Opinion Polls Cant Be Trusted: Theyre Too Easy To Manipulate

Politicians and political journalists become obsessed with tiny fluctuations in week to week or even daily opinion polls prior to and during an election. Some of them will misinterpret the poll results, often by mistake but sometimes with an intent to mislead.

Yes Minister BBC TV

The buzz around each pre-election poll is often empty and irrational. A standard opinion poll contains the primary vote, the satisfaction and dissatisfaction ratings, the preferred prime minister rating, and the two-party preferred vote (and there’s an endless debate about whether that should be based on a specific question or preference flows at past elections).

On top of that, there are issues questions and special polls in selected marginal seats. It’s a psychotropic smorgasbord. The results of each individual poll hardly ever run in one direction. Even when they do, they don’t do it for long. So if you don’t like one part of a poll – the two-party preferred tally, say – you just focus on another bit, such as the primary vote or the preferred prime minister rating.
The Age – Polls Mean Nothing Until Election Day

All pollsters when put on the spot will fall back on the old rule that a poll only measures public opinion, it does not predict it. Polls tell you what public opinion was, not what public opinion will be.
ABC Election Analyst Antony Green

There are several problems with using opinion polls such as small sample sizes or selective sample choice (eg: people with landline phone numbers but not those with only mobile phones) to extrapolate national trends and whether a party leader is doing well or badly.

Another example is push polling where the survey questions are carefully designed to prompt a specific answer.

Watch the video below or read the transcript to see an excellent example of this from the cult classic satirical BBC TV series Yes Prime Minister.

Opinion Polls: Getting The Results You Want

Bernard Woolley: “He thinks it’s a vote winner”

Sir Humphrey: “Ah, that’s more serious. Sit down. What makes him think that?”

Bernard Woolley: “Well the party have had an opinion poll done and it seems all the voters are in favour of bringing back National Service”

Sir Humphrey: “Well have another opinion poll done to show that they’re agaonst bringing back National Service.”

Bernard Woolley: “They can’t be for and against …”

Sir Humphrey: “Of course they can Bernard! Have you ever been surveyed?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes, but not me actually my house … Oh I see what you mean”

Sir Humphrey: “You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don’t want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Do you think they respond to a challenge?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?”

Bernard Woolley: “Oh…well, I suppose I might be.”

Sir Humphrey: “Yes or no?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can’t say no to that. So they don’t mention the first five questions and they publish the last one.”

Bernard Woolley: “Is that really what they do?”

Sir Humphrey: “Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren’t many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result.”

Bernard Woolley: “How?”

Sir Humphrey: “Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Are you worried about the growth of armaments?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?”

Bernard Woolley: “Yes”

Sir Humphrey: “There you are, you see Bernard. The perfect balanced sample.”

Yes Minister & Yes Prime Minister are both available for purchase on DVD from Amazon.com


One response to “Opinion Polls Cant Be Trusted: Theyre Too Easy To Manipulate”

  1. I agree.. very easily manipulated.. whoever is handling the polls can alter the outcome at any time.

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