Do opinion polls matter?
Posted on June 10th, 2024

Courtesy The Island

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The colossal failure of not a single opinion poll predicting accurately the result of the Indian parliamentary election, the greatest exercise in democracy in the world, raises the question whether the importance of opinion polls is vastly exaggerated. During elections two types of opinion polls are conducted; one based on intentions to vote, published during or before the campaign, often being not very accurate as these are subject to many variables but exit polls, done after the voting where a sample tally of how the voters actually voted, are mostly accurate. However, of the 15 exit polls published soon after all the votes were cast in the massive Indian election, 13 vastly overpredicted the number of seats Modi’s BJP led coalition NDA would obtain, some giving a figure as high as 400, the number Modi claimed he is aiming for. The other two polls grossly underestimated predicting a hung parliament. The actual result is that NDA passed the threshold of 272 comfortably, there being no landslide. BJP by itself was not able to cross the threshold, a significant setback for an overconfident Mody! Whether this would result in less excesses on the part of Modi, like Muslim-bashing, remains to be seen. Anyway, the statement issued by BJP that they would be investigating the reasons for failure rather than blaming the process speaks very highly of the maturity of the democratic process in India.

I was intrigued by this failure of opinion polls as this differs dramatically from opinion polls in the UK. I never failed to watch ‘Election night specials’ on BBC; as the Big Ben strikes ‘ten’ (In the UK polls close at 10pm} the anchor comes out with Exit polls predict that …” and the actual outcome is often almost as predicted. However, many a time opinion polls conducted during the campaign have got the predictions wrong. There are many explanations for this.

An opinion poll is defined as a research survey of public opinion from a particular sample, the origin of which can be traced back to the 1824 US presidential election, when two local newspapers in North Carolina and Delaware predicted the victory of Andrew Jackson but the sample was local. First national survey was done in 1916 by the magazine, Literary Digest, partly for circulation-raising, by mailing millions of postcards and counting the returns. Of course, this was not very scientific though it accurately predicted the election of Woodrow Wilson.

Since then, opinion polls have grown in extent and complexity with scientific methodology improving the outcome of predictions not only in elections but also in market research. As a result, some of these organisations have become big businesses. For instance, YouGov, an internet-based organisation co-founded by the Iraqi-born British politician Nadim Zahawi, based in London had a revenue of 258 million GBP in 2023.

In Sri Lanka, opinion polls seem to be conducted by only one organisation which, by itself, is a disadvantage, as pooled data from surveys conducted by many are more likely to reflect the true situation. Irrespective of the degree of accuracy, politicians seem to be dependent on the available data which lend explanations to the behaviour of some.

The Institute for Health Policy’s (IHP) Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey has been tracking the voting intentions for the likely candidates for the Presidential election. At one stage the NPP/JVP leader AKD was getting a figure over 50%. This together with some degree of international acceptance made the JVP behave as if they are already in power, leading to some incidents where their true colour was showing.

The comments made by a prominent member of the JVP who claimed that the JVP killed only the riff-raff, raised many questions, in addition to being a total insult to many innocents killed by them including my uncle. Do they have the authority to do so? Do extra-judicial killings continue to be JVP policy? Do they consider anyone who disagrees with them riff-raff? Will they kill them simply because they do not comply like one of my admired teachers, Dr Gladys Jayawardena who was considered riff-raff because she, as the Chairman of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation, arranged to buy drugs cheaper from India? Is it not the height of hypocrisy that AKD is now boasting of his ties to India?

Another big-wig comes with the grand idea of devolving law and order to village level. As stated very strongly, in the editorial Pledges and reality” (The Island, 20 May) is this what they intend to do: Have JVP kangaroo-courts!

Perhaps, as a result of these incidents AKD’s ratings has dropped to 39%, according to the IHP survey done in April, and Sajith Premadasa’s ratings have increased gradually to match that. Whilst they are level pegging Ranil is far behind at 13%. Is this the reason why Ranil is getting his acolytes to propagate the idea that the best for the country is to extend his tenure by a referendum? He forced the postponement of Local Governments elections by refusing to release funds but he cannot do so for the presidential election for constitutional reasons. He is now looking for loopholes. Has he considered the distinct possibility that the referendum to extend the life of the presidency and the parliament if lost, would double the expenditure?

Unfortunately, this has been an exercise in futility and it would not be surprising if the next survey shows Ranil’s chances dropping even further! Perhaps, the best option available to Ranil is to retire gracefully, taking credit for steadying the economy and saving the country from an anarchic invasion of the parliament, rather than to leave politics in disgrace by coming third in the presidential election. Unless, of course, he is convinced that opinion polls do not matter and what matters is the ballots in the box!

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