The Question

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” So thought Marcus Aurelius. And others would have done well to heed his words as the commentariat breaks out in a fit of hysteria asking how the pollsters could have been so wrong about the results of recent elections.

First Israel, then the United Kingdom, now Poland, how could the pollsters have been so wrong, they shriek. Well, as Bill Clinton might have said, it depends what the definition of wrong is. They might not have been wrong at all.

There is no doubt that the methodology of polling is increasingly well developed and, in the normal course of events, one might expect a highly accurate snapshot of current voting intentions. Assuming that the sample size is sufficiently large to be statistically valid and that it accurately reflects the voting population broken down by age, sex, occupation, education, income, family, and so on, then it should produce an accurate picture. But, in these three elections cases, it appears not to have done. Why?

Put simply, either because folk did not tell the pollsters their true voting intentions or because they changed their minds on the day. The reasons for this probably varied from mischievousness to a reluctance to declare an intention to vote against the politically correct zeitgeist – which given, for example, the venom from the usual left wing suspects that has greeted the Conservative victory in the UK general election is hardly surprising. However, within the safety of the ballot booth, there was no need for such reticence with the final result: voters 1, pollsters 0.

Interestingly, in both the UK general election last Thursday and the first round of the Polish presidential election last Sunday, the exit polls were very accurate. Measuring what folk say they have actually done clearly produces a better result than trying to measure what they say they will do.

Does it matter? Not really. Which is not to say there weren’t some nasty surprises along the way. President Komorowski, of Civic Platform (PO), received 33.77 per cent of the votes in the first round just behind the 34.76 received by Andrzej Duda, of Law and Justice. Perhaps it might be Goodbye, Mr. President after all, since Komorowski had been the front runner up till now and, although his ratings have slipped considerably over the campaign, he was still ahead in the polls going into Sunday’s vote.

There are now two weeks until the second round run-off between these two and Komorowski has already garnered the public support of former president Alexander Kwaśniewski because “given Poland’s current international environment and the situation in our region, Poland needs above all experience and predictability”. The Polish People’s Party whose candidate managed a stunning 1.6 per cent of the vote on Sunday has also thrown its inconsiderable weight behind the president and, in case there was any doubt, the prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, said that “We guarantee that we will win in two weeks’ time.” Earlier polls had suggested that Komorowski would beat Duda in any run-off, so what could go possibly go wrong now?

And what of the candidate from Kwaśniewski’s party, Magdalena Ogórek? No doubt to the delight of the pulchritudophobic, she managed only 2.38 per cent of the vote. Clearly, when assessing her candidature, the former comrades – probably not the brightest in world, too much Marx (Karl not Groucho, alas) – seem to have taken the idiom “it’s got legs” rather too literally. Which is a pity, because while there’s no doubt about the legs, the campaign never seemed to take off.

Be that as it may, this poll shock should at least jolt PO, which has been in power in Poland since 2007, out of its complacency ahead of the elections this autumn. And, in a wider context, particularly in the UK, it would be a welcome development were these poll problems to cause politicians to engage more directly with the electorate, to listen to them and to act accordingly rather than relying on focus groups and polls to do their thinking for them.

Thus to the question how did the pollsters get it so wrong, the answer: they didn’t, folk simply chose to keep their true voting intentions to themselves. Or, as Sir Winston Churchill put it, “There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.”

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