Election 2013 media panel

Polls are about keeping score

At election time we’re swamped with polling information - it seems there is a new poll, or variation of a poll, every other day. But is this a poor reflection on our democracy? A lot of people are uncomfortable with all the polling.

This morning Paula Matthewson writing at The Drum makes the argument that the polls are something of a distraction. Worse - she describes polls as being “insidious, brain-numbing and soul-destroying”.

Her argument being that polls do not add value to the decision making process voters undertake doing an election campaign. Polls don’t contribute to voters making an informed choice. I’m not convinced that view is correct, but even if it were true, are the media at fault for commissioning and reporting polls?

Media compete to attract eyeballs. As Paula Matthewson concedes the voters want to see polls. Media, as any other business, cannot ignore what its consumers demand.

What of the argument that polls are the nutritional equivalent of empty calories? That most movements are within the margin of error and journalists aren’t very good at statistics anyway? Probably mostly true.

The thing is, Paula Matthewson is assuming that politics as a horse race is ineffective as a model for democracy. But the sporting analogy does work well in some instances - when at the football people check the scoreboard. The polls provide a proxy for the scoreboard in a sporting event.

A criticism that we can make is that the ‘polls as scoreboard’ is not always particularly accurate - yet polls are better than nothing. Polls also point to the collective wisdom of the electorate - what our fellow citizens think about developments is important information and not just a bandwagon effect at work.

So how best to evaluate polling information? First I look at trends and secondly I look at aggregations of polling information. Luckily there are bloggers who perform these aggregations and make the results widely available. Mark the Ballot does a fine job of aggregation. Readers who would like to see a similar aggregation of betting markets should look at Bet Metrix.

Where I most disagree with Paula Matthewson is on the definition of an informed voter. To my mind an informed voter is someone who has just enough information to make a good decision. Voters do not need to acquire nearly as much information as political tragics acquire. While I consume as much political information as I can - most voters need just that amount that allows them to make a reasonable decision. I suspect most voters get it right most of the time.