Categorized | Europe, UK News, US, World

The Problem with Polling

Image by US Mission Geneva

By Daniel Shaw and Claire Elliott

Political polls are making a fast comeback after failing to correctly predict either Brexit or the election of Donald Trump.  Following the highpoint of Nate Silver’s flawless prediction of Obama’s 2008 victory, these embarrassing failures blew up in the face of both polling companies and liberal orthodoxy.  These failures were caused by several problems; unrepresentative samples, wide margins of error, an increasing over-reliance on internet based polls and the possible tendency of people to lie about voting for extreme or populist candidates. Despite the money spent on polling and the sophistication of the methods used, the end results are still often unreliable and inaccurate.

These problems with political polling have become more than just an embarrassment for pollsters themselves, they have started to affect politics in a number of deeply damaging and corrosive ways.

When voters’ faith in polls is let down, it can have huge consequences for not only domestic politics but also for international organisations and alliances. Although the margin of error has to be taken into account, there is evidence that enough Brexit voters regret their vote to swing the result of 2016’s referendum. Polls in the long run-up to the vote showed a comfortable lead for the Remain campaign, although this lead did begin to close closer to referendum day. Analysis from the British Election Survey shows that the less a Leave voter expected the Leave campaign to actually win, the more likely they were to regret their vote. This indicates that at least a proportion of these Leave votes were motivated by the belief that it was a safe protest vote. When looking at an election which appears to be a foregone conclusion many voters might feel safe in casting an anti-establishment protest vote, without fully buying into the consequences of that position or candidate emerging victorious. There is something worrying and almost undemocratic about the votes of the electorate becoming divorced from the consequences of those votes. The fault for this does not entirely rest on the polls. The readiness of voters to use their votes in this way shows a sharp disconnect between mainstream parties and the people they purport to represent. There is not enough evidence to suggest conclusively that this is the cause of the Brexit vote. Indeed, the vast majority of Leave voters both knew what they were voting for and believed in it. However, this does indicate a serious problem with the often blind faith placed in polls by the public and the media.

Beyond the sharp example of the fraught EU referendum, there is a long-running issue with politicians’ use of opinion polls. As Gerald Ford’s advisor Douglas Bailey famously complained;

“It’s no longer necessary for a political candidate to guess what an audience thinks. He can [find out] with a nightly tracking poll. So it’s no longer likely that political leaders are going to lead. Instead, they’re going to follow.”

It might not seem like the worst thing in the world to have an elite which is often seen as unresponsive and unconcerned actually respond to the desires of their constituents. However, this runs up against the aforementioned problems with the accuracy and reliability of polls. Furthermore, if this is to be the way in which politics is conducted it would surely be better to have it codified into a robust system of direct democracy, rather than an ad-hoc system based on chasing tracker polls. This natural desire to be listened to always contrasts with the desire for a strong and principled government which makes decisions based on evidence and long-term planning. These contrasting desires represent a paradox at the heart of representative government which has been exacerbated, but not caused, by the desire of politicians to follow fleeting and often deceptive polls. New Labour was well known for using both polls and focus groups to inform political decisions, and this tendency formed a large part of what has come to be known as ‘spin’. While this was hugely successful at the time, it has arguably contributed to a more cynical relationship between politicians and the electorate.

The downsides of excessive polling, and excessive faith in the power of polls, has been crystallised in the current UK general election campaign. Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap election, after promising not to, a decision surely due in large part to her and her party’s dominant position in the polls. The strong Conservative poll position relative to Labour means that the Tory party has been playing it safe so far, revealing little about their future plans and providing only cliches such as “strong and stable leadership” and “Brexit means Brexit”. May is currently producing what is likely to be a policy light manifesto, allowing her future government to govern based on polling and convenience rather than promises. Faced with an election full of trite tautologies the British press has instead gleefully fallen upon the polls as their best source of a story, with papers pouring over Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s atrocious poll ratings and any signs of a comeback as if these were stories in and of themselves. A look at Britain’s newspapers during this election will see a myopic focus on the destruction of Labour and UKIP overshadowing policy announcements and speeches. This may change with the publication of party manifestos, but that remains to be seen. This has left substantive talk of either policy or principle to the wayside, and this can only be bad for democracy.

This is not to say that polls are useless. They are a valuable tool for political scientists, politicians and the public. However, the current focus on polls reveals that they are not a tool being used to improve democracy. Rather, they are a misused and misunderstood crutch for the media and political leaders.

Image courtesy of US Mission Geneva

Claire Elliott and Daniel Shaw are incoming Masters students in Political Science at the Central European University. 


About Daniel Shaw

Daniel Shaw graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Politics, and has worked as a researcher in the public sector. He currently lives in Shanghai, where he struggles artlessly to learn Chinese. On dark stormy nights he writes horror stories and in the clear light of day he writes about politics. He is hoping to study for a PhD in Global Security.

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