Data to Decision Making: Strategic Voting in Renfrew County

Uncategorized Sep 14, 2021

Numbers are powerful. In my Management Statistics course and my General Data Management class, I always emphasize that we are not just learning statistics. We are learning how to turn data into information and information into good decision-making. 

An election is the perfect time to put this premise to the test, especially in the era of strategic voting.

I live in the riding of Renfrew- Nipissing -Pembroke. To demonstrate to my summer students that collecting good data is the real challenge and the key to good decision-making, we ran a poll. A week later we all regretted this decision but here we are with a deeper understanding of polling vs projections and how to make use of our first-year university statistics.

When looking at riding specific projections, such as 338Canada, it is important to understand the method behind them. These are projections based on national polling and historic voting patterns. They do not account for microtrends and they are not the result of polling the riding specifically. Polling, especially when collecting more information than a simple “who do you intend to vote for?” is prohibitively expensive to collect and analyze.

My students often ask me, well why do I need to calculate minimum required sample size? Or why can’t we just figure this out with market research? For some first-hand experience we tackled polling Renfrew County.


The Data 

We called 1,645 residents and of those 672 responded to our poll. We collected basic demographic information (age and gender), whether that person voted in the 2019 federal election, their voting intention for the 2021 federal election, and the importance of a handful of issues. We got yelled at a lot but also had some lovely interactions. Bev from Arnprior was our favorite. She offered up her favourite soup recipe when she was worried we hadn't eaten dinner. 

With approximately 85,800 eligible voters in our riding, our goal was to achieve a statistically significant result for each age category. This would allow us to determine voting intentions for each age group and adjust our results to be representative of the whole riding. 


 The Information 

Most of our results aligned with our expectations with the exception of the youth vote. A testament to the campaign being run by NDP candidate Jodie Primeau, we saw 62% of the 18- to 24-year-old group and 55% of the 25- to 34-year-old group intending to vote NDP. These age groups ranked climate change and access to housing as their most critical election issues.

On the other side, we saw 67% and 68% voters 55 and older leaning towards Conservative candidate and 20 year MP, Cheryl Gallant.

 If the same people who voted in 2019 are the only ones to vote in 2021, this riding is going to re-elect Cheryl Gallant. That is unfortunate given that she supports conversion therapy and limiting women's health options, and also pushes crazy conspiracy theories. Our polling results, when adjusted to match the actual demographic breakdown of the riding show Gallant with 56.8% of the vote. 

But there is magic in numbers and understanding those numbers.

If we look at all voters, not just likely voters, what we see is Gallant with only 46.7% of the vote, a difference of 10 points. And all because of who might show up on election day. 

So we broke it down even further. What would it take for the NDP candidate, Primeau, to unseat Gallant? We focused on Primeau given her second place standing.

It is not enough to rock the vote with an uprising of youth voters. Primeau will have to flip votes. From our analysis, looking at likely voters, Primeau will need to flip approximately 5800 votes from blue to orange and activate 2000 new youth votes. This is based on the voter turnout of 65% Renfrew County saw in the last federal election. The more people who vote from the under 55 age group the less blue votes that need to be flipped.


 The Decision 

 Far too often, the decision most people make at election time is around strategic voting. We have witnessed a national trend of voting to keep someone out versus for the candidate of our choice. These same factors are at play locally. We found that the majority of conservative voters were motivated by not having a Liberal government.

The Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke Riding has been a strong hold of the Conservative party of Canada for 20 years. But there are several issues at play which complicate this election and make it dangerous to look at historical trends to predict the future.

The surge in NDP support among younger voters is certainly motivated by issues of climate change and housing, but it is also the direct result of a strong local campaign. Jodie Primeau, the NDP candidate, is running a tight campaign with the strongest ground game anyone has put up against Gallant in 20 years. When speaking with younger voters they were able to name her daughter, knew her platform and her role as a lawyer in Deep River. This was not something we saw for other candidates. This type of following reminded us of AOC.

On the other end of the spectrum, Gallant is losing her extreme right following. The Conservative party has muzzled Gallant to stop her from making absurd comments, which might be good for the party as a whole but it's hurting her locally. Abortion, the COVID-19 vaccine and guns are critical issues here. Many far-right voters are now turning to the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) for redemption. 

Why is this important? The 2016 U.S. presidential election taught us the errors in polling. It is now well established that many people did not want to admit they were going to vote for Trump when asked on a polling call (our method of data collection), which significantly skewed polling results that saw the Democratic candidate in the lead. The same is likely true in Renfrew. We believe that the projected 10.1/8.1 (likely/all) points for PPC is understated. 

The PPC is polling at 8% nationally which likely gives them 12% or more here in Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke. Where are those votes coming from? It's not red or orange voters jumping over. It's blue moving further right. 

Voters in Renfrew are faced with a decision to keep Gallant or try something new. Through this exercise we have come to understand how incredibly different the priorities of women vs men and youth vs 55+ actually are. We have come to understand that seeing a national poll used to make local projections can cause people to stay home on election day or change their vote entirely. Most of all my students now appreciate the work that goes into data collection as we all try to make the best decision with the information we have available.


For full results please contact [email protected] 


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