The power of a poll

The upset victory of Conservative Ryan Leef leaves many supporters of Liberal incumbent Larry Bagnell scratching their heads and wondering what happened when Yukoners voted during Monday's federal election.

The upset victory of Conservative Ryan Leef leaves many supporters of Liberal incumbent Larry Bagnell scratching their heads and wondering what happened when Yukoners voted during Monday’s federal election.

With Leef edging out Bagnell by just 132 votes, there are many contributing factors that could be blamed.

But Conservatives and Liberals agree a turning point occurred on April 26, when DataPath Systems released a poll that gave Bagnell a 20-point lead over Leef.

Tories cheered. Grits groaned.

Both reckoned the race was far closer than that. And both suspected the poll’s release would hurt Bagnell and help Leef, by assuring left-leaning voters they could vote their conscience and back the Green party’s John Streicker or New Democrats’ Kevin Barr.

“The worst thing to happen in the campaign was the DataPath poll,” said longtime Liberal campaigner Shayne Fairman.

“What we encountered through the whole campaign were people who assumed Larry would win, he would be their MP, and they were thrilled about that. But they could vote for John or Kevin.

“Tuesday morning, there were probably 133 people who did that who regretted it.

“We were hearing from people, ‘What are you worried about? He has it in the bag.’ People were quite candid with canvassers. ‘I’d like the Green Party to get the $2 vote subsidy.’ Or, ‘I like John, so I’m voting for him.’ It became more difficult when the assumption became he would win.”

Comparing Monday’s results to the 2008 election, Fairman sees the left vote splinter.

“Larry lost 10 per cent of what he had last time. The Greens went up five and the NDP went up five. The Conservatives went up one.”

The Conservatives’ campaign manager, Michael Lauer, didn’t believe the poll results either.

“When I saw the DataPath numbers, I knew the numbers were wrong, and I knew the numbers would help us.”

But Lauer parses the numbers differently than Fairman.

As he sees it, in 2008 Bagnell received a windfall of votes, thanks to an especially weak NDP candidate, Ken Bolton, who won just 8.7 per cent of the vote, down from 23.9 per cent in 2006, 25.7 per cent in 2004 and 31.9 per cent in 2000.

Lauer bet the NDP would rebound this election. They did, winning 14.4 per cent of the vote.

And Lauer suspected Streicker would fare even better than last election. He did, placing third with 18.9 per cent of the vote.

“I also knew most of those votes would bleed from Larry, because they’re more likely to bleed from Larry than bleed from us.”

That meant it would be close. And Lauer’s internal polling during the election confirmed this suspicion.

Pollster Donna Larsen stands by her work. But she’s quick to note its weaknesses.

Polling ended April 18, before Liberal support across Canada began to crumble.

Larsen suspects the poll’s undecided voters later gave up on the Liberals. So did one-third of Liberal supporters who reported that they mostly supported the party, rather than Bagnell personally.

“People were jumping off the Liberal ship before it sunk,” said Larsen.

“Yukoners said, ‘We wanted to vote someone in who’s on the side of the majority.’ It wouldn’t be very effective to have someone in a party that’s in opposition, or doesn’t exist any more.”

Polls are not predictions, noted Larsen. Instead, they’re a “snapshot” of voting intentions during one period.

And while the poll’s numbers for Liberals and Conservatives proved way off compared to actual results, its numbers for NDP and Green support proved fairly accurate.

“For every other election before now, we’ve been within one or two percentage points of the actual outcome,” said Larsen.

It wasn’t long before the election results came in before the Green’s Streicker found himself accused of splitting the vote to let Leef in. He disputes this.

“It’s not right to suggest that people shouldn’t have voted with their hearts. I think real Yukoners should support how Yukoners vote,” said Streicker.

“They’re almost acting like it’s someone’s right or privilege to win. I don’t believe that. It’s voters who have the choice.”

Streicker, like Larsen, argues Bagnell was largely a victim of the Liberals’ dissolving national support.

“Our thoughts are, the loss nationally of the Liberal party drifted across to Ryan Leef.”

But Bagnell’s support was never dependent on his party’s standing in past elections, said Fairman. In 2008 and 2006, while Liberal support slipped, Bagnell still won over a strong share of voters.

Nor does Fairman see any “game-changer” during the Yukon election, other than the release of the poll.

“I don’t think there was any defining event in the past week that would have caused people to say, ‘I was undecided, but now I’m going to vote for Ryan Leef.’”

As Lauer sees it, the national collapse of the Liberal party “probably had a minimal impact on Larry,” but “it didn’t help.”

Nor did Bagnell’s decision to prop-up the gun registry. Bagnell had opposed the registry in the past, but when Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff threatened to turf Bagnell from the party unless he voted by party lines, he complied.

“The gun registry hurt Larry by more than 132 votes,” said Lauer.

“If he’d have stood up and voted with us on the gun registry bill, we wouldn’t have been able to beat him. He would have had the election in the bag, whether he was an Independent or a Liberal.

“I had a number of people who came into the campaign office and said, ‘I voted for Larry last time. Never again. Here’s $500.’”

Lauer defended his party’s attacks on Bagnell’s voting record during the election.

“We weren’t criticizing him for his hair being a mess. He gets paid $157,000 plus a year to be the member of Parliament. This is what you do. Just like, if Ryan votes on a position that people object to, they can go after him.”

Not long ago, Bagnell enjoyed solid support from Yukoners of all political stripes. They may not have liked the Liberal party, but they liked the candidate.

Provided that Leef performs well in Parliament, Lauer expects Yukoners will rally behind him in a similar fashion in the next election.

“As long as Ryan does a good job, in four years there are going to be people voting for him, not because he’s a Conservative, but because of the job he’s done.”

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