Why Did the Polls Get it Wrong in 1992? Essay Paper

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Opinion polls play a major role in politics, they can be used by the Governmentto decide when to call and election, and, among other things, how their pre-election campaigns are run. Throughout the history of opinion polling, from thetime when polling began to be widely used before an election, in 1945, until1987, the last general election before 1992, the polls have on average beencorrect to within 1.
3% of the vote share between the three leading parties, andthe ‘other’ category (Crewe, 1992, p. 478). This puts all the previous opinionpolls well within the +/-3% margin of error. Because of the past accuracy ofopinion polling, the system has had great credibility and has always beentrusted, both by the public, and political parties. The way polling forecastscan affect the way people vote is very dramatic, this is because they can be a’self fulfilling prophecy’, in that some voters like to back the ‘winning team’,and others only vote for a party they feel has a real chance. This wasdemonstrated in 1983, when the Alliance, frustrated with the media concentratingonly on their position in the polls, leaked their own private polls to the press,resulting in a late surge of support (Crewe, 1992, p.
478). Britain generally has a much greater number of opinion polls carried out than inother countries, this is due to the large number of national newspapers, and theamount of current affairs programming on television. The period prior to the1992 general election saw a much greater intensity of opinion polling than everbefore. During the 29 days between the date of the announcement of the actualelection date, 11th March, and the election date itself, 9th April, there werea total of no less than 57 national opinion polls.
The 1992 election will always be remembered as the one the pollsters got wrong,during the lead up to the election, they almost all showed Labour ahead of theTories. Of the four polls carried out in the two days prior to the actualelection date, all of them pointed to a hung parliament; one put theConservatives 0. 5% ahead, one put Labour and the Tories neck and neck, the othertwo showed Labour ahead by a narrow margin (Crewe, 1992, p. 8). On the actualday of the election, exit polls carried out by the BBC and ITN both showed therewould be a hung parliament, although both of them had the Conservatives slightlyahead. They were both not far from the actual Conservative 43%, and Labour 35%,and if they had predicted using a uniform swing assumption, they would have beenvery close to the real result.
But they adjusted the figures as they weresuspicious of the results being so far out of line with the mornings polls. The polls were not up to their normally high closeness to the actual results forone, or both, of two very broad reasons. Firstly there must have been a lateswing of undecided voters to Conservative, or secondly, that the polls that werecarried out were all inaccurate, obviously for the same or similar reasons. Looking at the first explanation, the theory that there was a late swing of’undecided’ voters in the favour of the Tories, this would have meant that thepolling companies had all been correct at the time. But this, in itself, couldnot possibly have accounted for the incorrectness of the polls.
The swing wouldhave had to be in the order of 4%, which is unbelievably high. Although therewere an exceptional number of ‘undecideds’ on the eve of the election, and itwas evident from the post election recall surveys that there was a late swingtowards the Tories (Crewe, 1992, p. 485). Before we can look at the second explanation, that the polls were simply wrong,we should look at where the 1992 polls differed from the past, remarkablyaccurate polls. Polling practices had not changed much from previous years, norhad the style of the polling, the questions, samples, etc. One reason that hasbeen put forward is that the polls didn’t check that people were eligible tovote or not, this may have caused major discrepancies in the outcome of thepolls.
The reason this may have caused such a big problem is that a lot ofpeople may have taken part in opinion polls when they were not registered tovote, this is because they were avoiding having to pay poll tax. In general thepeople avoiding the poll tax in this way were Labour voters, which could explainwhy the forecast polls showed Labour in the lead. On the other hand some peoplemay have thought that simply paying their poll tax entitled them to vote, anddid not actually register. There were reports of dozens of people being turnedaway from polling stations, as they were not registered, this was especiallytrue at polling stations near council estates, again this is where there wouldbe a majority of Labour voters (Crewe, 1992, p. 487).
A Granada TV survey ofunregistered voters, found that of those interviewed, 42% would have votedLabour, compared to 21% Conservative. Some have said that another reason forthe polls inaccuracies was because they didn’t take into account overseas voters,but these are in negligible numbers (on average 50 per constituency, 0. 07% ofelectorate). Another good reason for the polls inaccuracies is that, as one columnist put it,we are becoming ‘a nation of liars’. This is because a lot of people simplylied to opinion pollsters.
It is believed the majority of those who did thiswere Conservative voters, who because of the ‘shame factor’ didn’t likeadmitting that they voted Tory. Also, there could have been a prominence ofConservative voters who didn’t want to divulge their vote to pollsters. Thesecould have accounted for up to 5% of voters (Crewe, 1992, p. 487). Also it isargued that some of the electorate taking part in opinion polls lied about theirvote to express their views on certain issues, but still wanting to vote for adifferent party; for example, a person who actually voted Tory could have toldopinion pollsters that they were going to vote for the Green Party because theyare concerned about ‘green’ issues.
This would, in theory, have caused theConservatives to worry about the popularity of the Green Party, and focus moreon environmental issues. This kind of thing would have affected the accuracy ofthe opinion polls. The fact that some Conservative voters would lie when faced with an opinionpollsters questions does still not explain away the fact that exit pollsunderestimated the actual Tory lead. This is because these were carried out bya secret ballot, so a ‘shameful’ Tory would not have had to tell of their voteface-to-face with someone.
So, the exit polls should have been far moreaccurate that the forecast polls. This discrepancy is possibly because the’exit’ polls were carried out at a selection of polling stations that did notreflect the nation properly as a whole. i. e.
there was a lower proportion ofcouncil tenants interviewed in exit polls than there are in the total electorate. In conclusion, I believe that the failure of the opinion polls to accuratelypredict the outcome of the election is a mixture of both a last-minute swing ofundecided voters towards the Conservatives, as was evident from very late polls,and follow-up surveys, and a systematic underestimation of the Conservative lead,due to the aforementioned ‘shame factor’; and also an overestimation of Laboursposition, due to the poll tax, as explained above. BibliographyBroughton, D. (1995), Public Opinion Polling and Politics in Britain, HarvesterWhitsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.
Coxall, B. & Robins, L. (1994), Contemporary British Politics (2nd Ed. ),Macmillan, London. Crewe, I.
(1992), ‘A Nation of Liars: opinion polls and the 1992 generalelection’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 45, pp. 475-495. Crewe, I. (1992), ‘Why did Labour lose (yet again)?’, Politics Review, Vol. 2,No.
1, pp. 8-9. Jones, B. & Kavanagh, D. (1994), British Politics Today (5th Ed. ), ManchesterUniversity Press, Manchester.
Ippolito, S. D. (1976), Public Opinion and Responsible Democracy, Prentice Hall,Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Category: History

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