Why are we such polls apart?14-11-2016
If the EU Referendum result has taught the voters of the United Kingdom anything, it is not to take much notice of the so-called political insiders and media analysts, with their brightly coloured, hi-tech graphics and hourly election poll trackers.
That is probably why, in the recent US Presidential Election, the battle-hard British public were slightly reticent to take heed of the many ‘experts’ who confidently suggested the American voters would, with pen in hand in the polling stations, support the pollsters’ data and vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton over her Republican opponent, Donald Trump.
Whatever your political opinion about America’s new President Elect, the one thing Donald Trump did, in fact, say with a great deal of aplomb, was not to take notice of the opinion polls. Trump was right; there was one clear loser in the presidential elections, and that was the US polling. On the morning of Election Day, RealClearPolitics showed Clinton ahead of Trump by 3.3 percentage points nationally. The New York Times’ own forecast tool, Upshot, gave Clinton an 85 per cent chance of victory. These very expensive predictors were devastatingly wrong.
Echoes of the past
In our very own 2015 General Election, nobody could predict the landslide in favour of a Conservative government. The journalist and political commentator, Peter Kellner, until recently president of polling giant YouGov, hypothesised after the election that ‘when people answer a poll they are expressing an attitude, when they mark a ballot paper they are making a choice’. What Kellner was saying, was that there were many voters who had an anti-Tory attitude, believing the party to be out of touch and only for the richer classes, and much more preferring of Labour’s values. These anti-Tory/pro-Labour voters, however, did not like Ed Miliband and were fearful of how Labour would handle the economy – the so-called ‘shy Tory’ vote.
Could these flawed number crunchers even threaten our democracy?
Not long after the 2015 election, Lord Foulkes tabled a private member’s bill for a state-appointed regulator to control opinion polls. The multi-million-pound polling industry is currently only loosely regulated and its failure to predict the 2015 results was shocking. Not only were the opinion polls wrong, but some felt they could have greatly influenced the nature of the political campaigns and even the election outcome.
It is clear the many different polls are skewed; they are failing to capture something fundamental in voter behaviour. This could possibly be undecided or hidden shy votes. Recent events have proven, once again, that polls are not in any way scientific and are crucially weak in the way they collect and interpret the raw data on which they rely. Most importantly, not only can they provide us with shockingly inaccurate information, they can also inadvertently manipulate our voting behaviours and so even potentially compromise our democracy.
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