Polls apart

Why do the pollsters get it so wrong?

In the 2016 US election, the polls showed Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning. Polls in the recent Australian election had Labor certain to win. Brexit polls showed that Remainers outnumbered Leavers by a large margin. Going back as far as 1987, in the British election, the polls assured everyone of a Labour victory.

None of these polls were correct. Not even close.

After the 1987 British election, the media developed the concept of ‘shy Tories’, claiming that voters claimed they were going to vote for Labour, but in the end voted for Margaret Thatcher because they truly thought that she was doing a good job with the economy. The veracity and reliability of polling has gone downhill ever since.

It is not hard to believe the ‘shy Tories’ theory when it came to the election of Donald Trump. People got attacked in the street for wearing a MAGA cap. American democrats love their minorities, but if you are a black Trump supporter, you are treated like a leper. And therein lies the problem that cannot be ignored. You have privacy and anonymity in the polling booth, but if you are responding to a phone poll or even an online one, your details may be available. That may be worrying for some people. These days, with attacks on people with even moderately conservative views, no one wants to stick their head above the parapet. So if they are conservative and are subject to a poll, no one says you have to tell the truth, right?

All of which indicates that polling is probably a complete waste of time. There are many people with conservative views in the world, including young people. If they are afraid to tell anyone of their beliefs, that is entirely understandable. It is so much easier to say they are going to vote for the nice people on the left… and no one will ever know about the little white lie they just told over the phone.

There is a perception that the politicians on the left are the caring ones… the ones, in New Zealand anyway, that are ‘bringing kindness back’, as if it ever went away. Conservatives are mean, nasty ugly people who eat babies and ruin their own children’s future. You only have to look at the writings of Bernard Hickey to see that attitude at the fore. But Hickey writes his opinion pieces to make money, including beating up on baby boomers, and his articles have no credibility in the real world. That does not stop people with conservative views from reading what he says and withdrawing further into their shell.

Here is the problem for pollsters. The media in all western countries are heavily left leaning. Those who do not agree often find themselves out of favour. How can pollsters expect a reliable response when their paymasters, the media, beat up on conservatives day after day?

It is worse than that. I have never been called to take part in a phone poll, but online polls frequently have their questions deliberately slanted so that you cannot give an answer that truly reflects your views. This means that online polls may be deliberately designed to give the results they want, and there are rumours that political organisations get their members to fill out some of these polls repeatedly, to skew the results. Whether or not that is true, I really don’t know, but there are similar rumours that phone polls deliberately target a demographic where they are most likely to find voters that will give the answers they want. Again, I don’t know if this is true, yet these suggestions have been discussed on the radio in the last 24 hours… so this is a current, rather than a past perception.

All I know is that polling reached a new low on Sunday night when TVNZ and Newshub both produced political polls, ostensibly covering mostly the same time period, but the results were vastly different. TVNZ had National on 44% and Labour on 42%. Newshub had Labour on 50.8% and National on 37.4%

Listening to Talkback Radio on Monday, nobody believes that Labour is on 50.8%… not even journalists who generally favour the current government.

My personal opinion is that the media use polls to try to influence the way people think and the way they vote. If the US election, and more recently the Australian election, are anything to go by, this tactic is not working. All they are achieving is getting people to lie to them.

That’s a great way to get reliable polls, isn’t it?