Opinion polls have shaped the news almost since they began attempting to take the popular pulse, and have proven at best unreliable on numerous occasions since then. A grinning Harry Truman holding aloft The Chicago Tribune’s erroneous front page screaming “Dewey defeats Truman” on the morning after his poll-defying 1948 re-election remains the most iconic image of polling inaccuracy. Countless other examples have followed, some more dramatic than others, from the surprise Tory triumphs of 1970 and 1992 to Ronald Reagan’s unexpectedly comprehensive trouncing of Jimmy Carter in the Iran hostage dominated election of 1980. Most recently, of course, the whole polling profession has taken a pasting in the UK following their collective failure to predict David Cameron’s shock majority win in May 2015.
The UK Polling Council’s post-mortem on the May fiasco was published last month, and Radio 4 have just finished analysing where things went wrong. Their conclusions were troubling for the industry, aside from a plethora of cheap online polls undermining its credibility, it seems to be getting harder to accurately poll representative samples. Online polls are inherently self-selecting whilst the more reliable telephone polling is becoming increasingly difficult. Many houses no longer have a landline, or if they do, the owners often ignore the ringing phone unless they are expecting a call, similarly most of us don’t answer our mobile if we don’t know the number.
Yet, despite this recent negative exposure, opinion polls are still shaping the political landscape in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. In America Donald Trump’s total domination of the news media for months has been driven by opinion polls, which at least in Iowa, seem to have significantly overstated his support. His poll-driven pre-eminence is significantly influencing people’s perceptions of the current Republican party and maybe even the outcome of November’s general election, regardless of the who the Republican nominee is. In September last year in Australia, where polls shape the news like nowhere else, 30 lost Newspolls in a row was explicitly stated by Malcolm Turnbull as a principle reason for his successful defenestration of Tony Abbott. Meanwhile, in the UK, polling on the EU referendum question has been in the news for months and will only rise in importance.
Given what we know about the problems with modern polling the ability of inaccurate polls to influence politics and political decision-making is troubling, perhaps the most striking recent example being the rogue Yes lead in the Scottish referendum campaign and the subsequent greater devolution commitments rushed out by UK party leaders. The ideal of course would be for issues, not polls, to be top of the news, but even the way issues are presented by politicians are often influenced by private focus group polling. There is nothing wrong with that, ideas need testing and consulting on, but when politicians decide they only want to take popular decisions it leads to poorer government and we all lose out. So the old cliché that there’s only one poll that counts remains as untrue as when it was first uttered, opinion polls are here to stay, and getting them right is as imperative as ever. Yet, if politicians can be persuaded to avoid poll obsession and to have the courage of their convictions in a representative democracy our politics will be the richer for it.