Learning from Pollsters' Errors in Recent Elections

By Ghitis, Frida | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

Learning from Pollsters' Errors in Recent Elections


Ghitis, Frida, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Spare a thought for the pollsters and pundits now occupied with the unpleasant task of wiping egg off their faces. The outcomes of a couple of recent parliamentary elections - in the United Kingdom and in Israel - have left the professional predictors licking their wounds, searching for errors and trying to salvage their pride.

OK, thought spared.

Now that you have shown compassion for the experts' plight, it's time to learn some useful citizenship lessons from the disastrous performance of the people who forecast the political future, whose skills we have come to trust much as the ancients did their oracles.

When British voters went to the polls, everyone, it seemed, knew what the results would bring. It would be a nail biter with no winner. The two big parties, Conservatives and Labor, would fight it out, the Tories (Conservatives) might edge slightly ahead, but would not reach a majority.

As a result, the smaller parties would become kingmakers, with the big ones depending on them to cobble together a governing majority.

It wasn't just the British pollsters. The American polling savant Nate Silver calculated the odds that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron would win an outright majority at "around 1 in 500."

Well, well. The voters showed them. Mr. Cameron, who had been governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, emerged stronger than before, with an outright majority. Labor was demolished, with its worst performance in almost three decades. The LibDems, no longer kingmakers, barely exist in Parliament any more.

Political leaders (not Mr. Cameron) resigned en masse and in shame. The British Polling Council, the trade group, is organizing an investigation into what went wrong.

In Israel, the polls had also predicted a close election, even a defeat for Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu during the March election. The experts there got it wrong twice.

First, pollsters were saying Mr. Netanyahu might just lose the prime minister's seat. The center-left opposition was pulling ahead. Likud looked set to win just 22 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. But that did not happen. Voters gave Mr. Netanyahu a strong showing - nothing near a majority, but then no one wins majorities in Israel. …

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Learning from Pollsters' Errors in Recent Elections
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