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Election-related revenues are a fraction of Canada’s $500-million polling industry – less than 4 per cent, according to the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) – but they play an outsize role in pollsters’ fortunes.

The lead-up to a vote is a smorgasbord of free publicity for companies such as EKOS, Nanos, and Ipsos.

“Doing this work is almost the equivalent of a fashion gangplank,” said Angus Reid, 67, whose storied career in polling includes the founding and selling of his eponymous company. “It’s an opportunity to show off their research.”

By the same token, the spectre of failure looms over pollsters throughout a campaign. A botched election forecast is an excruciatingly public form of failure: Curtis Brown, vice-president at Probe, admitted to having anxiety dreams about fiascos such as the 2013 B.C. vote, which his colleagues in the industry got spectacularly wrong. (Probe didn’t have a poll in the field.)

But even in the best of times, gauging voter intentions is fraught with difficulties. There are the “Shy Tories,” well documented in Britain, who deny that they intend to vote Conservative until doing just that.

No less an authority than Nate Silver – the writer and statistician whose nearly perfect predictions of the past two U.S. elections made him a polling superstar – has warned of a sustained dip in quality.

As dubious polling becomes more prevalent, the industry looks poised to have an unusually large impact on this year’s federal election. About two-thirds of voters are determined to replace the Harper government and many believe that whichever left-of-centre party looks likeliest to accomplish that goal will reap a bumper crop of strategic ballots.

In an effort to shore up their credibility and their bottom lines ahead of such a crucial test, Canadian pollsters have begun trying to self-police. Mr. Bricker was recently elected chairman of one such group, the Canadian Association for Public Opinion Research, which launched in June. It plans to set standards around transparency and polling methods to hold firms accountable when things go pear-shaped.

“In Canada, everybody just kind of runs away,” he said. “It hurts the industry, but most importantly, it’s a disservice to democracy.”

Others, such as Mr. Graves and Mr. MacKay, predict a return to old-school techniques such as door-to-door surveys, which they think could bolster polling’s legitimacy.