10/07/2015 16:25 EDT | Updated 10/07/2016 01:12 EDT

Gallup gives up horse race polls while Canadian election consumed by them

OTTAWA — As a Canadian federal election campaign consumed by a vote-influencing, poll-driven dynamic gallops toward the finish line, the most venerable name in public opinion research is abandoning the horse race field south of the border.

Gallup, which has been tracking presidential races since 1936, says ongoing methodological problems prompted the global firm to abandon horse race polling on the current United States presidential primaries and may keep it out of the 2016 presidential election.

"We believe to put our time and money and brain power into understanding issues and priorities is where we can most have an impact," Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief, told Washington-based news site Politico.

Gallup's decision reflects one of those modern political realities that everyone knows and everyone ignores.

Political horse race polls are an inexact science and they're getting more difficult to get right, rather than less so, with the advance of 21st century information technology.

"The concern about the polling industry is absolutely valid," Barry Kay, an expert in public opinion research and elections at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., said in an interview. 

"There's more demand for it than ever, even while the polls are getting less accurate."

After getting the 2012 presidential election wrong — Gallup had Republican Mitt Romney winning and ahead by one percentage point in popular support; he lost, with Democrat Barack Obama up by 3.9 percentage points in the popular vote — Gallup said it would retool its methodology for the next presidential election cycle.

Instead it has given up.

"It's a huge deal," said Paul Adams, a former journalist and pollster who now teaches journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. "Gallup, in effect, invented horse race polls."

It should be a sobering message for Canadian voters and Canadian news outlets, consumed with the national horse race numbers in the current three-way federal battle.

Horse race polls have arguably never flown so fast and thick during a Canadian federal election and, more significantly, have seldom played such a key role in driving the media narrative that in turn can influence voter intentions.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives, seeking a fourth straight mandate after a chippy, sharp-elbowed nine years in office, face a determined official opposition NDP led by seasoned campaigner Tom Mulcair and a resilient Liberal brand led by Justin Trudeau, who combines a storied political name with real star power. 

For voters more concerned with defeating Harper than choosing between the alternatives, "it's important for you to know if the Liberals or the NDP are ahead," said Adams. "And the polls are one way to guide you, although they don't guide you that well in your own constituency."

In this election, he added, the relative position of the parties is critical for many strategic voters. "And while polls aren't perfect, they're the best thing we have in terms of determining that."

So what are voters to make of all those polls?

Conservative support in the past week has been pegged as high as 37 per cent nationally and as low as 30 per cent, the Liberals have polled from 35 down to 27 per cent and the New Democrats have peaked at 28 per cent and troughed at 21.4 per cent.

"I view it as entertainment," said Kay, who argues public confusion stems from media organizations wedded to a single pollster and driven by the need to torque single-survey stories.

"Your (news) business is about getting readers or viewers and the fact is, polls drive attention," said the academic.

Kay calls the process "flawed as hell" but says rather than rejecting polls, the answer is to look at as many as possible and aggregate the findings.

No one believes horse race polls will disappear. If anything, they're proliferating as more survey firms enter the marketplace.

Adams sees a silver lining in Gallup's change of focus.

"In a world in which we're awash in these horse race polls but we don't get much beneath the surface, if Gallup and Pew (Research Center) and a few other organizations are now saying we're going to dig beneath the surface, that's a great thing."

— Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press