<p>Brendan Tam warns us about the peril of polls and populism. </p>
In the contemporary political climate, it seems as though pundits have become incapable of giving their analysis without reference to opinion polls. The poll-mania that has gripped the chattering classes has only become more fervent in recent years, despite growing concern over the reliability of polling methodology. This is unfortunately a global phenomenon and is now adversely affecting the public discourse surrounding politics. What is even more worrying is the way in which polls affect the politicians themselves who increasingly rely on polling to chart the popularity of their policy offerings – and thus their likelihood of re-election – in real time.
The flaws of polling methodology are numerous. For one, in most countries voting is optional, meaning that many of the people polled may not cast a vote on election day. Furthermore, pollsters continue to rely on outdated methods of data collection such as calling landlines, which skews the data by failing to include all demographics. Lastly there is the Bradley Effect, which is essentially the theory that many of those polled will not reveal their true intention to vote for a socially undesirable party or candidate. Thus it is no surprise that expert pollsters in the US, such as Nate Silver, were proven wrong in their initial claims that Donald Trump had no chance of winning the Republican Presidential nomination. Their faith in the science of polling led them to believe that certain demographics would not vote for Trump based on historical trends and yet they are now having to face the reality that their assumptions were off-base and their modelling severely limited.
The truth is, as the 2015 UK election proved, there is only one poll that matters: the one that is held on election day. The media and political pundits had predicted a Conservative defeat or at least a minority government as the Conservatives had failed to win an opinion poll in five years. Yet, against such low expectations, they won a majority government for the first time in over two decades. In part this is because the Conservative Party, under campaign director Sir Lynton Crosby, wisely chose to ignore opinion polls. Instead they remained consistent in governing and arguing for policies that they believed were best for Britain. This platform was validated by their resounding victory and should be viewed by the political class as an indication of why opinion polls should not be the sole guide of their actions.
Unfortunately, in Australia it has become de riguer for political parties on both sides of the spectrum to install and remove leaders based on their relative standing in opinion polls – a major factor that lead to the 2013 ousting of Labour, whose “faceless men” could not stay their wandering eyes when it came to choosing the country’s Prime Minister. Unlike the British Conservative party, the Australian Liberal party too has failed to be cautious of polls and have instead become beholden to them, as seen with the downfall of Tony Abbott. Throughout his reign the media coverage contextualised the performance of the Abbott Government by reference to his poor showings in the opinion polls and little else. This has had an impact on the Malcolm Turnbull regime which seems paralysed to promote policies that may not hold universal public approval. The recent abandonment of GST reform, in part due to opinion polls showing a lack of support for the policy, is evidence of the crippling effects of polls – evidence only compounded by the farcical situation at present, in which the Labour opposition has announced more policies than the ruling Coalition government.
These are just a few of the many instances of politicians being held at the mercy of polls that are widely known to be inaccurate. Political skittishness over momentary unpopularity has led to the adoption of a more populist rhetoric by many would-be leaders, such as we hear from both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US, in an effort to gain and maintain a favourable position in the polls. This fear of making decisions that may impact poll numbers has effectively crippled any coherent and decisive decision making. This is the peril of poll mania.