Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics; unoriginal and cliche, but so often true. None more so than when we forensically autopsy Opinion Polls. Despite predicting Brexit, Trump and our own 2016 General Election incorrectly, Polls are still afforded a undeserved gravitas. Today they are less of a weather vane of the electorate and more a tool of manipulation.
People who like to be seen as “Centrist” are led into the arms of the Poll topping Party. The warm embrace of the herd is an attractive lure to people who are generally too busy to give the talent pool of politics much thought. The consensus of a Poll can take the hassle out of voting.
For supporters of smaller parties or independents, Polls can act as a disincentive to vote. They’re reported in such a way as to tell an already disillusioned citizen that their views are in such a small minority that the very exercise of voting is futile. Pollsters constantly tell people, who are already on the fringes of society, that they don’t vote in enough numbers to change their lot in life. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of political stagnation.
Nervous politicians can cynically use Polls to gauge which manifesto promises they should make (only to break later) in the seat retention race. Polls can bring on Leadership Heaves against a Political Corpse, or they can placate restless backbenchers. Maybe it’s better the Cadaver you know?
Take this Irish Times poll for example. It shows Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, at 28% and 29% respectively, are electorally viewed as Fianna Gael. When Pat Leahy went on Newstalk Breakfast’s with the Messrs Coleman & Williams, to explain how Fianna Gael’s support plummets when you poll people aged between 18-35, the lads were aghast. Really?
Imagine scratching your head in disbelief at the idea that the generation hammered by the 2008 Crash and the Age of Austerity would have an aversion to the Parties that oversaw the entire period? The mind boggles that their mind is boggled.
However, it was in the (whisper it) rise in the poll of Sinn Fein, that things took a more sinister turn and subtle biases surfaced. To explain I digress, your patience please…
Between 1872-1874 over 3,700,000 Buffalo were killed. Of this gargantuan slaughter, only 150,000 were killed by Native American Indians, that’s a little over 4%. The rest were butchered by the White Man; so bad was it that “the stench of rotting carcasses fouled the very winds of the Plains.” The stench of death, 96% due to the White Man, was 100% attached to the Indians. The Indian savage narrative was a convenient shroud to hide the brutality of our civilised Whites.
In much the same way, Polls are used to civilise our electorate. In a brilliant piece of analysis, Padraig O’Mara showed how in the run up to General Election 2016, with polls showing Sinn Fein trending up, media biases became more pronounced. 1,150 articles were processed and fed through a sentiment analysis engine, analysed one by one to reveal that Sinn Fein received twice the negative coverage than the other parties.
For every 100 articles on Sinn Fein, 61 were negative, 21 were neutral and 18 were positive. For combined Fianna Gael it was 28.5 negative, 22.5 neutral and 49 were positive.
Remember, the Indians did 4% of the killing and got 100% of the blame. 4% is coincidentally the same number Sinn Fein were up in the Irish Times Poll. But rather than focus on the growth of a party of opposition, Pat Leahy quickly changed the narrative, saying Sinn Fein “tends to underperform the polls in elections”.
Neither Pat, Shane nor Paul dared acknowledge that Sinn Fein’s under-performance is part driven by media biases. That inconvenient truth doesn’t suit the cosy narrative of a civilised Fianna Gael versus a savage Opposition.
Discussing Polls exposes commentator’s (conscious or unconscious) biases. Media bubble world views explain away the trend of electorate polarisation, in trendy journalistic ways. In much the same way as the White Man explained away the extermination of the Buffalo as “the only way…to allow civilisation advance”, the Pollsters explain away large swaths of the electorate as stray Buffalo, which will be corralled back into the fold in time for Election Day.
Polls can be inaccurate, culturally biased and financially driven to deliver results more favourable to whomever is paying the bill. Yet we discuss them, parse them and take learnings from them. So much importance is given to Polls that I’d hazard a guess that they are given more airtime and ink than the Homelessness and Hospital Trolley Crises combined. In fact, forget guessing. Can I get a show of hands…?
Tony Groves March 2016