Political polls have had two critical misses this year. Firstly in the form of the UK exiting from the European Union. Then the election of Donald J Trump as the American president. In both cases, political polls leading up to the vote forecast the opposite result: that the UK would remain in the EU and that Hilary would trump Trump.
How did it happen that in these two very important, indeed historic votes, all the major polls managed to mess up so, so badly?
Poll taking is a science and not one that I am going to pretend I remotely understand. I do know that there are a lot of factors that come into play. The number of people questioned, the method by which people are questioned (over the phone versus in person), the willingness of the people being questioned to answer honestly, the wording of the questions being asked and any other events that are taking place at the time the poll is being conducted all come into play.
Getting any one of these elements wrong in a single poll can skew the results of that poll. I get that. But what I don’t get is how poll after poll after poll can each record very similar results (like Clinton consistent leading Trump both nationally as well as in key battlegrounds) and they’re all wrong! How on earth can almost every single major poll miss the mark like that?
That question will undoubtedly be debated for a long time to come. In the meantime, I have a simple proposition I’d like to offer – all political polls should be banned. After all, what real purpose do political polls serve?
In the two cases this year, they potentially had a detrimental effect in lulling the voting public into a sense of security. If the polls are all saying that something is going to happen, it reduces the motivation for people to go out and vote because they feel like their vote won’t count, with an outcome that is already seemingly predetermined.
And this is where the media role needs to be discussed and scrutinised as well. Why do the media give so much credence, credibility and air time to what we’re seeing is essentially a guessing game, albeit one with lots of figures and fancy looking graphics attached to it? Reporting on polls is about as newsworthy as reporting on what people post on their personal social media feeds.
Polls are not the miracle predictors of the future we’d like them to be. They could in fact be muddying the waters of actual public sentiment. If people feel they need to provide the politically correct or socially acceptable answers to pollsters, but then reveal their real (and different) thoughts in the privacy of the ballot box, polls lose all of their relevancy.
They’re irrelevant and in two very important decisions this year, they’ve inadvertently led to outcomes that have favoured those on the right, outcomes which seem increasingly anachronistic and misplaced in what I thought was becoming a more progressive world.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the world isn’t as progressive as I think it is. Maybe we should do some polling to find out? Oh wait, we do. It’s called a vote. And it’s the only poll that counts. So maybe we should just stick to that and ban all political polls from now on!