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Part I. The pre-problem stage of acid rain

By Sarah Stickland

The relationship between policy and public opinion has been studied for decades. Some social scientists argue that the public opinion shapes policy. While others argue that policy shapes the publics opinion.  I believe that it is situational, but there is always a small minority pushing for policy change.  When it comes to environmental policy, this is the case of a minority making a continuous effort, and eventually succeeding.  The minority become a majority when the society feels threatened and believes they can make a change. Anthony Downs describes this an issue-attention cycle.  We can see this cycle in Canadian policy and public opinion towards acid rain between the 1960s and 1990s.

The issue attention is a five stage cycle that the public goes through when determining the priority of their interest. The stages are pre-problem, alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm, realizing the cost of significant progress, gradual decline of intense public interest, and the post-problem stage. The pre-problem stage emerges when there are undesirable social conditions and the problem is typically at the worst point here. The second stage the public becomes aware and alarmed about the problem and wants to find a solution to the problem. However, the public then becomes discouraged or not interested in making scarifies to rectify to the problem. This leads to a gradual decline in the public’s interest in solving the problem or another problem enters stage two of the cycle and this problem is forgotten (Downs 2001, 39-41). 

Figure 1: Canadian public opinion on acid rain (1980-1993)

Acid rain according to Environment and Climate Change Canada is, acid deposition caused by sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that enter the atmosphere and become acidic when in contact with water. Acid rain affects water quality, air quality and is a part of climate change. 

The pre-problem stage was happening the in 1960s and 70s. The acidic levels the air and water were high. This was especially the case in Sudbury, Ontario because it had industries using sulphur in the production process. At the same time, there was a small minority that pressured the federal government to control pollution and ensure clean air and water. This is evident with public opinion polls conducted by Environics, Canadian Gallup Poll, and Decimal Quarterly between 1980 and 1990 asking Canadians their opinion towards acid rain (figure 1). 

The data illustrates that the public entered stage two of the issue attention cycle in the late 1980s. This makes it a case where the public adjusted its preference in reaction to policy changes (Soroka and Wlezien 2004, 532). We know this because industries and both Federal and Provincial governments were already starting to solve acid rain prior to the peak of the public’s concern. Part II will explain how the public entered into the second stage, the policies implemented, and what we learned from this case.

Municipal Election Predictions Evaluated

In the final post reflecting on the 2018 municipal elections, how the different surveys performed at predicting the elections will be explored. Between August and November 2018, 20 races were polled examining municipal races in Winnipeg, Toronto, Brampton, Hamilton, Waterloo Region and Vancouver. Forum Research, Mainstreet Research, and the Conestoga College Public Service Program each used Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology to conduct their surveys. While Research Co conducted an online survey and Probe Research Inc., conducted a CATI to web survey.

To evaluate the accuracy of each firm the poll conducted closest to the election for each race was compared it to the final results. Two questions were then asked:

  1. Did the poll accurately predict the winner of the election?
  2. How many candidates vote totals fell within the poll margin of error?

Some polls allowed for an ‘Other Candidate’ option, rather than listing all the candidates running. When this occurred the candidates not listed were collapsed into a single category for comparison purposes.  When examining question 1, the surveys did quite well with 15 of 17 elections using IVR successfully predicting the election winner. On question 2, results were not great. Only 50 of 103 individual candidates predicted vote totals fell within the margin of error at the 95% level.   

As mentioned the polls did well at predicting the winners. However, when examining the top two vote finisher in each race of the 17 races, 7 of the results were outside of the margin of error for both candidates. Conestoga’s poll for Kitchener Mayor, Forum’s poll for Toronto Mayor and the Mainstreet poll for Brampton Mayor all had the top two candidates fall within the margin of error at the 95% level. Most of the results outside of the margin of error were very close missing by only a few percentage points. Missing this closely could easily be the result of undecided voters breaking differently than those who had made up their mind or a result of people changing their mind.

When examining the results in greater detail only two polls incorrectly predicted the winner. Summarizing the results of each of the polls closest to the election are analyzed by the individual survey firm’s accuracy and average tracking error in the table below.  

Research Co conducted five polls related to Vancouver and Surrey British Columbia municipal election races. However, the Surrey poll did not explore the race for mayor, instead the poll gaged support for each candidate individually. It was therefore not possible to include the Surrey poll in our results. With respect to the five polls conducted for the municipal Vancouver race, when examining Research Co.’s final poll they identified the winner but only one of the top two candidates results fell within the margin of error.

Probe Research Inc. conducted two CATI to web polls for the Winnipeg Mayoral race that both identified the winner. Examining the final Probe poll they predicted the correct winner but were outside the margin of error for three of the eight candidates polled. Two additional candidates cited in the poll did not appear on the ballot on Election Day. It is worth noting that Probe’s poll was in the field a month before election day, which stands in contrasts to the Forum, Mainstreet, and Conestoga College polls which were conducted within a week of election day.

Overall the results of the surveys were a decent predictor of the actual election winners. We reviewed 17 IVR polls, a Cati to Web poll and an online poll.  In total 17 out of the 19 polls successfully predicted the winner. This is a good result, however, when examining the individual margins of error the results were not as strong. It is important to recognize that there are lots of reasons the results can be off by a little bit. These polls are snap shots in time taken before the election, meaning people can change their minds. The polls try and capture voters’ perceptions but it is possible the people who respond to the poll are not reflective of the people who will actually vote on Election Day. Overall, these polls provided a relatively accurate perception of the state of the races polled.

*This article has been update to correct the type of poll conducted by Probe and to note the date Probe’s polls were in the field