What sways the voters? Letter to the Irish Times

Published by: Richard Colwell

2011.11.04

Sir, – Headline: Election-skewing nature of media comment should not be ignored. This could so easily have been the title of the piece written by John Waters (“Election-skewing nature of polls should not be ignored”, Opinion, October 28th). His argument was that opinion polls change people’s behaviour, but if this is true surely so does his comment and opinion? In fact, I would go as far as to say that polls are a beacon of independence, in a sea of opinion that often is not independent.

Good quality polls inform opinion, they don’t influence – they are a scientifically-based neutral snapshot of how all voters feel. Voters make up their minds based on a multitude of sources of information. These may include media comment, friends and family opinions, comment on the internet, and possibly polls. There is no evidence, however, that polls influence how people vote any more than comment and analysis from the media, journalists, parties and the bookies! I am sure most people you ask would suggest polls do not influence their decision, any more than a discussion with their neighbour.

The point about opinion polls, when compared to all those other sources of influence, is that they are completely unbiased. They represent exactly what all adults in Ireland are feeling. Without them, the vacuum is filled with opinion from journalists, much of which comprises assumption statements that are often not coming from a neutral standpoint.

To suggest that you would rather see the debate only consist of potentially ill-informed opinion; sound bites from the political parties based on their own internal polls; betting odds; and comment from biased sources such as Twitter – and that there should be no neutral unbiased information from polls for voters – seems a little strange.

In this recent presidential election the bookies paid out on Michael D Higgins with a week to go. This decision was based on the media opinion that Seán Gallagher had been severely damaged by revelations in that week. The reality, however, when the polls were published on the final weekend, was that Mr Gallagher was still significantly ahead, and only at this time was it clear that the revelations up to that time had not damaged Mr Gallagher in any way as much as the media and the bookies had assumed.

Let us for a moment assume that those opinion polls had been banned. The assumption would have been that by the final weekend Mr Gallagher was perhaps yesterday’s news, and it is quite likely that instead of all the candidates and questions focusing on Mr Gallagher in the final debate, the critical spotlight might instead have been turned on Michael D Higgins.

Without the focus on him, Mr Gallagher might then not have been put under pressure in the Frontline debate, and could potentially have gone on to win the election. This result would have been due to media opinion and the bookies “informing” people’s opinions that Mr Gallagher had been dealt with, when in fact he hadn’t, in a vacuum without a measure of how the public were actually feeling.

If John Waters wants a truly sacrosanct polling experience, “uncontaminated by any sense of what others have decided”, this suggests you will need to ban newspapers, media commentators, political television shows, bookies, party machines, Twitter (all of which usually represent one point of view or another) and perhaps as a last report polls (which simply reflect the views of the people without any agenda). – Yours, etc,

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