Do polls manipulate voters?

Recently I was questioned on whether polls influence voters and if, because of polls, people are less likely to vote based on issues and policies. I found this line of questioning difficult because in reality, voters will base their decisions on a wide range of factors, and I’m sure that polls are a factor for some people. There’s a fair amount of academic literature about the influence of polls, but the most NZ-relevant and accessible piece I’ve found is a series of guest posts on Bryce Edwards’ blog, written by then Honours student Michelle Nicol. Unfortunately I don’t think the last part of the series was ever posted.

Essentially, polls might influence a person’s expectations about the outcome of an election, and this could become a factor in their voting decision. They may decide to back the winner or support the underdog, or they may decide to vote tactically based on poll results (this is voting for a party that isn’t your preferred one, in an effort to influence the outcome in some way). Even worse, people may decide not to vote at all, because the election looks to be a foregone conclusion.

It’s not easy to know exactly what part the polls play, because it’s difficult to disentangle the many factors people consider when making their voting decisions. It seems reasonable to suggest though that polls play some part. If I’m being honest, I feel a bit uncomfortable about this. What I like most about Election Year is that it’s a time when, as a county, we discuss and debate important issues – those that help shape who we are as a nation. It’s depressing when I think polls detract from this.

Here’s the thing though. Imagine if there were no polls. Do you think New Zealand would be more democratic or less? With no independent measure of public sentiment, imagine how much more potential there would be for politicians or political commentators to influence the views of the public – to tell us ‘what the public really think’.

Let’s take the debate about same-sex marriage as an example. Some of the loudest voices in this debate were telling us the public doesn’t want same sex marriage, and they were gathering signatures to prove their point. Yet, independent polls showed quite the opposite.

Simply put, it would be a danger to democracy if independent polls were abolished in New Zealand.

UPDATE: Typo corrections – there vs their! How embarrassing.

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4 thoughts on “Do polls manipulate voters?

  1. I think poll make a difference in voting patterns at the margins, and also make a difference in terms of perceptions of momentum.

    Then again, if people want the information and feel they need it to make a more informed choice at the ballot box then why shouldn’t they be allowed to have it?

    I also think there are a lot of other things that are a lot more important than poll results in terms of creating a perception around a party’s momentum (e.g. communications strategy, etc).

    So I see no reason why we should focus on banning polling data alone (especially when there’s great demand for this data amongst the general population).

  2. Personally I believe that a lot of people make voting decisions based more on the general narrative and feeling that is being spread rather than on specific issues and the exact details of a situation. Bad polls often leads to more negative media coverage, and it becomes a bit of a dangerous cycle in a way.

  3. Well.. there are push polls. They will influence uneducated and those weak in critical thinking. Probably a large percentage of the population.

    And then there are the media polls (think Stuff, Herald) that use loaded language and skewed multi-choice answers.

    Independent polls are fine – so long as they are crafted by someone who is entirely disinterested in the result. That is rarely the case.

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