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How should we treat and interpret poll results

By Bill White

Polls and polling always generate a lot of debate, including a fair amount of criticism, and our recent 'Big90' online poll was no different - no problem with that, that's par for the course.

However, it seems to me that most of the critics take poll results a lot more seriously than I do - and I work in the business for a living.

So how should we treat and interpret poll results? The key thing with polls is to view them in the round, taking into account all the other evidence and factors that are available at the time.

Merge the poll findings in with your own experience, read the poll reviews and commentaries, ask other people about the poll results - what do they think?, and do the poll results feel right to you?

There's nothing wrong with people making their own decision and rejecting poll findings, or more usually parts of poll results, and I do this all the time. Why? - usually because they don't sound right and don't fit-in with my own experience of the issue being researched. I work in the polling and market research business and therefore closely watch all polling across the world especially in the UK and US and there are plenty of polls and poll research that I disregard because they don't fit-in with what I feel is right.

NB That doesn't mean that I'm right - I could be wrong, and the poll could be right, but it's my decision (as it is your decision). Even Peter Kellner (YouGov President) said of their polls during the recent Labour party leadership contest that it was like "looking at a grainy black-and-white photo of the Grand National half way through the race". 

Mind you as I said in a previous article we still need polling for all sorts of reasons. For example, try to imagine last year's Scottish referendum campaign without polls?

Undoubtedly the trend was moving towards 'Yes' (i.e. to independence) in the 2-3 weeks before the referendum - everyone accepts that, and the polls at the time reflected this with the famous 'YouGov Sunday' poll on the 7th September 2014 showing Yes narrowly ahead.

This poll gave an enormous wakeup call to the No campaign to get their act together and we then had the intensive campaign from the big-name Westminster politicians offering more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

This worked, and No then pulled away in the last days of the campaign to score a narrow 55%/45% victory. However, If there hadn't been any polling, perhaps the Scottish people may have sleep-walked to a Yes vote?

With no polling there could have been complaints afterwards from people (e.g. 'Yes' voters), who perhaps only wanted to send a warning to Westminster, saying things like 'if only I had known the way it was going I wouldn't have voted Yes....', and maybe 'someone told me No was going to win easily so I voted Yes to stop No winning by too much - I never really wanted Yes to actually win', and so on.

Similarly maybe the YouGov poll, and other polls during the Labour Leadership contest showing Jeremy Corbyn well ahead, caused electors to reconsider supporting Corbyn, or maybe encouraged more Labour members to consider Corbyn as a serious candidate for their vote. Either way, the polls in the Labour leadership campaign certainly informed the debate, and on this occasion they turned out to be spot-on accurate.

A good example of how you should handle and interpret poll results was David Cameron's reaction to that famous (or infamous if you like) Scottish referendum 'YouGov Sunday' poll showing Yes slightly ahead. He was on the first plane to Scotland the next morning. But he didn't just decide to go to Scotland because of the poll.

The poll sparked an intensive debate in No. 10, and he consulted with the Scottish Conservatives, and his own advisors, who told him, Yes, this poll does reflect our experience, and it does feel right. It was then on the basis of this advice, and not just the poll, that caused Cameron to make his decision to go to Scotland immediately.

But note, it was the poll that sparked all the debate and lead to Cameron and the London political establishment to really become involved in the Scottish referendum debate. This is the way to use poll results, review them, have a think, get other opinions, read the poll reviews and commentaries in the press (NB not just the headlines!), and then make your own judgement.    

We have another referendum on the horizon with the forthcoming UK EU referendum, and there will be a huge amount of polling in Great Britain during the build-up to that referendum whenever that may be e.g. what are the key issues that people are thinking about in terms of the EU - is it immigration, jobs, the Euro etc.?, are young people more in favour of the EU than older people?, and on and on ... - Believe me the Great Britain polling research for the EU referendum will be big! Hopefully there'll also be similar poll research carried out directly here in NI, so we can also find out what the NI public really think about the EU.

Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk. 

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