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Why the pollsters didn't get it right

Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman is photographed meeting and greeting people while campaigning at the corner of Dufferin St. and Bloor S.t West on Oct 5 2010. Smitherman is using an rv dur a 44 wards in four days blitz.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There are political victories. And then there are political victories that are called eight minutes after polls close, a week after headlines trumpet a "dead heat."

In the final weeks of the mayoral race, poll after poll put Rob Ford and George Smitherman in a dead heat, often within the margin of error as the two candidates duked it out on the street, on the subway and at one debate after another.

Even Mr. Ford's internal numbers, which his campaign team boasted had given him a far greater lead than any other tests of the public's pulse, showed that lead dramatically narrowing in the final month of the campaign. According to the campaign, a poll they conducted Oct. 18 to Oct. 22 showed Mr. Ford in the lead by about 9 percentage points among decided voters, significantly closer than a month earlier, when the campaign's internal polls showed Mr. Ford 23 percentage points ahead.

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But on election day, Mr. Ford garnered 47 per cent of the vote compared with Mr. Smitherman's 36 per cent. And 383,501 Torontonians voted for the Etobicoke councillor who campaigned for seven months.

On Tuesday, the city agape at his success, Mr. Ford said he's delighted and sleep-deprived, but not all that surprised.

"We knew we were doing very well. You don't want to fumble the ball when you're marching all the way down the field," he said. "A lot of people were supporting me, everywhere I was going. … Downtown, people said, 'You're going to get drubbed.' I thought we did pretty good."

So did the polls simply get it wrong, misreading the pulse of an angry electorate?

Pollsters would beg to differ.

"The results were indicative of what the polling showed in terms of the appetite for change," said pollster Nik Nanos, adding that while the company's latest poll for The Globe, CTV and CP24 showed Mr. Smitherman gaining on Mr. Ford, it put his support in the mid-40s (43.9 per cent, compared with Mr. Smitherman's 40.5 per cent).

"I think the polling did capture Ford's advantage - it was just how much of an advantage he would have. … What it didn't capture was the fluctuation in support in what I'll say is the non-Ford universe."

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Ryerson University politics professor Neil Thomlinson said the landslide for the Etobicoke councillor calls into question the way pundits and the media analyze polling data: Do you count everyone you phone up? Or only people who say they're "very likely" to vote? Do you rule out undecided voters altogether, or ask them where they're leaning?

"It doesn't seem to me that anybody quite got it right. And to me that either means your pollsters are not doing a good job - but I find that hard to believe - or it means that somebody's not doing a very good job of interpreting the information you've been given."

Whoever called it (or failed to), the sizable turnout and margin were because of the electoral machine Mr. Ford's campaign was able to mobilize. Thanks to months spent building telephone databases, they identified more than 140,000 people planning to vote for Mr. Ford - and made sure they got to the polls on election day to do so. The campaign had close to 4,000 volunteers, pounding pavement and knocking on doors across the city.

Perhaps most of all, however, they had a potent and simplistic message - and an angry one. Anger, as a powerful and motivating emotion is political gold when it comes to getting voters to the polls, always a challenge in a municipal race.

Put simply, Prof. Thomlinson says, "people who are mad are more likely to take action."

With a report from Kelly Grant

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