In defence of the pollsters
I am a huge fan of political truisms. Love them. Let me take you through a few.
Red tape is always a bad thing. No matter that a lack of appropriate regulation caused the global financial crisis. Red tape is bad and must be disposed of. On the other hand, frontline services are always a good thing. Regardless of inefficiency or incompetence we simply can’t cut frontline staff.
A further example of unambiguous evil in the political realm is “polls”.
In political discussion, especially among the urban elite, the word “poll” is best said with disdain. Perhaps consider a slight sneer as your mouth spits out the opening “p”.
Most people understand polls pretty well because the major newspapers do their own regularly. So even worse than polls are their shadowy cousins “focus groups”. Jamie Briggs last week described the Labor Party “handing over its policy development to focus groups”. Sinister indeed.
Wrap polls and focus groups together and you have a truly disturbing combination.
Paul Keating said it well when he referred to “conservative tea-leaf-reading focus group driven polling types who I think led Kim [Beazley] into nothingness”. Ouch.
Accusations of being ‘poll driven’ aren’t new and they aren’t unique to Labor. John Howard was often accused of it.
When the inevitable questions about polls and focus groups come up, just once, I’d like Julia Gillard to take up the fight on the pollsters’ behalf.
“I do use polls and focus groups and I follow them closely,” I would like her to say.
“Polls are important because I can only speak to so many people, so they help me to understand the mood of Australia.
“That helps me both to shape the policies people want and to consider how best to persuade the public of the merits of my position”.
Once in a while the polls might make a political party reassess its position on a particular policy. There is nothing wrong with that. An issue on which John Howard seemed to ignore the polls was Workchoices and look where that got him.
However, no one seriously thinks that politicians blindly follow their pollster’s figures independent of their own values and priorities. A majority of Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty, yet there is no suggestion of either party adopting this position.
More often, a political party will have a vision and an agenda to prosecute. Rather than changing this agenda, focus groups can be used to understand how to sell this vision to the electorate.
Slogans have taken some flak during this campaign, but communicating with the public is not just a way of winning elections, it’s an essential part of leading the country.
The power of persuasion is something which used to be deeply respected. Some of history’s greatest figures are revered for being able to use language to convince and cajole. We may have lost some of the art of persuasion, but introducing a bit of science to that process is no bad thing.
Polls and focus groups are not intrinsically bad, it’s just that they are sometimes misused. In fact polls are probably a symbol of a thriving democracy. I imagine Kim Jong Il doesn’t bother with them much.
So during the campaign, do I expect to hear a politician sticking up for the pollsters?
Probably not. I doubt it would test well.
- Euan Robertson is a tea-leaf-reading focus group driven polling type (but not a conservative one) who has worked for two major polling organisations.
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