Are Political Surveys Gospel Truth?

Maltese politics have become rightfully obsessed with published surveys and their resultant perambulations. Businesses and researchers across all industries and across the globe conduct surveys to unearth answers to specific, important questions. These questions are varied, cover a diverse range of topics, and can be asked in multiple formats. All professional surveys need to be professionally structured in order for the survey questions to project the following:

  • The main goal of the survey
  • How one plans to apply the survey data
  • The decisions one will make as a result of the survey data

Malta has quite a number of professional organisations and individuals which have, over the years, created a name for themselves in professionally generating accurate surveys and customer perception analysis. Politically, the Malta Today surveys and the Vince Marmara surveys have established themselves as icons of accuracy.

Professionally speaking, I have led my marketing and management consultancy organisation for these last twenty seven years. Naturally, we have been commissioned to conduct surveys of all sorts throughout the years, including political surveys. They have been diligently conducted both locally and in various other countries. As we speak, our staff are conducting two district-level political surveys. If done with the proper methodology and the proper mix, the results inevitably show the client a very precise snapshot of the prevailing targeted audience perception of the period in question.

I distinctly remember the 2008 general elections. My organisation was commissioned by the Sunday national newspaper ‘It-Torca’ to provide monthly national surveys which were systematically showing a slight but constant Labour lead. Three weeks before the elections, the surveys gave us a result showing the Nationalist Party, and the Nationalist Party Leader, slightly in the lead. These surveys all fell within the acceptable variable margin of error. But, if done properly, even the slightest fluctuation is properly picked up. The PN lead was again picked up by my team in the last week of the 2008 election. The Nationalist Party won with 49.33% to Labour’s 48.9%, a minute difference of 1,580 votes.

What are the 4 main reasons why businesses and researchers should conduct surveys?

Uncover the answers. In a non-intimidating survey environment, one will learn about what motivates survey respondents and what is important to them, and gather meaningful opinions, comments, and feedback. A non-intimidating survey environment is one that best suits the privacy needs of the survey respondent. Respondents are more likely to provide open and honest feedback in a more private survey method.

Evoke discussion. Survey respondents are given an opportunity to discuss important key topics. This allows you to dig deeper into your survey, and can incite topics related to your survey within a broader perspective.

Base decisions on objective information. Conducting surveys is an unbiased approach to decision-making. Don’t rely on “gut feelings” to make important business decisions. One can collect unbiased survey data and develop sensible decisions based on analysed results. By properly analysing results, one can address topics of importance, rather than waste time and valuable resources on areas of little or no concern.

Compare results. Surveys results provide a snapshot of the attitudes and behaviours – including thoughts, opinions, and comments – about the target survey population. This valuable feedback is one’s baseline to measure and establish a benchmark from which to compare results over time.

It is therefore safe to conclude that proper survey conducting is a precise science, not an art. It gives precise results and a precise snapshot in time if executed properly. The biggest challenge in a survey is what needs to be done with what are called ‘survey sinners’. The extent to which survey sinners are a problem for online research is difficult to measure. The validity of the data could be called into question as false and inaccurate responses could produce skewed statistical estimates and significantly damage the research.

A survey respondent panel normally estimates a 5% rate of poor-quality responses from the data they provide, though this is likely to be an underestimate, given that the data cleaning and identification of bad apples relies on the researchers to flag these to the provider. Luckily, there are a few tricks of the trade that can help to prevent false responses and weed out survey sinners from the data sample. But even mammoth political survey organisations in countries like the US sometimes fail to pick these up. The 2016 United States presidential election is referred to as a classic in this sense. Hillary Clinton led in almost every nation-wide and swing-state poll, albeit usually by relatively small margins. On Election Day, Donald Trump over-performed his polls, winning several key swing-states, while losing the popular vote by 2.87 million votes. Trump received the majority in the Electoral College and won upset victories in the pivotal Rust Belt region. Ultimately, Trump received 304 electoral votes and Clinton 227, as two faithless electors defected from Trump and five from Clinton.

So the answer to the title question is a qualified yes. Political surveys, if done with a proper scientific accuracy, are indeed gospel truth. But this does not mean that a survey result is a guarantee of an electoral result. Electorate attitude shifts are constant and fluctuate according to the perception of households across the nation. Additionally, a number of countries are experiencing political fatigue amongst its electorate. This means that whilst respondents have no issue in identifying themselves with a specific political party or its aims in a survey, on Election Day they simply do not bother – for a number of reasons – to turn up to vote. This is not yet a phenomenon which has been evident locally. For now. But it could very well be a future trend for an ever-increasing apathetic voter base. Both parties need to take this phenomenon seriously if we, as a nation, intend to carry on registering such high voter turnouts in elections.

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