists across the Pacific’. The ad received considerable media coverage in Canada in the lead-up to the State of the Union address, but it didn’t gain much online traction in the US or Canada after the speech (35,000 views and rising).

Finally, here is a comment from a blogger at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about “why it’s good that Obama didn’t mention Keystone”. For anyone interested in an adult conversation about energy in North America, this piece illustrates that pragmatism is still alive and well in America:

Return On Insight integrates the best techniques from public opinion research and social media monitoring to create communications strategies. For commentary contact Bruce Cameron, at [email protected]


HootSuite acquisition of UberVU is good news for Canada

Posted by on Jan 23, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Social media monitoring gold rush: why the HootSuite acquisition of UberVU is good news for Canadian digital entrepreneurs

By Bruce Cameron, President of Return On Insight, a public opinion and social media research firm with offices in Alberta and BC

HootSuite, a Canadian success story in the digital media world, recently acquired UberVU , a relatively small but powerful social media monitoring company established in Romania around the same time Vancouver digital agency Invoke Media spawned HootSuite. The HootSuite acquisition will broaden and deepen UberVU’s flexible suite of analytical tools and products. But it also illustrates that Canada is playing a major role in shaping the emerging new digital communications world. And the rush to hire more digitally savvy knowledge workers to fill the offices of a Canadian social media startup will continue.

There has always been a strong Canadian presence in the global market research industry, and now digital media is taking on a distinctly Canadian flavour (yes, with a “u”; take off Microsoft US spell check!). The intellectual capital we are developing in social and digital media, as new companies hire hundreds of well paid knowledge workers, could spawn a Canadian knowledge industry gold rush.

Just look at these three leading international companies who carved out new digital businesses from a base in Western Canada, all of which are still in hiring mode:
Critical Mass, founded in Calgary, is one of the world’s leading creators of websites and digital advertising. They just won the international account for the South African Tourist Board.
Vision Critical, founded by Andrew Reid, son of legendary pollster Angus Reid, pioneered the use of online panels in market research, building an international presence and a client base on five continents—all from Vancouver.
And of course HootSuite, founded in Vancouver by Ryan Holmes.

Monitoring social media trends and making sense of millions of conversations occurring online at any given point in time is a daunting task. Since 2012, Return on Insight (ROi) has used the UberVU platform to develop industry specific products to track what people are saying, pinpoint where in the world they are saying it, and quantify the tone and volume of millions of conversations with remarkable speed.

Integrating market research expertise and insightful social media tools provides decision makers the best of both worlds. On the one hand, market research quantifies what people think through the scientific selection of a sample and the careful crafting of a series of questions. Social media monitoring is more like overhearing millions of conversations on any chosen topic. It adds flavour and immediacy to the task of understanding shifts in opinion, harnessing the power to overhear (with clarity and accuracy if you use the right tools), every word of the online conversations occurring around us.

Maybe Wilfred Laurier got the sentiment right but the Century wrong: the 21st Century may be Canada’s Century, at least for digital pioneers like HootSuite’s Ryan Holmes.

Return On Insight, a public opinion and social media company, integrates market research tools and techniques with social media monitoring analytics to keep clients informed and empowered.  ROi has been working with the UberVU platform to assist public and private sector clients since 2012.

All Boats Rise? Ward battles in Calgary’s municipal election

Posted by on Oct 11, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

All Boats Rise


They say “all boats rise in a flood” and, perhaps, that’s what Naheed Nenshi had in mind when he tried to leverage his post-flood popularity, including his dominance of the Twittersphere, to shape the next City Council.

Nenshi’s blanket endorsement of aldermen seeking re-election may have been controversial. But, in reality, only a handful of the 14 ward races are likely to be hotly contested:

Ward 7. Incumbent Druh Farrell is trying to fend off her long-time opponent Kevin Taylor, aided by a surprisingly lively campaign from newcomer Brent Alexander. Taylor’s online presence is stronger now than the last time he took on Farrell when he lost by 5%. However, mentions of Farrell dominated online electoral discussions in the first two weeks of the campaign. Throughout her career, she has been a lightning rod for positive and negative reaction. If Taylor’s suburban base in the north of Ward 7 holds strong and Alexander takes away some of Farrell’s inner city base closer to the river, Farrell could be in trouble.

Ward 4. Gael MacLeod faces Sean Chu for the second straight election in Ward 4, which is intersected by Centre Street North. The margin of Macleod’s victory in 2010 was very thin (4%) and this time around the important Asian bloc of votes in the ward is not split among several candidates. Whether or not it unites around Chu probably determines the outcome in Ward 4.

Ward 11. Incumbent Brian Pincott has reportedly alienated and aggravated numerous blocs of voters in Ward 11 in the past three years, and challenger James Maxim (who came within 5% of Pincott in 2010) has been tirelessly knocking on doors for many months. This ward, which on the provincial level has elected people like Ralph Klein, is a perfect example of the potential of the provincial Conservatives’ political machine to make an impact on the local scene. Given how closely Pincott has aligned himself with Nenshi and his densification goals, it will throw up a red flag for a second-term mayor if Maxim pulls off an upset.

Ward 6. Joe Connelly, previous Ward 6 alderman and distant 2010 Mayoralty race finisher, has re-emerged to challenge Richard Pootmans. In some ways, this contest could illustrate the danger of Nenshi’s strange call to vote for council incumbents. Given that Ward 6 was, for many years, the base of former Mayor Dave Bronconnier, what initially looked to be a slam dunk re-election for Pootmans has become much more interesting,

Ward 8. John Mar is widely thought to be on his way to re-election against challenger Evan Wooley, but that hasn’t stopped the Twitter exchanges between the two camps from being loud and nasty.

Wards 1 and 2. There are two open seats with no incumbents. Long-time aldermen Dale Hodges and Gord Lowe both retired from their northwest wards. Despite comments rejecting partisan slates appearing on city council, these two wards may provide a glimpse of the relative power of the Wildrose and PC political machines in the city’s northwest suburbs. In Ward 1, provincial Wildrose organizer John Hilton O’Brien is fighting against Chris Harper, whose team has established a huge online presence. In Ward 2, it’s a toss-up after probable front-runner Joe Magliocca had to publicly retract a quote of support attributed to Alison Redford.


Halfway to nowhere: social media highlights of the Calgary election

Posted by on Oct 9, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

Halfway to nowhere: social media highlights mid way through the Calgary election campaign.

By Bruce Cameron, ROI

If social media activity is a new barometer of an election campaign, then it appears Naheed Nenshi is cruising towards a massive re-election win as Mayor of Calgary on October 21st. It should not come as a surprise. Nenshi dominates online chatter.

His legendary social media savvy is reflected in the relative size of his own twitter handle @nenshi, as well as the presence of active online supporters @dollhouseyyc (Marc Doll) and @carter (Stephen Carter). That’s not to say there’s no opposition. A small, but active anti-Nenshi community does exist.

Nenshi’s only credible opponent, Jon Lord (who has actually been elected to City Council and the Alberta Legislature in the past), spent the midpoint of the campaign competing in a BBQ competition in Missouri. Granted, he made it back for Monday’s mayoralty forum, after finishing 445th at the cooking competition.  Foreshadowing?

Few key issues are emerging partly because of the predictable composition of the anti-Nenshi camp. First, there are the always-vocal tax-fighters — the 10 per cent of Calgarians who complain about property taxes. They’ll likely show up to vote, but it’s doubtful they can get others to worry as much as they do about property taxes and development fees.

The second round of opponents — the group of developers who dared take on the purple orthodoxy of building “up not out” — also has its broader base of fans at times. But, like the tax-fighters, they can’t seem to capture the imagination of the masses in the same way Nenshi continues to do.

Polls consistently show Calgarians remain highly satisfied with the direction of the city over the past decade and that sense of satisfaction only increased as a result of Nenshi’s response to June’s flood.

So what can we learn from analyzing the online conversations of Calgarians about the election in the first two weeks of the campaign?

First, during the flood crisis, single-day impressions of Calgary via social media conversations topped 50 million. So far during this municipal campaign, impressions about the elections have typically averaged around one million on most days, peaking at almost 5 million on the night of the October 7 mayoral forum.

Second, social media monitoring shows that this is an election in search of an issue. Taxes, development fees, secondary suites and the Mayor’s support of all incumbents have been discussed, but no one issue has dominated online chats, blogs and mentions.

In fact, there were twice as many people talking about Nenshi when he took on the Parti Quebecois’ Social Values Charter and Ezra Levant in September than at any point so far in the 2013 election campaign.

If the current on-line trend continues, I expect turnout rates to drop to about 20 per cent come voting day on October 21st.

They say “all boats rise in a flood.” Friday, I’ll share our social media analysis of some of the key Ward races and why incumbents are enjoying strength on-line.


New Style or New Leader: Three Reasons Harper Is In Trouble

Posted by on Jun 10, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

ROI president Bruce Cameron’s latest blog discusses the challenges faced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Click here to read the blog:

New Style or New Leader

Peak Oil is Dead. So is Gateway. Now What do We Do?

Posted by on Nov 12, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

Bruce Cameron is President of Return On Insight, an Alberta based public opinion and social media monitoring company that has worked on a variety of energy and conservation projects in Canada and the USA.

Western Canadians have come to believe that we sit astride one of the world’s last great oil deposits, bestowing us with immense energy wealth at a time when the rest of the world, especially our next door neighbor, is running out of the precious liquid that underpins the global economy.

But what if the world isn’t running out of oil? According to a CBC Story about the IEA Report, the US will become energy sufficient by 2020, while western Canadian oil could be locked in place within three years due to export challenges.

“Without new export capacity, western Canadian oil production would exceed regional consumption and current export capacity before 2016,” the International Energy Agency’s flagship report for 2012 stated.

The biggest export capacity problem in Canada is Enbridge’s Gateway project. The XL pipeline to the Gulf Coast will almost certainly be approved soon by the Obama administration, but Gateway will probably never be built.


Enbridge has galvanized opponents along the Gateway route and done a shoddy job in building credibility and social consent for the project.

If not Gateway, then what?  Inevitably, there will be increased transportation of oil by rail, plus expansion and construction of other routes (Kinder Morgan to Vancouver, new pipelines to the south through Montana and out to the US coast, and to the east through existing routes or by establishing new ones).

But like all countries with vast oil reserves—reputedly Saudi Arabia has the most, Venezuela takes silver, and the bronze medalist is Canada—the really tough question (beyond how do we get it to market) is: what do we do with all that oil?

Environmental blogger Damian Carrington, writing for the anti tar sands Guardian newspaper in the UK, interpreted the IEA report differently than many analysts, claiming The Threat of Peak Oil is Dead   He noted, “We do not have too little fossil fuel, we have far too much.”

Carrington reached this dire conclusion: “The truly global implications of the International Energy Agency’s flagship report for 2012 lie elsewhere, in the quietly devastating statement that no more than one-third of already proven reserves  and fossil fuels can be burned by 2050 if the world is to prevent global warming exceeding the danger point of 2C. This means nothing less than leaving most of the world’s coal, oil and gas in the ground or facing a destabilized climate, with its supercharged heat waves, floods and storms.”

When a crusading environmentalist announces that “peak oil” is dead, you know the geopolitical energy map is changing.

How will Canada adapt to these changes?

Will we lock in our oil and gas resources, through a conscious decision to reduce global warming?  To expect us to “keep it in the ground” is naïve; some would even say idiotic.  Canadian based oil companies have a reputation for innovation in energy efficiency and responsible development.  The world needs more, not less, of Canadian oil expertise.

A balanced Canadian approach involves conserving our water, wilderness and wildlife, while bridging the gap between our current fossil fuel based economy and a future where renewable energy takes centre stage.

Will we fall prey to the type of “Keystone Cop” incompetence that has led to strong opposition to Enbridge and TCPL pipeline projects? Pushing for quicker environmental approvals while simultaneously cutting the budget for scientific monitoring—as the Harper government has done—is certainly not going to build social consent. In fact such a heavy handed approach is more likely to spawn global environmental protests in Canada’s Great Bear rainforest.

Canada needs to start proactively building social consent, at home and abroad, to enable us to seek new markets for our energy exports.

Like water finding its level, oil will find a way out.


Margin for Error in Alberta: Not all the Polls Were Wrong

Posted by on Apr 27, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

Bruce Cameron, President of Return On Insight, April 25, 2012

The day after the most surprising election campaign in Alberta’s history, I fielded dozens of media calls. The first question wasn’t, “How did the PCs engineer one of the most amazing comebacks in Canadian election history?”

No, the first question was always, “Why were all the polls wrong?”

This is an extremely important question the polling industry must answer. But not all the polls were wrong. Return On Insight was the only polling firm that predicted a PC government.

On air, during the CBC election coverage, I said, “We weren’t as wrong as everyone else.” And although the studio audience laughed, and host David Gray quipped, “not a slogan you’ll want to use on your business cards,” the important fact was this: ROI saw the vote shifting toward the PCs and we predicted the 41-year-reign of the Tories would continue.

How did ROI draw that conclusion? And why did so many other pollsters and pundits miss it? (One online pollster was so convinced of a Wildrose majority — something he bet against before the writ dropped — that he paid off his bet to a Wildrose strategist five days before the vote.)

One week before the election we saw the PC momentum begin to gather strength, similar to a big swell forming offshore.  I offered the wave analogy on election night, adding that our mistake was underestimating just how big that PC wave would become as it started breaking on shore. A friend of mine who heard the comment sent me a tweet:

Parker Hogan (@TPHogan) 4/23/12 9:50 PM  @roitweets the best surfers see the big wave far out in the ocean before the others, and ride it to victory when the wave swells.

Strategic voting played an essential role in the Alberta outcome, and ROI identified that potential voting shift, noting that “if Liberal support continues to decline in Calgary, then the PCs will win many close races in that key battleground.” We also observed that one week before the election, strategic voting had not yet emerged in Edmonton, but we predicted that if and when it did, the PC tide would overwhelm earlier Wildrose momentum.

In fact, telephone polling ROI conducted just days before the vote in a cross section of different Calgary ridings indicated an electorate on the edge: equal proportions of the electorate were undecided, leaning Wildrose, or leaning PC .  Delving beneath the surface, we followed up on our instinct that the election was becoming a referendum on Alberta’s future. We asked which side of the divide Calgarians would choose—PC or Wildrose. The result? Three days before the election, we saw that if Calgarians had to choose one of the two major parties, more would choose the PCs than the Wildrose.

So why did so many other polls predict a Wildrose majority?  Why were many of the polls wrong?

  1. Mixing Methodologies: Not only was the Alberta election a volatile one, but the polling industry and media outlets who reported on those polls used three different methodologies: telephone surveying, online surveying from panels of voters, and Interactive Voice Recognition or IVR push button polling. The use of all three methods illustrates the extent to which the polling industry has arrived at an important cross-road. ROI maintains that while no single methodology is 100% perfect, the method we used for the Alberta election (telephone surveying) yielded the most accurate prediction. A well-crafted survey, conducted by real people, via telephone, based upon a scientifically drawn random probability sample, yielded more accurate results than either online surveys or IVR polling.
  2. Herd mentality: The common theme for most of the campaign was that Wildrose support was very strong across southern Alberta and throughout Calgary. Many polls simply confirmed that trend. Sun Media was the most blatant in its pro-Wildrose coverage, at times doing more cheerleading than reporting.  ROI polls conducted for CBC showed the PCs ahead in Calgary one week before the vote, but many others dismissed that finding because it didn’t line up with their own poll results.
  3. “Calgary”: With such a volatile and shifting electoral battle, regional definitions took on more importance than usual. For instance, many pollsters reported that the Wildrose had an eight- to 10-point lead over the PCs in “Calgary,” but failed to mention that their definition of “Calgary” was the Census Metropolitan Area, which includes outlying areas like Okotoks, Airdrie and Chestermere. In those exurban fringe areas, Wildrose had a lot of support. ROI defined “Calgary” as the City itself, not the outlying areas, which revealed the PCs in the lead. We published that poll via CBC on April 16th.

But the most important barometer of accuracy in polling is the sample frame from which the respondents are chosen. A survey sample framework has to be as broad, inclusive and representative as possible, and this is where online pollsters with relatively small panels went wrong.

So, what did we learn?

First, the polling industry needs to get its house in order. The public rolls its eyes when pollsters debate the methodological nuances of IVR versus online versus telephone approaches. But ROI maintains there is no single solution without shortcomings.  And those shortcomings need to be objectively analyzed and accounted for:

  • good telephone surveying needs to account for the increasing incidence of people without landlines,
  • online survey companies need to pay more attention to the size, diversity and freshness of their panels,
  • and IVR firms need to stick to what they do best: identify voters for political parties, not predict election outcomes for media outlets.

Equally culpable in mis-reading the Alberta election outcome were some members of the media.  The media has a responsibility to increase their understanding of the differences in accuracy between various polling methodologies. And that means avoiding mistakes like commissioning cheap overnight IVR surveys and then passing off the results as the gospel truth.

But most of all, seasoned political watchers learned yet again that there is no substitute for insightful analysis and judgment, derived from political experience. When the full story of the Alberta election is written, it will be noted that the two pollsters who got it right (out of 20), were myself and Greg Lyle, whose firm Innovative Research were the internal pollsters for the PC party.  What do we have in common?  We both spent part of our long public opinion careers learning from one of the masters in the profession: Dr. Angus Reid.

Return On Insight is a strategic research consulting company with offices in Alberta and British Columbia Canada. ROI analyzes public opinion and explores consumer insights for public and private sector clients seeking to develop communications initiatives, improve brand positioning, and assess audience and stakeholder engagement efforts.