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GS-II : Governance

Myths and the reality of election forecasts

  • 12 November, 2020

  • 5 Min Read

Myths and the reality of election forecasts

By, Atanu Biswas is Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

Global examples of mismatch of results from the exit polls

  • Take the example of the Venezuelan recall referendum of 2004 to determine whether Hugo Chávez, then President, should be recalled from office. A huge discrepancy with the exit poll created a massive uproar worldwide.
  • The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine during late November 2004 to January 2005 was also in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election.
    • The allegations of electoral fraud were strengthened by several exit polls exhibiting a substantial lead for Viktor Yushchenko.
  • Similarly, widespread protests over the disputed parliamentary elections of 2003 triggered the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, and culminated in the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
  • One wonders if polls predictions are still so trustworthy. Certainly not.

The Bihar mandate

  • Pollsters performed miserably in Bihar in 2015 in one of their worst performances in Indian elections.
  • Although the opinion polls mostly predicted a victory by the National Democratic Alliance this time, very few of them could guess the quantum.
  • The exit polls, on the other hand, mostly predicted a Rashtriya Janata Dal+ victory.
  • A funny thing is that the minimum and maximum predictions for the RJD+ were 76 seats (a range of 71-81) and 180 seats (a range of 169-191), out of 243 seats.
  • One wonders whether the RJD+ securing anything less than 71 or more than 191 was at all practicable. Thus, there will be some pollster or other to claim a perfect or near-perfect prediction.

Surveys and lessons learnt

  • Yes, poll predictions have failed miserably on many historical occasions including some which were in the developing process.
  • For example, before the 1936 U.S. presidential elections, a reputed magazine, the Literary Digest, conducted an opinion poll survey with a massive 24 lakh samples, and predicted 57% vote share for Republican Alfred Landon, and 43% for President Franklin Roosevelt. In reality, Roosevelt got 62% votes against 38% favouring Landon.
  • This episode was a lesson about the importance of ‘selection bias’, as the individuals under study were affluent people having a telephone, club memberships and magazine subscription in that era; Roosevelt had less support among such people.
  • Also, people understood the importance of ‘non-response bias’ as only 24% of the people who were approached actually responded to the survey.
  • Similarly, the severe failure of Gallup’s poll prediction of the 1948 U.S. election taught pollsters about the importance of ‘random’ sampling.
  • In 2016, Mr. Trump supporters were under-counted. Later, there was an attempt to label that “shy Trump factor” or “hidden Trump vote”.
  • Certainly, the winner of opinion/exit polls is not necessarily the winner in the election.
  • Hillary Clinton, Ed Miliband or Atal Bihari Vajpayee could vouch for that.
  • A small State like Delhi has caused misery for pollsters, be it in 2015 or 2020.
  • In the U.K., for example, no major survey could predict the victory of Conservatives in 2015.


Source: TH

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