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The Magazine Of Queen's University

2019 Issue 1

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Nik Nanos calls elections with finesse

Nik Nanos calls elections with finesse

[photo of Nik Nanos]Nik Nanos started his first polling company
when he was a Queen's student.

In 2006, Nanos Research broke the Canadian record for the most accurate election call in history, predicting the result to a tenth of a percentage point for major parties. At the time, the firm held the public opinion research contract for CPAC, Canada’s Political Affairs channel. The profile and reputation of the company bloomed, leading to contracts with Osprey Media and the Rogers Radio Network.

In 2011, Nanos Research arrived on the big stage when one of canada’s biggest media organizations, CTVGlobemedia (now Bell Media), asked the company to become its official election pollster. Once again, Nanos Research produced the most accurate election call among the polling companies for the federal election this past May, predicting a Conservative majority.

Asked about how his company can make such accurate election calls, President and CEO Nikita (Nik) Nanos, Artsci’88, Artsci’89, EMBA’10, responds without hesitation: “It’s because of the values I learned at Queen’s.” He goes on to say, “As a politics student, I learned a deep sense of the importance of democratic dialogue from people like Professor [now Principal Emeritus] Ronald Watts. We spend a lot of time focusing on the research. we know that the size of the sample isn’t the only thing – the quality of the sample matters. Question wording and order are both critical, and it’s important to train your interviewers properly.”

In 1987, while still a student at Queen’s, Nik founded his first company, SES Research. The first public poll he conducted was for the 1988 federal election –- the so-called “free trade election”. MP Flora MacDonald, LLD’81, the local Progressive Conservative, was seeking re-election. “Flora was popular,” Nik recalls. “She was well-known and well-respected.” Yet, Nik’s polling numbers showed MacDonald was headed for a defeat against the Liberal candidate, an up-and-coming lawyer named Peter Milliken, Arts’68. “I remember my brother John’s black humour. As we sat down to watch the election results, he joked about that night possibly marking the end of the shortest career in public opinion polling’s history,” laughs Nik.

Then the numbers came in, and Nik, though he’d gone against public consensus, was right. Milliken was MP for Kingston and the Islands and would go on to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons until this year. “Looking back at it, what the popular wisdom didn’t take into account was the changing demographic of Kingston Township,” Nik says about the 1988 election. “Flora was well-liked, but the riding was changing.”

Today, Nik’s brother John, Artsci’92, is part of the busy Nanos Research team, as its senior Vice-President. Asked about the hectic schedule during this year’s five-week campaign period, Nik says, “the company was on a 21-hour work cycle, polling every single day of the campaign except for Good Friday and Easter Monday. We made our calls between 5 and 9 p.m. and we released the information at 7 a.m.” For Nik, “election time is much more intense. to give you an idea – we release one poll a month during usual circumstances. during the elections, that number becomes two polls a day.”

Hectic or not, Nanos Research manages to issue public opinion results that are above-average in their accuracy. Nik was highly influenced by his Queen’s experience when it comes to running his industry-leading business – both through his two Bachelor’s degrees, in Politics and History, and his MBA from the School of Business Executive Program. He’s also thankful for his time in Kingston. He fondly reflects on his campus years and the start-up years of SES Research. “Kingston really gave my company its start. We were based in Kingston in the Lasalle Mews until 1993, and I lived in an apartment above the Toucan. Kingston is such a welcoming incubator for a new company, and it was Kingston businesses that gave me my start.”

Nik’s work continues to evolve. He has recently been reappointed Associate Research Professor for another three years at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo campus, where he does work on understanding the bi-national relationship between the U.S. and Canada. His research focus is on the public’s views about crossing the border, business values in the two countries, and how citizens of each view cooperation on national security issues.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2011-3]