Influence of political predictions: Cast a cold eye on opinion polls

DAVID CAMERON’S Tories confounded opinion pollsters when, last May, his party won a House of Commons majority by winning 6.5% more of the vote than even the most Conservative-friendly poll predicted. 

That result was so unexpected that an inquiry was held and one of the conclusions was that “herding” — groupthink among polling companies each trying not to seem out of step with the other — played a significant role. Some Labour supporters argued the inaccurate polling may have swayed the result by focussing on the prospect of a Labour coalition with Scottish nationalists — a version of the stability-or-chaos argument in play here.

Monday’s Iowa caucuses also showed that political polling, even if it is now part of the political process rather than commentary on it, is at best a finger held aloft to test the wind. Polls predicted that Donald Trump would get 28% but he managed just 24%. His rival Ted Cruz got 28%, four points more than expected, and pushed Trump into second place. The polls also suggested Hilary Clinton would get 45% and that Bernie Sanders would get 42%. Both got 50% and even though the difference between the predictions and the actuality was marginal it was decisive.

The epitaph of WB Yeats seems, once again, appropriate: “Cast a cold Eye On Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by!”

That might be a prudent attitude to take on opinion polls for the next while. In other words, make up your own mind.


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