Picture by bluecatdublin
There was an interesting and even impassioned article in the Belfast Telegraph a few days back by Bill White. In it he made the case for polls, which he said had received some bad publicity, having failed to predict the Tory majority at the last election. He points out that they got the percentages for other parties right and that polls give us the detail we cannot get from a straight vote or referendum. They tell us why people voted a particular way, what groups tend to vote what way, how to make sense of the blunt numbers that voting day brings. Bill, it’s worth noting, is the managing director of Belfast’s polling and market research company, Lucid Talk. So as that blunt-speaking feminist Mandy Rice-Davies once put it: he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Mandy was right: you have to be careful who’s doing the talking. For example, here’s Philip Ryan in today’s Sindo talking about the latest political polls in the south:
“Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s party has dropped a massive five points to 24pc and is now just a single percentage point ahead of its main political rival Fianna Fail, which remains unchanged at 23pc.”
Now if I was a Fine Gael supporter (which praise the Lord I’m not) I might be a mite irked by that. The usual margin for error in these polls is + or – 3%, so the ‘’massive” drop Philip speaks of could be all of 2%. And note Philip’s baptism of Fianna Fail as Fine Gael’s “main political rival”. Well they were for years, Philip. There are those who think Sinn Féin may be a more credible candidate for that role.
And how about Philip on Sinn Féin in that poll?
“Sinn Fein remains unchanged at 21pc as the party’s shock increase in support in the face of child sex abuse controversies seems to have stalled.”
You see what Philip did there? Got in the 21% figure and then buried it beneath “shock increase in support in the face of child sex abuse controversies”. What could have been “consistent” becomes “stalled”, and the percentage figure for them is manacled to child sex abuse controversy.
Another way of putting the poll might have been that all three major parties are bunched pretty close – Fine Gael 24%, Fianna Fail 23% and Sinn Féin 21%. But hey – it’s Sunday. This is the Sindo. And a little bit of top-spin on statistics never did anyone any harm. Except those for whom harm was intended.
So yes, Bill, polls can be helpful in explaining reasons for voting one way or another, and who does it and why. But they can also be presented in a way that encourages you to think the way all right-thinking people are thinking.