NEWS19 July 2017

What next for pollsters?

Brexit News UK

UK – A debate on the future of polling following the General Election, held this morning in London, discussed the role of media and advertising in polling and elections. 

Poll crop

The BBC’s Justin Webb, who chaired the debate, held at ICM Unlimited’s London office, opened with the question of whether, given the inaccuracy of many of the polls in recent years, it was time to go back to an approach of "getting out there and talking to people, and working with ‘gut feel'?"

Martin Boon, director at ICM, opened by revealing that the raw poll data he was working with was actually correct; it was the technical adjustments applied to it that had created the inaccuracies. 

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, believed that part of the inaccuracy came from the fact that media (and polling) focus is often on certain group of voters who, while they are influential to the outcome, do not tell the whole story. For example, in the latest General Election, there was huge importance placed on students attending rallies supporting Jeremy Corbyn, but hardly any on over 65s who, while they traditionally voted Tory, would not turn out for Theresa May. 

"There’s a lack of focus on key areas and ‘over-focus’ on others," Lewis said. She also compared some political commentary to making a story out of figures produced from a random number generator. "Media commentary tends to fit into a number of well-worn tramlines; figures are interpreted to fit these."

There was also discussion on how the media is constantly under pressure to say something new, and so pick on figures emerging from polls that will paint a new picture. The other issue, said Anthony Wells, research director at YouGov, is that, while many journalists have a good understanding of the technical aspects of polls, they must keep explanations simple for the sake of readers, which can limit the type of information that pollsters are able to supply. 

Stephen Fisher, fellow and tutor in political sociology at Trinity College, Oxford, added that voters are behaving less predictably now because they are more volatile. It is particularly hard to account for people that are voting for the first time, he said.

Meanwhile Lewis described how she had followed all the major parties on social media in the run up to the General Election, in order to see what campaign messages were being served to supporters through these channels. As a result, she believes that there should be a centralised bank of promotional materials from all parties, so that the media and the general public can fully scrutinise what is being said. 

A question from the audience on whether a new, centrist party would have the potential to take votes from the major UK parties had the same response from both Boon and Wells – that while there was potential for this to happen, it would be almost impossible to predict using opinion polls. "When people are presented with a new option in a poll they'll often take it," said Wells. "But that doesn't necessarily reflect all the other factors that are considered when they're actually voting." 

At the end of the debate, discussion returned to the initial question of ‘what next?'

"I genuinely don't know," said Boon, who had earlier said that he may return to "more orthodox methods" next time around. 

Meanwhile Fisher said that there needed to be more understanding of the politically disengaged. "Pollsters focus too much on voters," he said.