The Right to Be Undecided

The Conservative Party’s election victory in Britain was a stunning defeat not only for the Liberals, but for the pollsters — all of them — who had been telling the whole world day after day that the race was “neck-and-neck.”

But when the real-life votes were counted, Prime Minister James Cameron was swept back into power with an absolute majority, which means he won’t even have to saddle himself with a parliamentary coalition. With 331 of Parliament’s 650 seats versus Labour’s 232 (or 50.9 percent versus 35.7 percent), the Tories can rule by themselves.

The pollsters were a mile wide of their proclaimed three to four percent margin of error. The discrepancy between poll predictions and the actual vote was such that the British Polling Council (BPC) announced it will conduct an inquiry into “apparent bias” in the system.

Lord Foulkes, a former Labour MP, accused the polling industry of “being manipulated at the behest of people with money, whether they be the media or individuals, as part of the political process.” He has called for a ban on publication of opinion polls in the weeks leading  up to election day. Leading pollster Andrew Hawkins retorted that “the suggestion that we have somehow been ‘corrupted’ is frankly offensive to the many honest people working to supply well-designed opinion polls of the highest quality.”

Even if his colleagues are beyond reproach, the question of where they went wrong is being asked everywhere. Or, as one British polling professional put it in a gem of understatement: “Obviously we’ll need to carry out a review as we do after every election. But we have to take a bit of a step back — without wanting to gloss over it.”

A bit of a step back. Yes. Somewhere between an official whitewash and outlawing the whole infernal system.

Meanwhile, there was no shortage of hypotheses as to how they exceeded the margin of error.

Michael Bruter, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, offered what might be the most credible explanation. It’s a variation on the theme that polls themselves influence the voters, which, he asserts, many pollsters do not take fully into consideration. In this case, they were predicting that there would be no overall majority: Labour would be the second party but that it would still be able to form a coalition government.

“It’s happened before, but never in British history had pollsters predicted it before an election. So the question that voters were asking themselves was no longer ‘Which of the two parties do I want to win?’ but ‘Which coalition do I want?’ And that’s not something that the polls were equipped to deal with,” Bruter said.

Some were saying that the opinion scientists weren’t really so wrong. Their polling results claim to be no more than a snapshot of voter sentiment on any given day; it’s not their fault that people said one thing to them and then did something else at the ballot box.

The argument is disingenuous, however, since pollsters are well aware of the fluidity of public opinion and are supposed to take it into account in their calculations.

We sense, too, a certain impatience, even disdain, for “late-deciders.” That’s the sly pejorative used to describe people who make up their minds late in the campaign, on election day, or even as they enter the polling place to cast their vote. It’s no doubt due to native indecisiveness, lack of firm beliefs, and a weak chin.

It may also be that some folks are embarrassed to admit to a pollster the day before an election that they still haven’t made up their minds — as if they’ve been vacillating all this time, or haven’t done their homework. Feeling cowed, they proffer an opinion that they haven’t really committed to. And when the moment of truth comes, they change their minds.

But making up your mind — or changing it — at the last minute is a democratic prerogative, not to be surrendered on request to any survey-taker who calls you on the phone.

On the contrary, maybe the virtue of “early decideds” needs re-examination. Sure, they make life more predictable for the pollsters, but what is the source of their voting proficiency?

Usually it’s a sign that the person has certain fixed views that are not amenable to last-minute re-evaluation. Lifelong Conservatives, like lifelong Liberals (or, for that matter, Republicans and Democrats), decided how they would vote several elections ago.

That’s perfectly all right. One does not have to re-think his entire world  new every election. But some of the early decideds are voters whose minds were “made up” a long time ago — by gender affinity, class interest, ethnic loyalty or racial bigotry. “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up” is the intellectual profile. A little late decision-making in those precincts could be a good thing.

We don’t suggest the banning of pre-election polling. Even though many democratic countries have restrictions, in the U.K. and U.S. it would probably be rejected on free speech grounds and the public’s right to know.

But some adjustment should be made. Let the experts in public opinion widen their margin of error. Let them make more room for the undecideds. Let them live with a bit more uncertainty, as the Founding Fathers intended.