They had an election in the United Kingdom yesterday, and the last polls before the votes were cast showed a narrow victory for David Cameron’s Conservative Party, but with far too few seats to form a government.
With 325 seats needed to govern, the Conservatives were projected to win no more than 278 compared to Ed Miliband’s Labor Party’s share of 267 seats. This would have meant a “hung parliament” with smaller parties scrambling to make deals in order to form a coalition government.
But something strange happened on the way to a gridlocked government: the Conservatives annihilated Labor and won an outright majority of 331 seats.
How could the polls have been so crazily wrong?
Nate Silver points out some other instances this year where the polls proved to be a joke:
Consider what are probably the four highest-profile elections of the past year, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. and U.K. media:
- The final polls showed a close result in the Scottish independence referendum, with the “no” side projected to win by just 2 to 3 percentage points. In fact, “no” won by almost 11 percentage points.
- Although polls correctly implied that Republicans were favored to win the Senate in the 2014 U.S. midterms, they nevertheless significantlyunderestimated the GOP’s performance. Republicans’ margins over Democrats were about 4 points better than the polls in the average Senate race.
- Pre-election polls badly underestimated Likud’s performance in the Israeli legislative elections earlier this year, projecting the party to about 22 seats in the Knesset when it in fact won 30. (Exit polls on election night weren’t very good either.)
Is it a coincidence that the parties in all three nations that have bee massively undercounted are conservative? Or are there other, more technical explanations that show what’s happening?
Perhaps it’s just been a run of bad luck. But there are lots of reasons to worry about the state of the polling industry. Voters are becoming harder to contact, especially on landline telephones. Online polls have become commonplace, but some eschew probability sampling, historically the bedrock of polling methodology. And in the U.S., some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys, “herding” toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently. There may be more difficult times ahead for the polling industry.
Pollsters cooking the books? Say it ain’t so. “False consensus” or not, I think there’s something else entirely different at work here:
Mr. Korteweg attributed the pollster’s failings in this latest election to the fact that voters often give socially desired responses during polling, only to behave differently when they vote. “People say who they are voting for with their heart and then vote with their wallets,” he said.
Liberals and the media have been so wildly successful in demonizing conservatives — including Netanyahu in Israel, Cameron in Great Britain, and Republicans in the U.S. — that voters responding to these surveys don’t want the person on the other end of the phone to think them out of touch, or worse, intolerant and evil. Hence, the phenomenon known as “shy conservatives” — voters who tell pollsters what they think they want to hear and then go and vote their true interests.
Pollsters are doing a lot of navel gazing today, and who can blame them. But I don’t think they’ll find the answer by trying to come up with new and better ways to poll people with cell phones. The problem is existential and out of their hands. The more desperate the left and their media allies get — the more anxious they are about the prospects for electoral success of liberal and labor parties around the world — the harder they try to demonize the opposition. The armies of shamers and smear merchants on social media are only the tip of the iceberg. Delegitimizing not only the policies, but the people who oppose them is just about all they have left.
So, “shy” or not, conservatism would appear to be on the rise in the world. Meanwhile, from now on, polls should be released with a message 14 points high in great, big, black letters: