General Elections always lead to an information overload. Vox pops, press briefings, media plants, op-eds, business letters – and of course, polls. Separating quality information from the noise is a part-time occupation in itself. Polling is often misunderstood, with commentators and analysts interpreting their results as a predicted outcome. Hence why the narrative has built after Brexit and Trump that ‘pollsters got it wrong’. A simple correct/incorrect prediction is easier to interpret than having to interpret varying margins of error and sampled weighting.
As a result, when polls are published there follows a process of manual correction: altering the way we perceive poll results based on what we ‘hear on the doorstep’ or ‘feel in our gut’. But when activists and political professionals spend their days and nights poring over policy and knocking on doors speaking to voters, should their insight be discounted? It brings a level of locality and personality to polling which, by its very nature, is anonymous and robotic.
Polling expert Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight) wrote a long obituary of the UK polling industry which may only be saved by luck in this election, and not design. With polls this week showing such a wide spread of predicted voting intention from a Conservative lead of 1 to 12 points, some pollsters will come out of the election feeling smug. Others will have egg on their face, staring down the barrel of another long period of tinkering with their models. Crucially, while the conventional wisdom remains confident that Theresa May’s Conservatives will win the election with (varying levels of) comfort, the conventional wisdom is almost always wrong: Remain, Clinton and Le Pen all underperformed their polling averages and levels of expectation based on what commentators ‘felt’.
After fine-tuning their models, this General Election probably came months if not years too soon for the pollsters. Those who find answers to the ‘Shy Tory’ phenomenon will have started at least to crack an age-old problem that has led to Conservatives outperforming their polls – David Cameron’s party beat their polls by an average of 6 points in 2015 and by a staggering 9 points in 1992 under John Major.
In some quarters, the death knell has been sounded for the polling industry in a General Election that has thrown up a level of volatility that both qualitative and quantitative analysts have struggled to understand. Candidates in numerous constituencies, having knocked on thousands of doors, report that “Brexit has changed everything.” Not only has the political mood of the country which polls attempt to chart changed, but perhaps with it the very terms on which the political debate is held.
In reality, while polling is undoubtedly suffering a reputational nadir, it will always be a necessity of elections. Quantifiable data adds a layer of reliability to the conversations we have on doorsteps and political instincts we feel in our guts. Polling may continue to undergo a period of reflection and renewal both during and after this election, but it will remain ever-present in plebiscites to come. Weathering an information overload, the polls are an essential barometer against which we measure our instincts – not the other way around.