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The Solution for Polling Accuracy: Less Logic, More Xenophobia!

The recent US election landed a crushing blow to the research industry's credibility. So what's to be done?

By Nick Drew

So, it’s happened again. After the British general election in 2015 and the Brexit referendum, now comes the latest blow to the reputation of the polling industry with Trump’s ‘unexpected’ win in the US presidential race. And, as ever, the opprobrium has already started, with the world seemingly placing the blame at the feet of those pesky pollsters. “Ohhhh, they got it wrong again!”, “Can’t they do anything right?!”.

It’s enough to make me wish I’d chosen a different career; one where I could quietly do a slapdash job, safe in the knowledge that when my and my colleagues’ failings came to light, nobody would care, nor suggest that they know better than us. Something like working in a telephone help centre; being a quality control checker on German diesel cars; or a rocket scientist. Around SpaceX’s latest rocket pre-takeoff explosion, there seemed to be quite a lack of people asking really, what are they all doing, it’s not that hard.

But after this latest crushing blow to the research industry’s credibility, and assuming that people are right – that observing the polling figures differently would have changed the result of the election – what’s the problem?

Well, there’s a clear trend of unconscious observer bias. A recent WSJ article demonstrated how the same set of polling figures can lead to quite different conclusions, with the specific predicted outcome depending upon the statistical models and personal interpretations applied by a pollster. And unconscious bias plays a large role in this.

Researchers are fairly smart people: educated, with a head for numbers, reasonably articulate, and able to understand the idea of a multi-cultural world. They’re also generally employed, and the industry is becoming, on average, younger and more female over time. But these very attributes are inherently limiting, and shape the way researchers think. Polling firms didn’t predict a vote for Brexit because to any logical person, the idea of the UK seceding from its continent is utterly ridiculous. Likewise, a Trump victory wasn’t widely predicted because the idea of a xenophobic bigot winning the most important job in the world through a popular vote is unfathomable – at least to logical, educated, reasonably articulate people who can understand the idea of a multi-cultural world.

So what’s to be done? Fortunately, the answer is clear and, indeed, easy. In order to break out of this limited mindset, and become better at predicting elections and referenda, research firms need to have greater diversity in their ranks. Forget women and ethnic minorities (those are so last year): the research industry needs to be employing more angry, old white people; those who didn’t finish school; men who like to grab women by the unmentionables; those who don’t like to talk through their problems, but instead want to rage at how the system is fixed. Most importantly, perhaps, we need to do better at hiring people who think that foreigners are to blame for everything, and for whom a weird mix of national isolationism and imperialism provides the ideal solution to all the world’s problems. Only then can polling firms break away from the tyranny of the logical approach, and start to better understand and more accurately predict the views of the electorate.

Nick Drew is VP, Strategy & Insights at Fresh Intelligence. The views above are his own and not intended to be taken seriously.

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3 responses to “The Solution for Polling Accuracy: Less Logic, More Xenophobia!

  1. I understand that this isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but that Greenbook would even publish this is somewhat in bad taste. That the US polling industry called this election wrong pretty consistently all the way from start to end is a valid point of discussion and making light of the situation in a way akin to Hollywood liberal elites further deteriorates the reputation of researchers. Instead of attempting to mock the current situation in some sort of reductio ad absurdum fashion, Greenbook’s audience would be much better off with researchers actually attempting to understand the reasons behind the groundswell of support for Trump. You claim that researchers understand the idea of a multi-cultural world, but that you mock such a large portion of the US electorate stands in glaring contrast to that.

    1. Apologies Joe; we try to represent the views of all of our readers, without judgement. This post probably veered too far into a political diatribe vs. being a provocative discussion starter on the very real impact on market research of the polling issues from this election. For what it’s worth I personally agree with you, but that was one reasons I let it be posted; I didn’t want my own bias to be an issue in preventing a viewpoint that many share from being expressed. I would welcome a rebuttal post from you, or just another post in general expanding on your views in general.

  2. Personally, I like Nick’s post – less hand-wringing and more a clear-cut solution. I’m also hoping Nick’s post was mostly going for the humor, because I’m not sure I want to be working with the guys at The Whistle Stop Cafe down the road a piece from me. That said, everything I’m hearing seems to center on two problems – sampling and weak questions. We clearly did not hear honest answers from a portion of the population (see Nick’s vivid description or go by the Whistle Stop). I take that to mean that we need to be re-examining our sampling plans and doing a better job with question-writing.

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