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Profitless prognostications

  • 12 November 2020
  One of the minor annoyances of the United States election was how unreliable the polls turned out to be, particularly in some key swing states. Unsurprising, but still annoying for those hoping for a massive repudiation of the Trump presidency. In the large scheme of affairs the failure of the polls to predict is insignificant, but it does raise interesting questions about its implications for public life in the United States and in Australia.

One of the many reasons given for the mismatch between the polls and the election result had to do with the selection of people who were polled. It was argued that of the people contacted, five out of six either did not answer the call or refused to disclose their voting intentions. This meant that an apparently random group was in fact selective. It represented the minority of people who cooperate with pollsters. If the failure to respond indicates people’s aversion to polling and not merely the pollsters’ inability to contact them, it may also make us question the honesty of those who did respond.

That such a high proportion of people failed to respond to pollsters and their electronic simulacra suggests widespread lack of trust in the value of political polls and a reluctance to participate in them. It may also suggest a more pervasive lack of trust in the political process itself and the perception that it serves only the interests of those who control it, whether these be characterised as the 'Washington Swamp' or as opportunistic populists. People may not see the polls as dispassionate enquiries into truth but as instruments that serve those who commission them. Those who are polled are also used as means to further someone else’s interests.

There are good grounds for this suspicion. Polling is a competitive business operated for profit. The results of the polls are sold to media companies or to political parties, which then adapt their own rhetoric to fit the polls. The polls themselves can also be used to provide media stories favourable to the interests of those who commission them. Because businesses run for profit run the polls, too, they will also try to cut the costs involved in contacting people. From employing local people they move to distant call centres, and more recently to automated calling in which the human contact between the person called and the pollster is minimal or non-existent. As a result