Do election polls attest a sophisticated means to the desired end?

SOUTH AFRICA - PRETORIA - 9 March 2019. ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa with other ANC members visit Soshanguve residents for the party's election campaign. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

South Africa is in an elections season, with less than eight weeks before its sixth national elections. Elections are also marked as a season of silliness on many fronts. Besides having literally no less than 285 political parties contesting this sixth national election, the negative campaigning of parties with court-case threats week after week across the board, among others we have also seen an increase of polls conducted by a variety of groups. Meaning voters go to the ballot flooded by data that speaks to who is popular. 

It is often accepted that polls conducted to ascertain elections results must be assumed as neutral, necessarily objective and innocent of bipartisan interest. Is it possible that these polls could have a political motive and intention of their own in an aim of not just sharing information but to indirectly influence a particular outcome? Is this type of polling assisting democracy or encroaching on the democratic franchise?  

Polls are interesting exercises for the fact that they upfront adopt an objective, sets an aim and thus determine an outcome in the choice of methodology and who they engage.  Polls attest further interesting shapes for who it is sponsored by. We may, therefore, equally dispense of the notion that those who sponsor polls have necessarily no vested interest in a particular outcome. We know polls are used in marketing exercises, surveys are conducted to ascertain information to shape among other strategies to reach constituencies to market certain products.

Throughout the history of polling, there have always been questions around outcomes. We know that polls became a measuring tool to assess public opinion on a specific matter, usually of public nature.  Often the subject of the method for polling is flagged as a key determinant of outcomes. In regard to methods, the same question is also raised.  Some of the doubts concerns pollsters’ methods. Of these usually advanced are, do they ask the right questions? Are they manipulating the wording of questions to get the responses they want? And whom did they interview?

There is also common agreement among researchers that we must know when the poll was conducted. Conducting a poll on a high moment of an individual who is contesting for elections, could prove different to another time of a low moment.  It matters greatly how the pollsters ask their questions. It is very possible, that at times, the respondents may offer opinions on matters, subjects or topics they may not have previously given much thought given the fact that they may not really care about the aforementioned. We also know that those from whom responses are solicited may purely do so from being hospitable since they consider that perhaps they are duty-bound to have an opinion on the subjects raised.   This by itself enables sufficient space for what it called a manufactured opinion, particularly on issues narrow that wide concern.

Elections polls are no dissimilar to these standard everyday marketing exercises which have a product to sell at its core. They are less innocent since they have distinct aims, they want to ascertain but they really seek to direct an outcome or choice. Elections polls and surveys are essentially geared at directing a certain outcome that the sponsor had in mind.  A collaborative paper penned by Neil Malhotra from the Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and David Rothschild of Microsoft Research, confirms that some voters do, in fact, switch sides in an effort to feel accepted and to be part of a winning team.  The paper also concludes that greater numbers of voters are searching for the “wisdom of crowds” when they evaluate poll results and that the opinion of experts matters more to them than that of their peers. 

The important observation made by the paper is that polls do influence outcomes. If we accept that those polls influence outcomes, can we accept that polls can be used to this end? It must then be possible for polls to become useful artillery in a public relations toolbox with the aim of a specific outcome.  

I am not dealing with the proven reality that polls can be wrong, we have seen too many of that. Examples of how polls led with a specific anticipated outcome and in the end got it horribly wrong were the 1948 USA Presidential election.  In this instance, the polls predicted certain victory for Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Without waiting for the official count of the votes, newspapers throughout the country proclaimed in their headlines, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The rest is history. As a matter of historical record, Harry S Truman was elected the 31st President of the United States. 

A more recent example of how polls can get it horribly wrong was the Brexit vote. The 52% Brexit vote from the EU, came in the face of a very confident ‘remain’ anticipated outcome. We remember that Ipsos MORI, one of the major British pollsters at the time had predicted an 8 % victory margin for the Stay campaign. At the same time, the Financial Times predicted a 55% “remain” to vote.

The concern we have here is the role of polls used as a means to the desired end.  Meaning manipulated through sophisticated means to decide an outcome. The Constitutional Rights Foundation in the USA asserts public opinion polls in the United States appear to have become as American as apple pie, Coca-Cola, baseball, and our flag. Generally based on a set of interviews and/or written questions, polls are used to determine/predict, what people believe; how they feel about something; or in what way they will act. 

The results from public opinion polls are used in a number of ways. They have come to influence what Americans are offered to eat and drink, the kinds of cars they can buy, and the programs that they can watch on TV. In this sense, polls may have a definitive political role of conditioning of the minds and are not to be regarded as the innocent gathering of information. The sixth national elections in SA has another dynamic to it. While South African elections are conducted on a party basis and not that of an individual, we have seen a trend to cast the Ramaphosa as separate to his party. One could be forgiven to assume the polls are about Ramaphosa and not his party.

For the first time, the leader of the ANC is wholly embraced by white and business interest who have as we can accept finally its billionaire-man. One who is a direct beneficiary of the benevolence of an unequal apartheid economy is finally at the helm of the ANC.  Current published polling data confirms the popularity of the ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa. Let us also accept it is in the interest of the SA ‘white’ identity constituency to have Ramaphosa in power since they see him as their last hope for protection against an ANC that threatens more than just a radical policy direction. Hence, he as the specific presidential outcome would guarantee their endangered species coat. It is even advanced that DA supporters may abandon their usual voting pattern to support Ramaphosa, There is little doubt that the aggregate of the aforementioned wants Cyril Ramaphosa to be president of South Africa. The problem is Ramaphosa heads up the ANC, the same party the group who wants Ramaphosa to lead abhors.  

South Africa’s sixth elections promise to be the most fiercely contested, the one that may shift the proverbial balance of forces to use a phrase often used by the ANC honchos out of the historic toolbox of its historical Communist rhetoric. SA increasingly threatens to be a nation where the power of the ballot comes under threat by sophisticated means, one of these means are polls.  On the other hand, it seems South Africans are conditioned to believe the polls less than trusting the democratic franchise of a ballot. In our unfolding elections drama, with loads of resources flying around and shared interest, are these polls playing a part of conditioning us towards a certain end? Your guess is as good as mine. The polls appear to want Ramaphosa and have set its target to condition SA voters.


Clyde Ramalaine is a political commentator and writer.