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Political polls tap ignorant public

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Liberal Justin Trudeau is seen as the most trustworthy but least competent of Canada's political leaders, according to a just-released Nanos opinion poll.

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Liberal Justin Trudeau is seen as the most trustworthy but least competent of Canada's political leaders, according to a just-released Nanos opinion poll.

So let's get this straight.

In a Nanos opinion poll released Thursday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was found to be the most trustworthy of all federal leaders. For a man who hopes one day to be prime minister, that's pretty good.

However, Trudeau was also viewed as the least competent federal leader.

If Trudeau is not seen as a competent leader, then what is it we trust him to do? Represent Canada in a boxing tournament for political leaders? Roll a joint?

Questions that seek "impressions" of political leaders have always produced soft, squishy polling data. In reality, we've never really asked respondents to make sense when they are rating things like trustworthiness, competence or acumen in any one area of policy. Pollsters and journalists know answers to these questions often don't make any sense or are at odds with each other. Still, we're happy to ask the questions and publish the results.

This is a particularly difficult time for pollsters. Recent election results in British Columbia and Alberta -- where incumbent governments written off by voter polls came back to win -- is proof enough there is a crisis in the public-opinion-survey industry.

We also know the biggest problem, as outlined by the pollsters themselves, is fewer people are willing to take a survey. Of even greater concern is almost no younger Canadians are willing to be polled.

However, that does not mean there are fewer polls being released. In fact, it seems like more poll results are available than ever before, but the results are becoming more suspect.

The Holy Grail for polling companies would be finding respondents who know enough about the players, policies and issues that they can offer an informed opinion. Unfortunately for pollsters, many of us have stopped paying attention to the leaders, their policies and party platforms. In that scenario, could we be counted upon to really know who was the most trustworthy or competent in any one area, or who is the best candidate to lead?

Of course not.

The increasing fallibility of opinion polls is not really about a crisis in the polling industry. It's about a crisis in the electorate. Collectively, we've tuned out politics and politicians, but somehow we're still answering poll questions like we know what we're talking about.

The news media are complicit in making a bad situation worse.

In coverage of the Nanos Research poll on Thursday, the Globe and Mail led the pack and set the tone for most other news outlets.

The Globe's headline -- "Canadians See Trudeau as the most trustworthy, but not the most competent" -- was repeated verbatim by more than a dozen news outlets. The Huffington Post did not write a story of its own, choosing instead to post a brief and a link to the Globe. A myriad of blogs, news aggregators and other digital sites swallowed the "trustworthy-but-not-competent" hook en masse.

There was very little original reporting on this poll beyond the Globe piece. That is the news media demonstrating -- in this time of declining profits and shrinking newsrooms -- they ultimately have the same disinterest in politics as the general public.

That is a problem because the story of the poll results is a bit more complex than the media made it out to be.

In the same edition of the Globe, Eric Grenier of the blog ThreeHundredEight.com revealed that notwithstanding opinions on trust and competence, when you crunch data from multiple polls asking questions about leadership, Trudeau is currently seen as the best person to be prime minister. That trend was missed by just about everyone that touched this story.

A good many citizens would agree we would be better off as a nation if people paid more attention to the issues of the day, demanded more diverse and in-depth political journalism and voted more often. We'd get better government, better news and, ultimately, more accurate poll results.

Right now, we're posing questions about politics to people who have no interest in the subject, then fretting about inaccurate poll results. The results are then reported by journalists with the same diligence with which we report a daily weather forecast.

Instead of asking which leader would make the best prime minister, perhaps we should be asking who would want to lead at a time like this.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2013 A8

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