Spiral Of Silence: The ability of opinion polls to materially shape the outcome of elections is strongly indicated in the academic research. If the Election Night result suggests that our major polling agencies somehow got it wrong, a great many New Zealanders will have every right to feel extremely angry.
IT’S GOING TO BE one of the most interesting “results” on Election Night, and quite possibly one of the most devastating. How closely do the “snap-shots” taken by the major opinion polling agencies resemble the actual election outcome?
It will be interesting because for the past three years the conclusions of the major polling agencies (Colmar Brunton, Reid Research, Research International, DigiPol) have sharply contradicted the intuitive assessments of many ordinary voters. To these folk the idea that John Key’s government is supported by more than 50 percent of decided voters is ludicrous. Again and again, you will hear people say: “I simply don’t believe National is that high, or that Labour is that low.”
Not surprisingly, the academic experts in the field of statistical research have reacted rather condescendingly when confronted with this response. Their stock reply has been to invite the doubters to consider the historical evidence. And why not? Averaged out in the so-called poll-of-polls, the agencies’ final “snap-shots” of the electorate have consistently, and accurately, mirrored the actual election outcome.
There are a whole host of personal and ideological reason why people may not want to believe the poll results, say the experts, but that does not mean that they’re wrong.
But what if they are wrong?
Over the past week there have been at least three statistics-based depictions of the electorate’s political preferences.
The latest, from Research International, confirms the findings of the other major polling agencies. National rides high with 52 percent; Labour flounders at 26 percent; and the Greens, on 12 percent, continue their impressive upward climb. No other party comes even close to crossing the 5 percent MMP threshold.
A very different picture emerged from the second survey. Conducted by a trio of Weekend Herald journalists led by Simon Collins, it showed National on 43 percent, Labour on 31 percent, and the Greens on 14 percent. The sample amounted to just over 500 persons, and the interviews were conducted face-to-face on the streets of the nation. Collins and his team readily acknowledged that the sample was skewed in favour of younger voters and that this was likely to advantage Labour and the Greens.
But what about the major polling agencies’ reliance on telephone interviewing over land-lines? Doesn’t this skew their results in favour of mature, middle-class, settled suburban voters willing to talk to pollsters? And doesn’t that person sound a lot like your typical National Party voter?
Isn’t it possible that the methodologies of the major polling agencies are consistently over-stating the level of public support for the right-wing parties? Let us suppose for a moment that they are, or that it is, at the very least, a possibility. Is this possibility of disortion acknowledged by the newspapers and networks who commission these polls? Or does each media outlet report “their” poll’s findings without the slightest reference to potential methodological shortcomings or contradictory data?
Which brings us to the third survey, released on 2 November by Horizon Research Ltd. This poll, conducted within methodological parameters radically different from those employed by the majors, presents a dramatically different picture of the 2011 election campaign. In Horizon’s poll, National stood at 36 percent, Labour at 30 percent, the Greens at 14 percent, NZ First at 6.5 percent, the newly-formed Conservative Party on 4 percent, Act on 3 percent, Mana on 1.8 percent, the Maori Party on 1.2 percent and United Future on 0.8 percent.
If those numbers are accurate, then the NZ First Party and its leader, Winston Peters, will once again play the role of Kingmaker in post-election negotiations.
It’s right about here that things turn ugly.
Using the Colmar Brunton poll as their guide, TVNZ decided to exclude NZ First from the minor party debates. Other media outlets (including Radio New Zealand and Sky Television) have done the same. Indeed, the reporting of the entire election campaign is being shaped, to an unhealthy degree, upon data supplied almost exclusively by land-line telephone interviews. Not surprisingly, a National victory is taken for granted. Labour is painted as a party of losers. The Greens are said to be making impressive gains. And Winston Peters is dismissed as irrelevant.
Overwhelmingly, this is the picture of the campaign being presented to the electorate. It is, therefore, highly likely that a large number of voters have already succumbed to the psephological effect known as “TheSpiral of Silence”.
Now consider this counterfactual.
Imagine that the newspapers and broadcasting networks have based their coverage of the election on the Horizon poll. That all the talk has been about the “knife-edge” election. That Winston Peters has found himself and his party at the centre of media attention. Public engagement in the campaign has been considerably higher – and so has the turn-out on Election Day. In short, the Horizon-based picture of the contest has been dramatically more inclusive than the major agency-based picture.
Which brings us back to Election Night.
How devastated centre-left voters will feel, and how justifiably furious, if the actual voting statistics indicate that National’s support was grossly exaggerated, and that Labour has fared considerably better than all of the major polling agencies were suggesting. Imagine their anguish if NZ First, in spite of being almost entirely shut-out of the mainstream news media, wins 4.9 percent of the Party Vote. And if NZ First’s desperately narrow failure to crest the 5 percent threshold turns out to be the difference between a National-led and a Labour-led government.
If that is the way the numbers fall on Election Night, hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders will not only be perfectly entitled to say “bugger the pollsters”, but they will also be entirely justified in asserting that the election has been stolen from them by a news media which placed far too much faith in what has proved to be the major polling agencies flawed methodology.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.