As we spread the ambit of what factors impact the electoral environment and thus impinge on the credibility of elections, more and more attention has been paid to polling and pollsters. Indeed, a tremendous amount of research has gone into the impact of election polling on the electorate, though the results are still disputed.
Public opinion polls for election purposes, though controversial, are now considered a critical element of both media and political party coverage. Polls gauge campaigns and voter intentions. But quite frequently, pollsters are accused of using imperfect methodological tools and the results are often said to be manipulated. But by far, the most serious of the criticisms is that election polls interfere with democratic integrity by influencing voter decision.
However, pollsters often argue that polls sponsored by media houses merely provide uninformed citizens with cues that may aid them with their decisions. But uninformed citizens, the critics contend, typically lack the sophistication to judge the accuracy of the recommendations. And it is that fact, and therefore, the contamination effect of polls, which make them dangerous and so require the regulation of the business, as is currently in effect in several countries where polls are restricted from being published during campaigns.
In speaking of contamination, it is felt that the publication of a poll, especially on the eve of an election, gives an unfair advantage to parties or candidates whose fortunes can be interpreted as improving. Referred to as the ‘bandwagon effect’, it is felt that the information that a swing is likely may change voting intentions in favour of the more popular candidates or political parties. Thus, the bandwagon thesis anticipates that voters would desert what is tantamount to a “sinking ship” and move toward another with more realistic chances of winning an election.
There is, of course, the opposite view which, far from seeing a “bandwagon effect”, argues that polling can have the opposite impact – the “underdog effect”, where voters may rally to the anticipated loser in order to increase their competitiveness.
There is the third effect, that of demotivation or over-confidence where voters may simply abstain from voting because the polls have predicted defeat for their preferred candidate or alternatively, that the swing may be so great that the anticipated winners are invincible; hence, a few stay-at-homers may not have any significant impact on the outcome. I wonder how many elections have been won and lost because of these calculations based on strategically released polls!
Whether bandwagon or underdog effect, it is recognized that polling impacts the voter and it may not always be in the best interest of equity. In 38 countries, polling is banned in one form or another in the pre-election period. Consequently, in countries like Canada for instance, the Elections Act prohibits the broadcast, publication or dissemination of the results of new opinion surveys that would identify a political party or candidate in the final three days of an election campaign. That, of course, assumes that voters have not long made up their minds about who they will support. (See figure 1)
The World Association for Public Opinion Research (ESCOMAR and WAPOR) indicates that approximately half the 133 countries polled maintain pre-election blackout periods for poll publications. In 14 countries, the pre-election embargo period extends for over two weeks or more with Tunisia at five months. Once again, as in these election related matters, Latin America leads by example, with nearly every country in Central and South America implementing an embargo period, ranging from 36 hours (Guatemala) to 30 days (Honduras). ESCOMAR reports that Chile recently imposed a new poll blackout period of two weeks while El Salvador increased its blackout period by 14 days. This is in addition to the other requirements related to the dissemination of information (who commissioned the poll, the cost of the poll, and so on) and the registration of pollsters.
Several European countries have also regulated publication of polls. Italy, for example, has one of Europe’s strictest regimes and it is illegal to publish polls during the final two weeks before a vote whether an election or a referendum. But such regulation took place against the backdrop of the dominance of Silvio Berlusconi – media mogul turned politician, as Italian legislators feared he might use his three TV channels to skew public opinion for instance, by broadcasting misleading surveys.
But Cheryl Boudreau and Mathew D. McCubbins in a paper entitled The Blind Leading the Blind: Who Gets Polling Information and Does it Improve Decisions which was published in 2010, argued that polls can either alter voters’ candidate preferences or alternatively, their willingness to cast a ballot. In this case, critics of polling suggest that polls may have harmful effects as they can be manipulated by political elites and the media.
But there are those who argue that this is unhelpful based on the view that in order for polls to have an impact on the voter, three things must be at play:
1. voters must attend to published pre-election polls,
2. voters must accurately retain the results and
3. Voters must trust the credibility of such forecasts.
The latter is crucial and much has been said of the tendency of some pollsters operating on behalf of political parties to produce fake charts in order to attract money for campaign purposes. Polling can be an extremely lucrative enterprise in large States with multiple political parties and in such jurisdictions, States run the risk of many an unscrupulous individual or company entering that space. It is for that reason that there are calls for the registering of pollsters. On the other hand, there are those who argue that such an action would lead to a situation where pollsters will use their registration as a certificate of authenticity thereby muddying the waters even more.
The better known and most credible pollster in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean is Peter Wickham who has had a seemingly uncanny ability (maybe better methodological approach) to accurately predict winners and losers. This can be compared to others or at least one other polling organization which attempted to carve out a space for itself in the political market of polling but which, on its one and only excursion (I call it an excursion), was a dismal failure being completely off the mark with its prediction. Indeed, there were gross inaccuracies. I certainly find it very odd indeed that two polls can be conducted during the same time period, yet the results are vastly different as day is to night. What accounts for this? Could it be who pays the piper demands a certain result in order to influence the voters’ decision in a way that would be beneficial to them? This is certainly a relevant question and one which has occupied the minds of many election related scholars.
Some noted discrepancies may well be a direct result of a range of issues including the wording of the questions, the sample selected, questions asked, the length of the survey, the degree to which respondents are telling the truth, not to speak of the integrity of the interviewers and the preparedness and training.
And it is not always clear who pays for the polls and I suppose this is one of the concerns of persons who are troubled about the apparent lack of transparency and fairness in the political system. We know, of course, that media houses globally work with pollsters largely because public opinion poll results have become news in themselves. But in the same way that we need to know who provides political parties with finances, should we not always be informed about the financiers of the public opinion polls, especially when they occur during that narrow campaign period?
As far as I am aware, no one has yet tracked or research the bandwagon or underdog effect of polling in the Commonwealth Caribbean and so much is left to conjecture. But the increasing global trajectory is to regulate polls during the final phase of the electoral cycle. Beyond banning them during the immediate pre-poll day, one of the major tendencies is to call for the registration of pollsters. This has of course, not gone unchallenged as it is felt that such regulation would merely increase the number of pollsters and run the risk of unscrupulous individuals using their certification as a badge of authenticity to pass as qualified and ethnical pollsters.
Yes, polls have proven to be an important political tool; yes, there are genuine polls, credible polls, but at the same time, there are fake polls. We can rest a little easy in the full knowledge that fake polls produced regularly will not gain traction as pollsters must deliver on a consistent basis and trust must be generated over time if polls and pollsters are to gain the confidence of their target population.
That is what Peter Wickham, for instance, has been able to achieve whether or not we appreciate his political comments. Whether fake or genuine, polls do have an important psychological impact according to researchers, and consequently they can be great tools of manipulations. Should we be concerned? Why, yes of course. But is regulation by the EMBs necessary? I am not yet persuaded by either the egalitarians or the liberals.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)