Pollsters or Astrologists? The Social Role of Opinion Polls in Politics

Over the past year, many unforeseen things happened in politics. Brexit and the election of Trump seemed impossible up until the very moment they happened. Dino Amenduni of Proforma speak to Ben Page, Nando Pagnoncelli and Paola Tommasi about the role of opinion polls in these events. Are polls still an effective tool to describe reality? Why should politicians trust the polls?

Nando Pagnoncelli, president of Ipsos Italy, believes that it still makes sense to use polls because they help us forecast the future. The public should understand, however, that social research and market research are very different. When measuring customer satisfaction, for example, it does not make that big of a difference if it is 67% or 70%. The company will be happy with both. In politics, however, 3% can make an enormous difference. It could even mean the disappearance of a certain party. Furthermore, the expectations are different. Both the media and politicians are interested in finding out how political campaigns may turn out, but the relation between the public and politics has changed greatly. The public is not as engaged as it once was; sometimes they don’t even know when they are supposed to vote. If a large part of the population only starts thinking about elections at the very last minute, there is no way opinion polls can be perfectly accurate. Furthermore, people are fighting against opinion polls by basing their vote on the polls.

Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos Mori, reminds the audience of the fact that opinion polls are actually mostly accurate. The opinion polls in the USA, for example, had predicted that Clinton would win by 3 points. In the end, she did end up winning the popular vote. However, the polls had not foreseen Trump winning in several key states. In the UK, the final opinion poll on Brexit had 51% for leave. The biggest problem with polls is that they are very dependent on the turnout. Furthermore, there is a swing towards the status quo and an under-representation of the disengaged. In order for journalists and the public to understand better the margin of error and uncertainty involved with polling, pollsters need to keep explaining probability and the amount of subjective judgement that goes into it.

Paolo Tommasi of Forza Italia explains that Donald Trump was quite snobbish towards the polls because they were all against him, especially in Europe. The polls that said Trump would win were not published here. Therefore, Trump had to be a very flexible and pragmatic person who used his own polls and methods. Firstly, he built a direct relationship with the people by going around the country and speaking to them. He based his agenda and the topics of his speeches on these conversations. Secondly, he built a database, which Tommasi admits was a bit questionable privacy wise. For each voter, Trump knew where they lived, the place they voted, whether they went to church, whether they voted in the last elections, etcetera. Based on this, Trump selected the places he would visit on his campaign and which topics he would discuss. He organised this data independently, without the help of pollsters. He did have help from a company called Cambridge Analytica, which also worked with Nigel Farage on the Brexit campaign.

To conclude, Pagnoncelli states that we should ponder the expectations that the media have of polls. Often, the media force pollsters to provide them with an estimate when things are very uncertain. For example, when Balotelli transferred to AC Milan, the media asked pollsters to tell them what the effect of this would be on the elections. However, voters are not Pavlov’s dogs. Therefore, both pollsters and the media should take responsibility. Pollsters should not provide media with uncertain estimates, and the media should not distort the polls. People who carry out opinion polls should refrain from interacting too much with the media and just focus on figures and numbers. Polls may be the worst possible way of predicting the, but they are still the most objective way compared to all other methods.

Aster Dieleman