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Opinion Polls

Do polls capture public opinion or manufacture it?

Jing Guo's picture

Proud Iraqi Women Vote in NasiriyahIn 2012, U.S. Gallup polls predicted that Mitt Romney would beat Obama in the presidential election with a slight edge in public support. More recently, in 2015, public opinion surveys in Turkey predicted only trivial gains in vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during the country’s November general election.
 
In both cases, the polls missed the mark. President Obama blindsided Romney, winning a second term by five percentage points—a result even Romney’s own polling experts did not see coming. Turkey’s AKP won back its parliamentary majority with 49.5% of the vote and an unexpected 8.5% rise in public support, a rebound even the best polling companies in the country had barely foreseen.   
 
Inaccurate poll results are not rare nowadays. An increasing number of disproven poll predictions, particularly in the context of elections, fuels the growing scrutiny over political polls. Cliff Zukin, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Rutgers and past president of American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) said in his article for the New York Times, “election polling is in near crisis.”

Is polling facing some major challenges? And what are they?

Quote of the Week: Shimon Peres

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“Polls are like perfume: nice to smell, dangerous to swallow.”

- Shimon Peres, a Polish-born Israeli statesman who served as both Prime Minister of Israel from 1984-86 and 1995-96 and as President of Israel from 2007 to 2014.  In 1993, Peres was serving as the Israeli foreign minister when he and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin helped negotiate a peace accord with Yāsir ʿArafāt, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  The three were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994 for the peace talks which produced the Oslo Accords.
 

Voices of the Hungry; Killer Indicators, and How to Measure the Social Determinants of Health. New thinking on Measurement with Gallup Inc.

Duncan Green's picture

About once a year, I head off for the plush, Thames-side offices of Gallup Inc, for a fascinating update on what they’re up to on development-related topics. In terms of measurement, they often seem way ahead of the aid people, for example, developing a rigorous annual measurement of well-being across 147 countries. Not quite sure why they talk to me – maybe as part of the wilder shores of their business development – they know they won’t get much business out of it, but some useful ideas might come out of the discussion. This time, Katherine Trebeck, Oxfam’s wellbeing guru (only she prefers to call it ‘collective prosperity’ for some reason) and developer of the Humankind Index, was there too, which added some actual knowledge to our side of the exchange.

First up was Gallup’s partnership with the FAO on their ‘Voices of the Hungry’ project, aimed in part at correcting the alarming weakness of the numbers on hunger (see Richard King’s 2011 post on that). After pilots in Angola, Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger, in part supported by the Government of Belgium, FAO has now got DFID funding to go global, initially for two years. Through ‘Voices of the Hungry’, FAO has developed the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), modelled on the 15-item Latin American and Caribbean Food Security Scale. This uses interviews to place people along a spectrum from worried about food to seriously hungry.

Measuring Public Opinion in Challenging Contexts

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

As we have discussed in other blog posts, public opinion is particularly important in countries with weak institutions of governance and accountability. Especially in fragile and conflict states, it can lend legitimacy to the government, help creating a national identity, and support governance reform. Unfortunately, public opinion is particularly hard to measure in those societies where it could be most important.

What the Public Would Want If It Knew Better

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

We have often moaned about opinion polls and their limited value on this blog. You know, those things where people get asked about their favorite toothpaste and that gets sold as public opinion? The question, of course, is how to do it better. Public opinion is an intricate phenomenon. We don't really know how to define the public to begin with, let alone how to figure out their opinion.

There's been a great model around since the mid 90s: Deliberative Polling. Introduced by James Fishkin, Deliberative Polls are designed to "show what the public would think about the issues, if it thought more earnestly and had more information about them,” to provide a “glimpse of the hypothetical public” (Luskin, Fishkin, and Jowell, 2002). It works like this: