BRANDON -- The value of public-opinion polling is not found in the numbers produced by a particular poll, but rather in the analysis of those numbers.
In the absence of context and informed insight, the raw numbers in any poll can lead to conclusions that both mislead and misinform.
A good example of this danger is the analysis of the latest poll of provincial voting intention by Probe Research for the Winnipeg Free Press.
The poll found the Progressive Conservatives have 46 per cent of the decided vote, with the NDP at 28 per cent, the Liberals at 23 per cent and three per cent for other parties. One in five of those polled were undecided or refused to say which party they would vote for.
Outside Winnipeg, the Tories enjoy 61 per cent support, with the Liberals in second at 19 per cent, two points ahead of the NDP. Inside the Perimeter, the Tories lead the NDP by a 38-34 margin, with the Liberals trailing at 25 per cent. Within the poll's margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, the numbers are virtually unchanged since the last poll in December, leading some analysts to conclude the PC lead is solidifying, the NDP is stalled and the Liberals' surge in support since the 2011 election is genuine -- something that would make the Grits a decisive factor in the next election.
If you focus solely on the "horse race" aspects of the poll, those are the only conclusions you arrive at. Viewed within the context of the current reality of Manitoba politics, however, the numbers tell a different story.
There is very little in the poll for the Tories to celebrate. They may be at 46 per cent throughout the province right now, but they received 42 per cent of votes in the 2011 election and were crushed by the NDP. In the past nine months, their support has ranged between 43 and 48 per cent, which is almost entirely within those polls' margins of error.
The story is the same in Winnipeg, where PC support has only grown from 35 per cent to 38 since 2011, once again within the margin of error.
The data suggest the Tories have hit a ceiling they can't penetrate. There has been negligible growth in support for the party since the 2011 election, which is surprising considering the many problems the NDP has got itself into.
As regards those New Democrats, the poll results are cause for a sigh of relief. The deep slide in voter support has been halted, and the party even saw a five-point jump in support in Winnipeg. The drop in support in rural Tory strongholds means little to the NDP, as it is Winnipeg's ridings that will determine which party wins the next election.
It appears the "Running with scissors" ad campaign was a modest success for the NDP, as it has convinced supporters to stay with the party, and may well have saved Greg Selinger's job as leader.
While the steady increase in support for the Liberals has drawn the most attention, it may be the political fool's gold in this poll.
Since becoming Grit party leader last October, Rana Bokhari has kept a surprisingly low profile. The fact the majority of Manitobans still don't know who she is, nor what policies her party stands for, suggests much of the Liberals' current support is very soft, consisting mainly of disenchanted NDP supporters who are "parking" their votes -- and that points to a likely future component of the NDP's comeback strategy.
Team Selinger has no hope of convincing Tory supporters to vote for them, but they don't have to. They will inevitably attempt to lure disenchanted former supporters back to the party by targeting Bokhari as inexperienced, in over her head and not worth the risk of electing a Tory government.
The fact the Tories have a huge lead isn't the message to be derived from this poll. It is that the Tories' hopes of winning the next election hinge on Bokhari's ability to withstand the NDP attack ads that are sure to come.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.