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Who'll pay for a poll?

Probe Research to try raising cash for public's stand on mayoral race

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From right, mayoral candidates Brian Bowman, Michel Fillion, Paula Havixbeck, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Gord Steeves, Michael Vogiatzakis, and Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

From right, mayoral candidates Brian Bowman, Michel Fillion, Paula Havixbeck, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Gord Steeves, Michael Vogiatzakis, and Judy Wasylycia-Leis. Photo Store

The race is already a crowded field -- so bunched up at the gate that without the help of a pollster it's hard to know which horse has the best chance of replacing our Old Grey Mayor.

And, there are no political polls in sight.

Well, maybe one.

This week, hoping for your help, a Winnipeg polling company decided to try to make the process, if not the field, even more crowded and the result more predictable.

On Wednesday, Probe Research Inc. president Scott MacKay launched what he's calling "Canada's first crowdfunded election survey." It's an online appeal over two weeks to raise $8,000 from individuals and sponsoring organizations, all by way of trying to gauge who's out front in mid-September, as they gallop or trot to the wire on Oct. 22.

"There is significant public interest in the 2014 municipal election campaign in Winnipeg," MacKay said in statement. "For the first time in a decade, an incumbent mayor's name will not be on the ballot, and a higher-than-average number of candidates have stepped forward to compete for the city's highest political office."

Crowdfunding is more commonly used to raise money for startup companies, not existing ones.

So why is Probe trying this novel approach?

More importantly, why would anyone give a minimum of $25 -- much less $100 or more -- to be part of it?

On Friday, MacKay explained Probe decided to give it a try because of all the chatter about the election on Twitter.

"My colleague, Curtis Brown, who is an avid tweeter, kept coming into my office every morning and saying, 'Man there's a lot of interest in having a poll out right now. All the Twittersphere is atwitter about why we should have a poll."

Which is when the idea of crowdsourcing came up.

Probe searched to see if public online donations had ever been used to fund a political poll.

They couldn't find a precedent.

"And then we thought, 'Well let's try this.' "

They're trying it, as you might have guessed, because no one else was willing to fund the poll at this stage of the campaign.

That's primarily because as media-industry revenues have shrunk, so has the funding for political polling.

"In the good old days, we used to do three polls," MacKay recalled.

One at the beginning of a campaign, one in the middle and another near the end.

But polling is expensive, MacKay acknowledges.

At $8,000, he said, this one is break-even, which suggests MacKay and Brown are even more eager for an answer to where this election is headed than all those tweeters.

So why would anyone -- other than the media or a candidate -- supply funding for a political poll?

"There's something very egalitarian about the crowdsource model," MacKay said. "If you believe in these kinds of surveys and that they're an important part of democracy, then you would want to have a poll and we're just not going to have one unless this happens."

But that presents other questions.

 

Does the public still believe in polling?

What happened to the accuracy polling used to guarantee 19 times out of 20?

That's a question that's been haunting the polling industry of late.

It's been at issue at least since some high-profile national pollsters failed -- and failed miserably -- to predict the outcomes of the most recent Alberta and B.C. elections.

As for why pollsters were so wrong, MacKay said after doing their own self-analysis and hiring others to do it for them, there are no conclusive answers.

Only theories.

MacKay has his own theory, and it goes back to the media pulling back from spending on political surveys and how the polling industry reacted.

"When the media stopped underwriting polls in the last decade, polling companies still wanted to participate," he said. "So they started giving them away."

As a result, he suspects, the polling industry hasn't been applying the rigour to the methodology, or spending enough money, to get the results right.

Perhaps.

Or maybe it has something to do with so many people being off the polling grid because they only have cellphones.

Whatever the reason, MacKay said Probe has never been willing to give their product away and risk sacrificing what's most important to them.

Their credibility.

Which is why they decided to make the online public appeal.

MacKay is anticipating media organizations and candidates will help kick-start the crowd-sourcing, if for no other reason than it's affordable and all donors will get the results before they're released publicly.

MacKay doesn't even know if his "experiment" will work.

This much he does know.

"If this doesn't work," he said, "people get their money back."

He also knows this; without media and candidate support, the model would need 80 people playing a minimum of $100 each to make it work.

"I mean, do you really know 80 political junkies that care that much to do this?" MacKay asked. "I don't." But, over the next couple of weeks, before the appeal closes, we're going to find out who really wants to know who's out front, heading home.

 

See Probe's crowd-funding appeal: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/904940/emal/8430859

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 B1

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