Opinions polls skew voter perception
// Jonty Davies

John McCain was going to win the 2008 United States Presidential election. According to a USA Today public opinion poll published in September of 2008 (two months before the election), McCain carried 54 per cent of the vote, a considerable 10 points over his Democratic rival, current President Barack Obama. And if democracy in practice is just a big opinion poll then such speculations should be pretty accurate, right? Wrong.

As we should all know, you mustn’t believe everything you hear. Sadly such advice pertains not just to gossip columns and used car salesmen but also to the published and widely-circulated results of political public opinion polling. This polling is often seen as infallible, a reflection of how the public feels about potential leaders and more importantly, who gets elected.

As it is, the published results should be considered nothing more than unrealistic. Clear-cut, representative opinion polling is hindered by many simple realities: many groups aren't taken into account, and without universal standards, large media outlets creating the polls curb results to serve their own interests.

There are logistical considerations of a telephone- based system of polling centered around exclusion, and they apply to the notion of coverage error, meaning that a process is earning its results from a sample group rather than a population. For example, since a person may be charged for just answering a call to their mobile, unsolicited cell phone calls are limited and even unlawful to a certain degree. Many people today use cell phones exclusively and according to data compiled by the Centre for Disease Control, this usually applies to minorities and young voters in metropolitan areas, effectively hindering their voice and influence on any poll.

Perceived results can also be affected by response bias, which is characterized by the failure of polled individuals to accurately respond respective to their own beliefs. This is usually in a bid to alleviate social pressure on their true views which often involve racism, sexism, homophobia, and other archaic or unpopular axioms.

This is known as the “Bradley Effect”. Named for Tom Bradley, the long-time Los Angeles mayor who failed in a bid for the Governorship of California in 1982 (despite considerable opinion polling to suggest otherwise), the Bradley Effect is a theory that ties the inaccuracy of certain polling to the phenomenon of social desirability bias. That is, when Bradley (a black man) was defeated by George Deukmejian (a white man), the voting public feigned surprise at the unexpected but socially- comforting result, though they themselves had influenced the polls’ misrepresentation of support with their reticence to share their true views with the (anonymous) pollsters.

However, there is a much greater and harder to inherently prove issue: the ideological biases of the reporting bodies. A UCLA Political Science study published in 2005 delved into the realities of media institutions and their politics tying many major programs and publications to spectrum leanings. Outside affirming general political partiality, the study does little to reveal the deeper nature and intentions of publicized opinion polling.

Elections on any level are a hugely financial endeavour. Media relations with parties and candidates during election time are highly lucrative and stand to offer great levels of influence upon the voting public. It is asserted that opinion polls actually act as an instrument of manipulating public opinion. In our developed world of democracy we consider it a great blessing that we are entitled to shaping our world and leadership in our own way. Though many want to exercise this right, people often approach elections without proper education. To look at an opinion poll and be instantly educated is a very convenient insiders’ treatment.

The flaw and manipulation of public opinion polling reaches even deeper than that, though. At its heart, the question really becomes pertinent to who’s operating it: research costs money. Questions for the pollsters need to be drafted by someone. How is that person going to word their question? Even subconsciously, everyone maintains some sort of socio-political ideological persuasion, and it can be that such inclinations seep out into our outward states of mind whether we’re being asked questions or answering them.

So, be sure to be conscious and cautious of what you read, how it’s written, what you’re asked, and how it’s delivered. Most of all, when you’re giving your answers, be sure to always ask questions of your own.

//Jonty Davies, Advertising + Events Manager
//Illustration by Jason Jeon

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