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By Joel Liburd

“A public opinion poll is no substitute for thought.”

        American entrepreneur, Warren Buffet

The quote above from Warren Buffet exemplifies exactly why pollsters are making a killing in recent times when an election is called. Polling is a methodology employed by social scientists to understand trends and behaviours. Scholars have spent decades perfecting it as a scientific tool to understanding social phenomena. From Jurgen Habermas and his theory of the Public Sphere, to James Halloran and his research on multimodal communication, polling data has become an increasingly valuable commodity, ironically for a purpose for which it was not intended. Influence.

 ‘Tis the season where politics meets politricks and where gimmickry melds with “gimme-gimme.” Alas, elections are nigh. But apart from the regular expectations of campaigning, canvassing and complaining, the atmosphere is one that nurtures another facet of the process of democracy. The polls.

Kittitians especially have had it up to *here* with polls and surveys. In the beginning, many subscribed out of sheer curiosity, or were pleased to be the respectful centre of a stranger’s attention for a few minutes. After a while, it just got silly. Many persons refuse to be polled, either out of fear of exposing their innermost feelings and opinions, or caution that there may be repercussions for their thoughts. It’s the fundamental reason why democratic elections usually employ the “secret ballot” method, to protect the voters’ opinion and decisions.

It means being able to interact comfortably with persons who hold opposing philosophical and political views, at least, until the next campaign season arrives.

Polling is not an easy task. To get a measurable snapshot of a population’s views means designing questions that are easy, and not intimidating; being short, but concise; and most importantly, trying to ask key questions in different ways, to avoid bias or prejudice by the survey participant. Polls need to be tested rigorously internally, to ensure that credible and verifiable data can be extracted, and that the necessary adjustments can be made before the poll is finally distributed.

Distribution brings its own set of headaches. The biggest one is sampling. Since it is impossible to survey an entire population – especially multiple times – pollsters stick to a manageable number of responses (or representative sample) in order to extrapolate data to paint a picture of a community. But sampling has its inherent issues. Most people are familiar with “random sampling” as is used in the game show, Family Feud. However, political polling has nothing to do with the types of questions that Steve Harvey asks. As a political tool, a randomly sampled poll is arguably quite flawed… some respondents might be party sycophants and slant their answers either all to the left or all to the right. Others may not intend to vote, and so add unnecessary data to the result. Some folks may not even be eligible to vote and will answer questions haphazardly, to simply give a response.

More appropriate methodologies tend to employ techniques that incorporate stratified or purposive sampling methods in order to hone in on the particular topic or effect being examined. This creates the foundation for more credible data… asking actual registered voters – away from party-centric geographical locations – their thoughts as they mull their decision.

Apart from the survey tool, there is the human element – that bias that determines who the interviewer approaches and who accepts the interviewer’s approach. Even from that initial contact, bias plays a massive role, and can skew even the greatest error of margin as personal preferences and prejudices come into play for both parties involved in the exercise.

The poll agent will obviously have their personal views on the topic being examined, and because of mere human nature, these views can be projected subconsciously by body language and inflections of voice while administering the survey questions.

That’s one of the key reasons why there has been a boom in online survey services – to remove the element of human bias. But this comes at the great cost of a trained pollster not being able to read the body language of the interviewee.

It is well known that unless you’re in China, North Korea, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Iran or the Republic of Congo (and the likes), leaders change. When a democratic nation goes to the polls (except in the cases of proportional representation), it’s a first-past-the-post race. What is also very established is that most of these types of democracies are largely two-party systems.

So if there are two major parties, let’s presume largely splitting the populations evenly, then how does the administration change? Simple. The swing vote. This is the Holy Grail for pollsters… identifying these voters and giving them every reason to turn them favourably on Election Day.     

These voters are usually educated or experienced enough to disregard the electoral manna flowing from politicians’ campaigning lips. They look, listen and think. Some voters even make up their minds while walking to the polling station. Some have a last look at the ballot sheet and then make the crucial decision. This points to fact that political parties can – and do – take their base supporters for granted, and that the focus is always on getting the swing vote your way, which begets the lofty promises, baby-kissing and the overwhelming amount of grassroots public appearances in the run-up to the big day. (To be continued)

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