A Word on Psephology

Nigel Meek

Memo to the polling companies in both the USA and UK. Perhaps if more of your employees were other than Guardian or New York Times reading urban hipsters then you might not constantly overcount – even if only by a few percentage points – whatever the “progressive liberal” choice is in any given election or referendum.

Like the people at the Heterodox Academy say about the same corrosive phenomenon in the academic social sciences – and without any suggestion of actual fraud – if you spend your time in an ideological and social bubble surrounded by people who think as you do then it must at some level warp your perception of reality. If, in the British context, you perhaps know no-one at all who voted Brexit, or who supports the Conservatives let alone UKIP, or who reads the Daily Mail or Sun or Express – and moreover you actively despise such people – then your view of the world and your judgements about the data that you’re collecting are unlikely to be accurate. You’re “finding” what you expect to find.


  1. Nigel, you make a very good point.

    But I still think – as I’ve said on other threads – that the unexpected results on the Brexit referendum and in the US election were mainly due to people who were determined to vote for what they believed was right, but were scared to reveal that before the day.

  2. Neil Lock refers to what we might call ‘the 1992 effect’, in which the tendency among ordinary people towards moral signalling can distort the accuracy of advanced polling.

    Those of you with memories that go back far enough will remember how the polling companies and the liberal media were thoroughly discredited by John Major’s victory and how one of the explanations put forward was a fear among ordinary voters about declaring themselves for the Tories, due to the inchoate perception that voting Conservative meant you weren’t very nice. A lot of people were telling the polling companies that they would vote Labour or Lid Dem, but in the privacy of the polling booth, they voted Conservative. However, interestingly the distorting effect did not extend to the Conservatives’ own private polling, most of which predicted a Tory victory. Thus, as Major himself would later remark, you effectively had two different general elections going on – one, the fantasy election, in which Labour were in the lead, the other, real, election in which the Conservatives were edging it. I shouldn’t be surprised if Trump’s campaign didn’t find a similar dissonance with their own polling and the public polls from the liberal media – it would explain Trump’s confidence right to the end (though he is a confident man anyway).

    That sais, I think it would also be fair to say that from a national perspective, the polls were broadly right (if out by 2/3 percentage points). The problem with the polling was at state and county level, which is where they got things wrong, albeit that in many states the final result was tight.

    If anything, I should have thought the liberal media had an incentive to warn of a Trump victory by exaggerating his standing in the polls. If Trump had been polling ahead, this would have galvanised the Democratic base (though it might not have made any difference, given the effect of the Electoral College).

    Nevertheless, I can’t discount what the author of this piece is saying. Probably a combination of bias, partisanship and wish-thinking has been blinding some journalists and polling professionals.

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