Owing to the absence of a scientific methodology, exit polls turning out to be as reliable as forecasts from the meteorological department.
For the Bihar State elections, back in November 2015, almost every exit poll predicted a comfortable victory for the NDA. Every news channel had panels of ‘experts’ pompously pontificating over these polls. Nitish Kumar was blamed for partnering with the ‘jungle raj’ tainted Laloo Yadav. Nitish was condemned for being arrogant, and breaking away from the NDA. Nitish was slammed for cosying up to activists instead not focusing on development. PM Modi was lauded for his prodigious campaigning skills and Amit Shah was extolled for being the master strategist.
When the vote count began the early trends had the NDA leading. The ‘experts’ regurgitated their previous proclamations, they lambasted Nitish Kumar and Laloo while they lavished blandishments on the dynamic duo Modi and Shah. While the syllables emanated from their oral orifices the tide was slowly turning; the Nitish-Laloo alliance began with a slim lead, in time the lead grew till Nitish and Laloo had enough seats to form a government in the state. The experts stepped in again. They lauded Nitish’s strong record on development and Laloo’s connection with his people. They slammed Modi’s braggadocio performance and Shah’s overconfidence. They concluded that the people always wanted Modi as PM but Nitish as CM.
What occurred after the recent Exit Polls for the Maharashtra and Haryana State elections may not have been as disgraceful but there certainly were similarities and the pompous pontificators of 2015 clearly have not learned their lesson.
This isn’t the first time and it most certainly won’t be the last time that polling agencies have got it so terribly wrong. The big question is why do these polling agencies commit catastrophic blunders and why do news channels continue to treat these exit polls with the utmost reverence and revelry?
We focus on the methodology of conducting these exit polls. The first step is sampling. Most agencies have demographic-based sampling on parameters such as age, sex, religion, income group, region, etc. The next step is the actual interaction immediately after the voters have exited their polling stations. The resulting information is compiled and extrapolated. All of the above-mentioned stages are replete with elements of randomness that present challenges and huge risks. It’s almost like the rolling of a dice.
Firstly, there is no prescribed optimum size for a sample that can be considered as an appropriate reflection of the entire vote base. The sample size is probably based on the time, budget and instinct of the polling agency. Secondly, the composition of the sample into demographic groups is deeply flawed. Just because you are from the same income group or age group or religious group or caste group or social group does not mean that the challenges you face are identical, that your outlook on life is identical and your ideological and political leanings are identical. Polling five hundred middle-aged Muslim men with a college degree who run small businesses do mean that you have captured the voting choice of five hundred thousand middle-aged Muslim men with a college degree who run small businesses.
The actual conducting of the interview may also be replete with challenges. The politics of an individual is deeply personal and sensitive. To question a stranger about their voting choice may either yield evasive answers or out of sheer politeness, an answer that they think the interviewer wants to hear or an answer rooted in perceived political correctness, in rare situations will the truth present itself? The politically charged atmosphere outside the polling agency or the fear that the information may be divulged and used for future reprisal may be contributing factors to the nature of the answers.
Also, to establish the facts, the interviewer will have to spend a great deal of time with the interviewee, perhaps ask specific questions related to key issues, know about their lives, their social and financial situation. Even if one does acquire a deep knowledge of the voter, it would be wrong to speculate. A voter may have suffered financially due to the slowdown in the economy but it would be wrong to conclude that it means he stops supporting the BJP. He may support the BJP because they are strong on national security. Most pollsters do not have the time and budget for that sort of focus.
Not conducting an interview face to face, perhaps doing it over the phone or online or a paper form presents its own risks.
Thus the core of the problem is the lack of scientific and statistical guidelines, methodological protocols, interviewing techniques and transparency. The fact that we have millions voting across deeply diverse states exacerbate the already existing challenges. This is probably why we can see starkly contradicting results from various Exit polls for the same election.
Now for the ‘experts’. These ‘experts’ are usually adroit wordsmiths and have been exposed to Indian politics for long periods of time, for them spinning a narrative is almost second nature. They can instantly supply you with ten strong reasons why any given political party will certainly be back in power and in a few minutes provide you ten strong reasons why the same political party will receive an emphatic drubbing at the polls. Even if they do visit certain bellwether constituencies and interact with some voters, they suffer from the same challenges that the polling agencies do. Then there are political leanings and personal bias. In the end, the opinion of the ‘expert’ maybe backed by years of experience, education, and research, but their opinion may be no different from anybody else with some basic understanding of politics.
But we are not the only ones who need to feel embarrassed, in recent times exit polls have got it disastrously wrong all over the world. If exit polls were to be believed, Brexit was never supposed to happen and Donald Trump was supposed to have no chance of becoming the forty-fifth President of The United States.
Like a broken clock that is always right twice a day, there will always be a group of pollsters who get it right and earn overnight credibility. This temporarily earned credibility will come crashing down after they commit some monumental but inevitable errors during the next elections.
Despite all the uncertainties and risks, exit polls are always broadcasted with great fanfare. They are widely discussed all over almost as if they are the real thing.
An elderly friend of mine who was celebrated for his wicked sense of humour, would pose this question to his doctor whenever he felt the treatment or tests prescribed seemed odd or gratuitous “Is this for me or for you?”. As consumers, we should also be asking this very question of our ratings hungry news broadcasters when they dedicate reams of news space to exit polls almost a day before the actual votes are counted.