The Pollster's election

Over the past few months people who couldn’t name the state capital of Texas have been able to tell me the daily tracking of CNN’s state-wide numbers

Pollster's election
Dylan Sharpe
On 7 November 2012 12:41

Politicos like to give big elections culturally-significant prefixes.

Barack Obama's win in 2008 was dubbed the 'Facebook election', after the President harnessed the social media platform for donations and ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) in a manner that was genuinely innovative at the time.

Britain's 2010 general election - taking its cue from the US - was dubbed the first 'Twitter election'. This time because it was the first general election to have its key events play out in real-time, instead of everyone having to wait until the World at One to hear which candidate had gaffed.

And for 2012? Early shouts for the 'Twitter election’ (again) and ‘The broadcast election’ are ok, but I don’t think they fully capture the defining element of this year’s contest. I therefore propose that USA 2012 was the pollster’s election; the first vote that became subsumed by speculation - not of the candidates or policies - but of who was up, who was down and which self-appointed Nostradamus was the one to trust.

Mine is an admittedly Anglo-centric view, but over the past few months people who couldn’t name the state capital of Texas have been able to tell me the daily tracking of CNN’s state-wide numbers. Foreign-sounding names like Rasmussen, Gravis and Gallup have slipped into the lexicon like text-speak.

The candidates have been lambasted for lacking specific economic policies, by commentators who spend 90% of their articles analysing the significance of the latest data from Miami-Dade County.

This poll obsession reached its zenith with the deification/attempted destruction of Nate Silver - the former baseball statistician whose metric for analysing the polls had shown consistent leads for Obama, even when the President was slipping. As the 2012 election reached its denouement, Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog suddenly started accruing more media coverage than Mitt Romney, with Democrat defenders and Republican hitmen filing in to say that Nate was either a meritorious mathematician or a heart-bleeding liberal schmuck.

Once one pollster had been called into question, suddenly all polls were up for debate, and campaign chiefs duked it out on primetime over whether one side was being oversampled or another underrepresented.

Fortunately in the UK we are lucky enough to have some superb pollsters who, even if they have expressed a political preference, are easily able to defend their polling if questioned. From YouGov’s Peter Kellner and Anthony Wells, to Andrew Hawkins at ComRes and Ben Page at Ipsos MORI, to new entrant Lord Ashcroft and the politicalbetting website- if you want to get the state of play in the UK, you needn’t check with your local party to see if the poll in question is slanted.   

I have been involved in two votes in which polling became the topic of a media cycle. I still remember on Boris’s 2008 London Mayoral campaign being sent a press release from the Ken campaign complaining that the polls produced by YouGov were biased towards Tory voters. When Election Day rolled around, YouGov’s final poll got the result spot on.

Similarly during the AV referendum, as the ‘No’ vote started to creep inexorably upwards, the Yes campaign began to whine that the polls were asking the wrong question, and we know how that one ended.

There is an abiding truth in elections – the campaign that’s first to start questioning the polls is usually the one losing. So it proved last night.

Dylan Sharpe is a political PR consultant. He was the Head of Press on the No to AV campaign and a press officer on Boris Johnson’s 2008 campaign. Tweets at @dylsharpe

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