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Pollsters are the new rock stars of political journalism. They produce far more stories than investigative reporters, more insights than sage columnists. Almost no one challenges these 21st century versions of the Oracle at Delphi. If it’s numbers, it must be science. A news show without a pollster is half a news show.

Arguably the best pollster around, Nik Nanos of Nanos Research offered me some observations on the business while I was researching my new book, Party of One. One of the things he told me was that “any contact” with the public by pollsters can be unethical. You either speak truth to power or you don’t. You either deliver the reality sandwich — or you give a massage.

“With a major pollster,” Nanos said, “what you see in the news is only the surface. Beneath is an implied reference to deep data and knowledge of trends, which ‘validates’ the insights … The real test is who has had it right for the last five elections — accurate cultural memory. Invariably, the people who fit that category operate as quality silos.”

What it really comes down to is that there are pollsters and there are real pollsters. Real pollsters are not in the business of building anyone’s numbers. They have solid track records. They have what the business calls “full-scope” control over their product — the call centre, the focus group, questionnaire writing, interpretation.

They do not sub-contract out their work, but create high quality, independent “silos” free of cross-pollination. They get paid for their work and they aren’t in the business of getting it wrong. If a politician is getting “free” polling — and a lot of them are — they’re not getting it from the pros like Nanos, Decima, Ipsos or Environics.

By comparison, a “fair-weather” pollster has no control over field work. In fact, some pollsters use another firm’s call centre to generate their polls, which leads to an oddity: two ‘different’ polls based on the same data. That can easily lead to false trends, which in turn can be used to cynically manipulate public opinion. Not an unimportant thing during an election campaign.

Sometimes, the fair-weather pollster is also a campaign manager. There is lots of power in that approach, lots of money to be made. But the mission changes with the dual role. The pollster who is also campaign manager sets his sights on leading public opinion, not recording it.

Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His eight books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His work has sparked four commissions of inquiry, and three of his books have been made into movies. He recently completed a book about the Harper majority government to be published soon by Penguin Canada.

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