Rob Ford

Why Rob Ford hasn't won the mayoral race just yet

As many Torontonians already know, according to the most recent Nanos poll, Rob Ford has a substantial lead in Toronto's mayoral race. But living in the U.S. during the 2008 presidential race taught me that all is not always what it seems in the exciting world of polling. Nate Silver - my favourite living statistician cum political blogger - predicted the outcome of the primary races with accuracy that earned him a place on Time Magazine's list of The World's 100 Most Influential People. What's more, his predictions often beat pollsters to the punch. How'd he do it? He used the magic of statistics!

I don't claim to be Toronto's Nate Silver, but I can bring some perspective to poll results that may have many of my citizens-in-spirit feeling downtrodden.

Polls don't catch everyone. Of course they don't! Polls take a sample of people and ask them what they think. Then, inferring from the answers provided by sampled respondents, pollsters make conclusion about the population-at-large.

Looking at the numbers, at least one trend is obvious. Of Nanos's 1012 respondents, 558 were over 50 years old and 320 of those were over 60. Does this sample accurately represent the demographic makeup of Toronto's voters? Will half the voters in the election be over 50? It's difficult to provide an answer to this question with any certainty (Toronto doesn't seem to keep easy-to-access stats on the demographics of its municipal elections), but it does seem very unlikely seeing as only about one quarter of Canadians are over 50. For over-50's to constitute half the voting population, they would have to come out in droves compared to younger voters.

How else does the sample compare to real life Toronto? Well, 740 of the 1012 respondents own homes compared to 249 renters. Two hundred and ninety-seven have "no strong allegiance," politically speaking. And 360 live in Toronto-proper (compared to 136, 279 and 246 in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough, respectively). Again, I don't want to testify to how representative this sample is. But it is something to consider when pondering the fate of the city. If the sample tends to miss certain people systematically (i.e. young, renting, downtowners), and if those people will tend to vote for Not Rob Ford, then the poll numbers will miss the picture. Or at least draw it funny.

Now, don't get too excited, Ford-haters. The poll suggested that Ford has a solid 18 point lead over Smitherman; a lead that big probably can't be explained away on account of demographic imbalance. But under-sampling of Ford non-supporters may cause polls to vastly overestimate Ford's lead, meaning that all is not lost. Maybe someone will drop out of the race! Maybe Ford will make some political blunder, leaving his marginal supporters reeling in the wake of his buffoonery! Or maybe, at least, it won't be a landslide.

Writing by Lauren Jones.

Photo by Tomasz Bugajski.

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