Making opinion polls more useful: Learning from the highs and the lows
10 May 2011 4 Comments
Politics is a contest by which we measure the progress of the contest through opinion polls. While many say they hate opinion polls, tell people they pay no attention to them or that ‘the only poll that matters is the election’, the truth is always that they do indeed matter to all involved in politics. This has resulted in many different kinds of polls and many conclusions stemming from them. Politics is full of opinion and advice but this is not always good advice and using opinion polls can often inform your advice either way. So is the way we interpret and analyse opinion polls useful? Is there another way we can use opinion polls to produce better advice?
When we look at opinion polls we often use a selected time frame and give opinions based on this such as this from just before the 2010 General Election
This gives the party a sense of excitement but disappointment when the result was called. Equally, when we look at opinion polls today standing at about 11% this gives us a sense of panic that the party is doing worse than ever. And so this reading of opinion polls often leads to rapid changes of policy or decisions (e.g. see here).
Another common use of opinion polls is to view them over a longer period of time such as this one
This shows a steady improvement for the Lib Dems following the formation of the Liberal Democrat Party in 1988 and a general improvement in the Liberal vote over a long period of time. It shows the gradual decline of the 2 main parties and this suggests that the Lib Dems will continue to do well as the public slowly want more choice in who they vote for in general elections. Some even suggest that the issues the Liberals believe in such as liberalism, localism, internationalism and environmentalism are the same issues we have campaigned on for decades but more people are voting for it now. This use of polls can suggest a ‘steady as she goes’ policy.
However, either use of these polls misses the lessons and many opportunities to improve the parties understanding of what they do well and how to replicate this success. The party used the first poll in the run up to the General Election and tried to capitalise on Cleggmania by changing their strategy and this did not work. The party voted for Ming Campbell in 2006 as a safe pair of hands, which is the advice from the second reading of opinion polls, only to see the opinion poll ratings drop to 11% and so he resigned.
So what would make opinion polls more useful? Knowing when we were doing well and why we were doing well and seeing if there were patterns we could learn from would be a good start. Knowing the range we might expect in polls so we could compare where we are at may also be more useful. So if we were to take the detailed Lib Dem opinion polls over the period of time the party has been in existence in its current form (since 1988) we may be able to make more use of it:
I am using the Guardian/ICM opinion poll data mainly as it is available but also that have generally been more accurate come polling day. Using this we can see the peaks and troughs of the opinion of the public on the party. This more detailed view allows us to focus on where the party was doing well and where it wasn’t. We can see that the Lib Dems had a low of 5% near the start of the formation of the party and while many hoped the days of such a low were behind them, we were all reminded that this is not the case following the Barnsley Central by election result this year which gave the Lib Dem vote of 4.2%. We can therefore say that the 5% mark can be seen as the worst the party could do.
Following the TV leaders debates before the 2010 General Election many in the Lib Dems eagerly read the papers and the polls and felt excited by the Lib Dems scoring 30%, which was above what many had dreamt of. These figures give us the expected range for the Lib Dems: 5% – 30% which we can produce the following chart
This gives us an idea of when we are doing well and can look for what we were doing at the time to produce that improved opinion amongst the public so we can continue to do this. This identifies what works for the Lib Dems and can look something like this:
For anyone reading this, your ideas about what was happening at the time of when we were doing well in the polls would be much appreciated and we can then build up a better picture of patterns. Generally, when the Lib Dems have been given an issue to focus on we do well – Bosnia, Iraq, anti-terror stance – or when we are given time in the media we have done well – elections, conferences, TV debates. The two together produce high poll ratings. Now we are in government we have the media opportunity but we don’t necessarily have an issue as pointed out by Neil Stockley. So advice for the Lib Dems – find an issue and push it hard.
From this approach we can also look at what doesn’t work, the times when we were in the red (which is for another post but suggestions are welcome), so we can stop doing what doesn’t work. Using polls in this way may provide us with more learning about what works for the Lib Dems and what doesn’t – the production of opinion with useable solutions.
Using this chart can provide us with a more meaningful scale of the the Lib Dems poll ratings, which again will be another post.