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‘Black eye to the industry:’ Report delves into polls gone awry in Calgary vote

CALGARY — A report into wildly inaccurate polls ahead of last year’s Calgary civic election recommends stronger standards and best practices for the polling industry.

The report commissioned by Market Research and Intelligence Association, which has announced it’s shuttering its operations, was released Wednesday by the academics who were tapped to independently examine the fallout after the election.

“It was a black eye to the industry,” said the University of Manitoba’s Christopher Adams, one of the academics.

In the three weeks leading up to the October vote, Mainstreet Research conducted three polls that put incumbent Mayor Naheed Nenshi substantially behind relatively unknown challenger Bill Smith — one by as many as 17 percentage points. The polls were published in the city’s two Postmedia papers, the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun. The organization no longer has a relationship with Mainstreet.

Nenshi won the election by eight points.

Prior to announcing its shutdown on July 31, the Market Research and Intelligence Association had commissioned the report.

The panel recommended the association update its standards, provide a checklist of those standards, audit its members, conduct an annual review and engage more with the public and media.

“Simply put, the MRIA standards need faster updating and more energetic accountability and enforcement, including outreach to the media, if they are to play an effective role in regulating the industry,” the panel wrote.

Adams said the association had the report in May, but did not release it publicly.

Now that the group is defunct, he and his fellow panel members — Carleton University’s Paul Adams and David Zussman, with the University of Victoria and University of Ottawa — decided to release their report themselves.

“Our report, I think, is still quite valuable, in that it provides an analysis of what went on in Calgary,” said Adams, a market research professional who had been certified by the industry group.

“While it speaks to the MRIA, we think it also speaks to journalism in Canada and it speaks to those who are practitioners in the industry, as well as companies that buy research.”

The heads of some of Canada’s biggest market research and survey firms have said they are interested in forming a new industry body.

The 70-page report references an internal review Mainstreet undertook last year that found one of the major reasons its results were so off was its failure to reach young voters who tend not to have land lines.

“The panel heard that these polls, which received the greatest media attention during the campaign because of their number, their startling results, and their association with the two Calgary dailies, significantly affected the course of the campaign,” the panel wrote.

“They threw Nenshi’s campaign on the defensive, gave impetus to Smith’s campaign, and possibly doomed the prospects of another candidate, André Chabot, who Mainstreet’s poll suggested was not a close contender.”

Lorne Motley, editor and chief of the Herald and Sun, declined to comment on the report.

The report delved into two other high-profile polls that correctly predicted a Nenshi win, but were flawed in their own right.

One, by a group advocating for a new light rail project, was found to have questions that slanted respondents toward Nenshi. The other, conducted by Forum Research, was meant for a longer-term academic project called the Canadian Municipal Election study and not to provide a short snapshot ahead of the election.

Some of the report’s recommendations were also targeted toward the media.

It urges better disclosure of the financial arrangements between media outlets and the polling outfits they work with, as well as better reporting standards and training for journalists who cover polls.

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press