Rubbish In, Rubbish Out: Put all this together, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that anyone who responds positively to a pollster’s request to “answer a few questions” is just ever-so-slightly weird. Desperately lonely? Some sort of psephological train-spotter? Political party member primed to skew the poll for or against her opponents? All of the above?
THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH about opinion polls is that the people who participate in them are not really typical Kiwis. Agreeing to participate in anything remotely public-spirited is something fewer and fewer New Zealanders are willing to do. Charities struggle to attract volunteers. Sports teams can’t get enough players. Political parties have long since ceased to be mass organisations. Just finding enough people to satisfy the statistical requirements for an accurate public opinion survey gets harder and harder with every passing year.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the era when nearly every New Zealand household had an old-fashioned land-line telephone; and the easiest way to locate somebody was to simply ‘look them up’ in the phonebook; polling was a breeze.
It was a time when community action and political debate was engaged in by an extremely broad cross-section of the population. Indeed, New Zealanders were gently chided by Austin Mitchell, the best-selling author of The Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise, for being inveterate committee formers. “Pressure groups” were studied forensically by political scientists. Overseas visitors marvelled at a nation of joiners.
The late Professor Keith Jackson, in his book New Zealand: Politics of Change, confirms the strongly participatory character of our democracy by citing the research of R.S. Milne:
“Membership of the New Zealand Labour Party which had peaked in the year 1939-40 at 235,605 remained high after the war at 201,765. By 1960, however, this figure was down to 180,000 distributed through more than 600 branches.”
National’s engagement with New Zealanders was no less impressive: “Much the same pattern appears to have developed within the National Party. Speaking in 1956 the President of the National Party claimed that membership varied from 143,000 in a non-election year to 250,000 in an election year.”
In a nation this politicised, the opinion polling companies of the 1960s and 70s easily assembled the requisite number of participants.
The contrast between those times and our own could hardly be sharper. Who uses the land-line-generated phone book anymore? Asked to do so, most younger Kiwis would probably look at you blankly. The ubiquitous cell-phone presents the pollsters with endless difficulties. There’s no “phone book” for a start, and caller ID allows us all to screen our incoming calls. Many people simply don’t answer unidentified callers – justifiably fearing tele-marketers and scammers.
These latter miscreants have become the bane of land-line subscribers’ lives. For many citizens – especially the elderly – it is considered foolhardy to converse with anyone whose voice isn’t instantly recognisable. Someone can say they’re calling from Colmar Brunton or Reid Research – but how do you know? Better to politely decline and hang-up the receiver.
Put all this together, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that anyone who responds positively to a pollster’s request to “answer a few questions” is just ever-so-slightly weird. Desperately lonely? Some sort of psephological train-spotter? Political party member primed to skew the poll for or against her opponents? All of the above?
These distorting possibilities are only increased when the fact that landlines tend to be attached to owner-occupied dwellings is factored into the polling equation. Just ask any Gen-Xer or Millennial what sort of person is likely to pick up the phone in their own home and they will hiss “Baby Boomer!” Quite correctly. Which way, do you suppose, a voter sitting on a million dollars-plus of tax-free capital gain is more likely to vote – Left or Right? No wonder, really, that about 45 percent of the Party Vote appears to be welded-on to the National Party!
So, what do the pollsters do? Basically, they innovate. They try to assemble a representative number of cell-phone-using voters to offset the encrusted biases of land-liners. Or, like the new kid on the New Zealand polling block – YouGov – they step away from phones altogether in favour of a “panel” of potential online participants many thousands strong.
Trouble is, these innovations require the pollsters to run the raw data through all manner of algorithms to make sure their samples remain representative. They then have to make some, frankly, subjective assumptions about voter behaviour. That’s when things can turn very seriously pear-shaped.
The highly-experienced pollster advising the campaigners for “Remain” in 2016 assumed those who didn’t vote in the 2015 UK General Election would also sit out the Brexit referendum.
That worked out well.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times of Friday, 6 December 2019.