The public has a bit of a cultural schism about elections. Everyone says they want more diversity of candidates but an actual primary race is a sign of weakness. In the United States of America, Democrats are trumpeting the fact that they picked their candidate for 2016 back in 2013 and ridiculing Republicans because they have a dozen contenders. And we are told that if polls are too accurate, people will not bother to vote, but if they are not accurately predicting the winner of an election that has not occurred, it is a failure.
In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the results were so predictable a European betting organization got every U.S. state correct. No one deviated from expectations. But in the 2015 U.K. election, the media had been trumpeting a giant defeat for conservatives and polling agreed. In Israel, the same situation. In both cases, media outlets were wrong and they blamed polls.
What if media, sending out poll results without any of the skepticism they would about any other political claim, had not been so wrong? It is established that polling forecasts can actually bias the electoral results themselves. If they were off by a little, perhaps the results would have changed by a lot without media parroting polls.
Professor Lionel Page from QUT's Queensland Behavioural Economics Group says a recent study of how exit polling influenced French elections, published in the European Economic Review, could provide answers.
"We found that the precise exit polls released in mainland France in the 2002 presidential elections influenced voters casting their vote French territories in later time zones around the world," he said. "When the exit polls were released at 8 PM on election day in France, it was only 2 PM in Guadalupe and 9 AM in Tahiti which meant these voters knew the result of the election in mainland France before they had voted. France then changed the law in 2007 so that voting in its territories closed one day before the mainland election. We compared voter behavior in the following presidential election with the 2002 one and found two significants effects.
"Firstly, in the 2002 election the turnout in the territories was 11 percent higher than in the subsequent election. Secondly there was the 'bandwagon effect' - when voters knew who was going to win, the voting share of the expected winner was higher but disappeared after the change in the law. This indicates people are less likely to vote when they expect their candidate to lose."
Regarding the UK election, Professor Page says it could be that the record turnout of British voters was due to a fear of a hung parliament suggested by most pre-election polls. People were afraid that if there wasn't a definitive outcome, a hung parliament would give the Scottish National Party the balance of power in the UK."
Which would mean that people who are not likely to vote if their candidate will lose will vote more if Parliament might be hung? They gave conservatives a win rather than have a hung Parliament. Only an economist could believe something so in defiance of voter psychology.
Do polls have value at all? Poor opinion polls could sway the outcome of elections, Page says. But in the U.S. they are done on landline telephones, which only older people have, and it was no problem. "Because our study found that polls do influence voter behavior, some elections could, therefore, end up being decided by the effect of random polling error.
"Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron's advisor Lynton Crosby acknowledges: 'polls have become part of the political process so they're not an independent measurement that says this is what's going on, they actually influence what's going on.'."