Opinions are like arseholes. Everybody has one. These days every newspaper has a poll and from incomplete records, I count at least 137 published since government came to office in April 2011.
This was not always the case. The first poll conducted by an Irish political party was done by Brendan Halligan and Gallup for the Labour Party in 1969. MBRI began political polling in the 1970s before their now long standing partnership with the Irish Times in 1982.
Available data indicates that there were just 34 commissioned by the media in twenty one years between 1971 and 1992. Most of this occurred in the 80s or, saw EU and divorce votes bookended by abortion referendums. As far as who’s up-who’s down politics was concerned, polling was largely confined in the lead up to general elections themselves.
Today, polls form a central part of both media content and how politics is discussed. All parties conduct them privately. Newspapers rely heavily on the material not only dedicating several articles to the findings but writers reference the poll throughout each page, building a ‘truth’ with repetition in the mind of readers.
Polls are used to make new arguments and reinforce already held positions. Polls are used to dictate news cycles and set boundaries of what may be discussed.
The past few years have felt like saturation. A good portion of this can be explained by the convenience polling offers newsrooms under budgetary pressure. The hard work of news gathering is effectively outsourced. Without leaving the office, journalists are served exclusive information from which they can squeeze a few hundred words.
More concerning to my mind, is that there is no small connection between the tide of support ebbing away from establishment politics and the frequency with which we are now compelled to focus on these choices as the only show in town.
Take the bemusement and sensationalism that greeted water protests in the latter part of 2014. Opinion pages and airwaves were full of amateur anthropologists scratching their heads as if they had stumbled upon a lost Amazonian tribe. ‘What is it these people want?’ the media wondered.
The anger and motivations were incomprehensible and this is the result when “politics” is ring-fenced as a game of swings and arrhythmic. Just think how opinion polls feed a narrative about ‘stable government’ for example. This is bread and butter on which journalists and politicians can expound at length. Polls put them [and keep us] in safe and comfortable territory. Now take the other media narratives polls have produced over the last five years.
- Fianna Fáil support static and the pressure this put on that party’s leadership
- Horror and bewilderment that Sinn Féin support, while reaching a ceiling, had not went into decline on foot of continuous real and contrived outrages.
- The slow demise of the Labour Party
- The seemingly unshakable rise of Independents/Other
Acres of coverage was devoted to these stories based on little more than fluctuations within the margin of error. The water protests demonstrated that not only had all this polling left journalists completely unaware of public sentiment, but that the media by and large are unequipped to discuss and contextualise equally valid political activity that occurs outside the gates of Leinster House.
The reliance on polling creates and reinforces blind spots, leaving everyone’s understanding of ‘politics’ all the more bereft.
Somewhat inconveniently for this view, it is polling itself that has been the most regular reminder of this disconnect. Jack Jones, the late founder of MBRI explained the following some years ago,
National polls represent an overall average for all parties, across all 42 constituencies, and when interpreting the figures it is necessary therefore to take account of the number of constituencies in which each party normally nominates candidates.
For Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (and to some extent Labour), this means all 42, but in 1997 the PDs contested 27, and while the overall party average was 4.7 per cent, in the contested constituencies the figure was 7.3 per cent, which returned four seats.
In other words, the national average for small parties is not particularly relevant, and each should be viewed in a different context from the larger parties which contest all or most constituencies.
While the above is true, this known unknown aspect has provided cover to ignore what is the biggest story in politics since 2008. The rise of The Others – more better understood as a rejection of established parties and processes – has dominated the last five years of Irish polling.
Greece, Spain, Labour UK and US presidential primaries have each given their own manifestation to this sentiment but mainstream Irish discussion has simply written it off as outside or ‘anti’ politics. When pushed, it is simply dismissed as “anything from Clare Daly to Shane Ross”, itself a neat way to confine the whole of politics to Dáil seats, and examined no further.
Richard McAleavey over at Cunning Hired Knaves outlines the following
Seeing things this way leads to the highlighting of certain tendencies at the expense of others. For example, many people whose candidate or party of choice falls under the ‘Independents and Others’ grouping might complain, with justification, that their political priorities, the political content of what they are expressing by opting to vote for someone who falls under ‘Independents and Others’, is hidden from view.
As a consequence, when it comes to public discussion of what is going on, our perspective is focused on what developments mean for the established state of things, rather than what different kinds of political thinking are expressed in the different voting pattern.
Clearly ‘Independents and Others’ is a very bad place to end up if you’re going to talk about the different kinds of political thinking that might be expressed by people whose vote winds up in this grouping. But this is often where it both begins and ends, especially in mainstream discourse.
Such votes then appear as a ‘protest vote’ or a vote against the major parties, an act that is purely reactive rather than conscious political expressions of this or that kind.
This demonstrates how reporting of polls can obscure more than they reveal but more than that, polls are more than a reflection of a space in time when used so often, sometimes unconsciously, to undergird established power or agendas.
In this respect, polling, and certainly the way in which it is analysed, has become a means to buttress a system of power facing a crisis of legitimacy.
On the more deliberate side of things we can look a few examples.
Writing in 2010, Denis O’Brien alluded to something he called “phone polls of questionable provenance” at the Sunday Independent. These polls stopped when he won full control of the paper but until then had allegedly been conducted by a mercurial entity called ‘Quantum Research’. No one outside the Harris/Fanning editorial office ever found evidence that this company existed and it is widely regarded to be an in-house fabrication aimed a selling papers while pushing a myriad of editorial agendas.
Stephen Collins, political editor at the Irish Times has a habit of putting dubious spin on poll results to chime with government interests. Last year he led with claim that ‘nearly 80% will pay the controversial water charge’. The result in fact said nearly 60% ‘will never’ pay. Before that, in what rabble reported as “a manipulation of a survey question, a survey answer and finally the misreporting of both”, Collins waved his magic over results to align them favourably with government intentions on Direct Provision. From that same dataset, he claimed that voters favour tax cuts over over public services. The results said nothing of the sort.
That latter simplistic question is a regular in polling and just as often dismissed when the wrong result comes in. Ahead of budget 2012 a RedC poll found, 88% agreed with higher taxes on earnings over 100k. The Sunday Business Post who commissioned the poll got around this inconvenience by simply not bothering to report their own findings.
Their political editor Pat Leahy tweeted the following last week and repeated the assertion on television after the RTÉ leader’s debate.
We do not know what ‘politicos’ move in Leahy’s circle but the scepticism should be no surprise given that politicians and media alike overwhelmingly push one preference.
A recent Sunday Business Post RedC article contained the following claim
Our pre-campaign polling over several months has identified the battle for floating voters as being between the desire for a stable economy versus a fairer society.
Did it really? A battle that no one would possibly dream up in their own?
The ‘versus’ there is interesting, is it not? Tacit admission that the world is presented to us as a false and straight decision between stability and equality. Class division erased, neatly excluding the inconvenience that ‘stability’ only ever means prosperity for some and that this ‘stable economy’ as defined is in direct conflict with a fair society.
One of our most recent uses of opinion polling has been Clare Bynre Live on RTÉ Television and the addition of a “bespoke smartphone panel”. Here, you dear viewer, the voice of the public, are reduced to a statistic on screen, answering a loaded question that you were never asked.
Here’s our favourite question again!
RTÉ TV current affairs specialise in framing complex issues as a choice between two simplistic opposing views and this Clare Byrne Live polling is the latest in meaningless divide and conquer. Perhaps the only useful information to be gleaned so far was a poll last year that found more people supported water protesters breaking the law than had actually paid the charge. Not that anyone in studio noticed.
The big story of last year’s British election was the extent to which opinion polls failed to predict the eventual result. Labour, it turns out, didn’t stand a chance. Or so it seemed. Much of the polling beforehand took its cue from now evidentially dubious data and methods developed by Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative Party deputy chairman who after seeing his loyalty go unrewarded has since taken to publishing details about the Prime Minister humping a dead pig.
This article is a must read for anyone even vaguely interested in politics. In it Shaun Lawson weaves an intriguing and entirely credible story of how error and potentially worse, shaped that Westminster election. Lawson asks how such an obviously self-interested individual like Ashcrost became the most influential figure in British opinion polling, a process he keeps shrouded in secrecy, and wonders why more people are not asking the same.
Back home, opinion polling will continue to narrow political horizons while providing little enlightenment. Even when they do, what stares us in the face is often ignored. Take the question of abortion. A RedC poll conducted in the immediate days following news of Savita Halappanavar showed Fine Gael dropped six points from 34 to 28%.
This was perhaps one of the few real causal shifts in five years and to this day the party remains in the mid to high twenties. Curiously, many commentators dismiss this issue as a “distraction” and welcomed quote, “return to the real business” when legislation finally passed in 2013. That is, the real serious business that barely effects party support by a percent or two.
Polling on the issue itself shows those, so anti-choice inclined as to decide their vote on the issue are utterly marginal but, even as the election campaign continues, politicians continue to hide. Evidence perhaps that candidates are keenly aware that opinion polls do little to capture the complexity of hard political reality.
So to conclude, I conducted my own poll of sorts by asking a number of people for their opinion on opinion polls
Dr Adrian Kavanagh, a geographer at NUIM and popular opinion analysist.
Polls effectively can drive news cycles for the period immediately after they are taken and a consistent trend across a number of polls will generally feed into how certain parties get portrayed by the media
Dotski, who runs the excellent Irish Polling Report website