Conservative polling firm censured for campaign against Liberal MP

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's Montreal riding was the target of a phone campaign last fall in which constituents said …It's another black-eye for Canada's pollsters.

On Wednesday, the The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) announced that its Complaints Panel had imposed a "sanction of censure" upon a company with close ties to the Conservative party.

Campaign Research was called out for a 2011 misinformation campaign against Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.  The company is alleged to have telephoned Cotler's Mount Royal constituents and falsely suggested that the veteran MP was vacating his seat.

"The Complaints Panel has examined the information provided to the MRIA and concluded that Campaign Research has committed violations of the MRIA Code of Conduct and Good Practice that are more serious than a minor transgression," states the panel.

[ Related: Cotler calls prompt industry probe of Tory pollster ]

"Specifically, it is the opinion of the Complaints Panel that Campaign Research violated Principle 2 (Public Confidence), and Professional Responsibilities 1 and 6; and that its actions have likely diminished the confidence of the public in marketing research."

In its findings, the panel also referenced a December 2011 television interview in which Campaign Research principal Nick Kouvalis touted his company's 'Gold Seal' status with MRIA.

According to the National Post, in that same interview, Kouvalis boasted about his company's partisanship.

"We're in the business of getting Conservatives elected and ending Liberal careers," he said. "We're good at it."

The Post also reports that Campaign Research has since set up another legal entity — Campaign Support — to handle it's 'telemarketing' work.

Pollster David Coletto of Abacus Data believes that the censure was an appropriate measure.

"I think it shows that we take professional standards seriously and will call out our peers when we consider their methods inappropriate and not real research," he wrote in an email to Yahoo! Canada News.

A bad year for Canada's pollsters:

Throughout 2012, Canada's polling industry has had to deal with bad press and public backlash over blundered projections in both the Alberta and Quebec elections.

Ekos Research president Frank Graves says that it's been a tough year.

"No this hasn't been a banner year for Canadian pollsters . The only group who may have had a tougher time were Canadian mayors," he quipped in an email to Yahoo! Canada News.

"I think we need a more active third party monitoring of standards and performance...I believe that if polling loses sight of its unique historical foundations in science and probability theory, that this auction to the bottom will lead to [the industry's] ultimate irrelevance and demise."

Graves admits that there are issues with regard to declining response rates and 'statistical fluency', but says, ultimately, you get what you pay for.

"I believe that the current pollster media relationship is in disrepair and that resources for proper polling have evaporated," he said.

"One has to remember that the level of resources and activity devoted to polling in the USA is probably 50 times what it is in Canada.

[ Related: UVic professor claims voter suppression promoted at conservative campaign school ]

"At the end of the day you get what you pay for and in Canada that is next to nothing for media polling."

To be fair, as Graves noted in his email, the pollsters fared-well with their predictions in the provincial byelections in Ontario and in Monday's federal byelections.

But, unfortunately for Graves and his colleagues, stories about pollsters "ending Liberal careers" and blundered projections are always going to trump stories congratulating pollsters for their successes.