Columnists Features

Importance of opinion polls in elections

WE MET in a bus and the political discourse surprisingly tilted towards the importance of public opinion polls in an election year. Her line of thought was that such polls are unZambian, a waste of time and do not portray the true picture on the ground.
She also argued that the polls merely enrich sponsors through sms revenue and are prone to manipulation.
Since she was a “know-it-all” type; she did not give me chance to repudiate or bring another angle to her line of thinking.
Her lordly continuation was punctuated by an unkempt passenger sitting one row behind us.
“Ifwe tatulefifwaya ifi ma opinion polls, kuti fyaluzisha candidate wesu,” he said, loosely translated as “away with these election opinion polls, lest they make our preferred candidate lose”.
It seems the common person’s understanding of opinion polls is that they are a replacement for the real voting.
He couldn’t be far from the truth. Those who take part in election opinion polls in the Zambian context might not even be voters.
Opinion polls premise on a set of interviews and/or written questions that are administered using face-to-face, radio, phone, television, email and social media communication.
They have a threefold objective that determines what people believe, how they feel about that belief and the probable way they would act.
Zambia lacks credible pollsters that rely on science; definitive and segmented sample size, clear objectives, unblemished track record, credibility, goodwill from concerned parties, proper timing, impartiality and dissemination plan.
Despite this setback, we are condemned to embracing what’s on our plate albeit with reservations.
The latest poll conducted by Muvi Television is a case at hand. Weighing the popularity of presidential candidates, it brought interesting results.
The United Party for National Development (UPND)’s Hakainde Hichilema had a runaway 81 percent with the ruling Patriotic Front (PF)’s Edgar Lungu trailing with a paltry 16 percent.
Other candidates did not even muster their own single votes from a sample size of 1,850. Was realism at play? Can the results be trusted?
The answer is twofold; yes and no, depending on circumstances. The results can be trusted within the sample size.
Muvi sampled a cocktail, involving registered and unregistered voters, toddlers and adults; in essence their entire viewership.
It did not take into account chances of multiple voting, where a single person could have sent half the 1,850 smss.
It was also elitist as one needed to have access to a phone and also to follow instructions from television.
It was also a cost on the respondents as Muvi and the mobile phone service providers charged for the sms.
Obviously it disenfranchised many people. It also had another flaw of not being random; had Muvi rung every third person in the telephone directory countrywide, the poll could have enhanced its credibility.
Since Muvi has not reached such sophistication, I would rate their poll as informal and as having no profound effect on the actual polling day.
Zambia is not alien to polls like the one conducted by Muvi. We’ve had pollsters trying albeit unsuccessfully to sway people’s minds even to the extent of portraying dark horses galloping to the finish line.
Both individuals and organisations have been known to use opinion polls, most times for their own selfish reasons.
I won’t name names, but we have clear cases of poll analysts, whose organisations have lost credibility for predicting certain victory to political parties that are now in obscurity.
Opponents of election opinion polls worry about the credibility of the organisations and individuals conducting them.
The PF, for example, has generally little confidence in Muvi while on the other hand the opposition has few kind words for the public broadcaster, Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC).
To imagine that an opinion poll conducted by ZNBC will receive accolades from other parties than the PF is wishful thinking. Therein lies a problem for polarised pollsters.
Some people have made allegations against Muvi, which are yet to be substantiated.
One viewer questioned the motive of the opinion polls and the true identity of the voters, who she suspected of being sponsored to influence the outcome.
Whether opinion polls can be useful tools for gauging voter preferences and the popularity of candidates in Zambia remains a matter for debate.
But where they are conducted by credible, impartial and professional pollsters they can be quite useful.
The author is a social and political commentator.

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