How accurate are opinion polls?
With national elections a month away, several media outlets have started predicting results.
The Election Commission on March 10 declared the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections. The elections will take place across seven phases, with the first phase on April 11 while the seventh and last phase is on May 19.
With the dates now declared, a flurry of opinion polls have started doing the rounds. Opinion polls have become the norm over the last couple of elections with polling agencies and media houses collaborating with each other. But how accurate are these polls? Do they also have an ulterior motive?
A number of opinion polls are predicting a variety of results. According to the India TV-CNX survey, BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will get 285 seats, 13 more than the halfway mark of 272 in the 545-seat Lok Sabha. This is down from the 336 seats NDA won in 2014. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is projected to win 126 seats. Meanwhile, ABP-Cvoter poll claims NDA will fall just short of the halfway mark, winning 264 seats while UPA would get 141 seats.
Meanwhile, an opinion poll conducted by Times Now-VMR found that 52 per cent of the people polled favoured Prime Minister Narendra Modi and wanted him to get another term. News Nation’s mood of the nation survey found that 47 per cent of the people polled wanted a second term for Modi.
Thus, as it can be seen, most of the mainstream media and polling agencies are predicting that NDA and Modi will come back to power. But the question to be asked here is how reliable are they? While in the west, these polls have had reasonable success, particularly in the US, in India, it isn't so. Even in the US, results of the 2016 presidential elections went against what the polls were predicting. Donald Trump won the election despite many polls predicting that Hillary Clinton was going to win.
Here, it is important to state that opinion polls are different from exit polls. Opinion polls, as the name suggests, gauge public opinion, but before elections take place. Exit polls, on the other hand, are based on the feedback of people after they have cast their votes. In a sense, exit polls are more reliable but nothing is completely fool proof.
In India, psephologists have been trying to crack the electorate for years, with varying degrees of success. While research methodologies for collecting data have evolved over the years to a point where they can predict trends to a certain point, it would be foolish to expect accuracy. The most famous example of this is perhaps was during the Bihar state elections of 2015. Coming a year after the national elections in which Modi won an absolute majority in Parliament, it was expected that a Modi-inspired BJP would win. Most opinion polls predicted so. However, things did not work out that way with the grand alliance of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav winning a clear majority.
This was seen in the national level too. In 2004, when the national elections were due, most opinion polls were predicting a BJP/NDA win. However, it did not work out that way with a Congress-led coalition ultimately forming the government. Similarly, in 2014, most opinion polls failed to predict the scale of BJP’s victory.
Another aspect that needs to be considered is the politics behind it. It is no secret that political parties use opinion polls for their benefit. But over the last couple of years, this has reached new heights. Before the Uttar Pradesh state elections of 2017, a Hindi publication published what seemed like an opinion poll but wasn’t, with accusations that it was an advertisement by the BJP. After it was brought to notice, the publication quietly dropped it.
The 2014 national election was perhaps an anomaly, where there was a discernable wave of support for Modi to become Prime Minister. While it is debatable whether he still retains that level of support, a wave similar to the one in 2014 does not seem to there. He might still win, but it is too early to tell. Thus, while opinion polls are predicting that the NDA will come back to power, they need to be taken with a pinch of salt.