Opinion Polls are Not Inherently Evil
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 27, 2011
The two major parties are conducting polls to determine who will represent the party in the upcoming legislative elections. The Democratic Progressive Party's presidential poll has led to rumors of "Mother Tsai." Some have preemptively made public the results of opinion polls, provoking a backlash, and accusations that they were trying to mislead respondents in the ongoing polls. In the KMT legislative primary polls, Luo Shu-lei and John Chiang have been embroiled in a controversy over whether "a 0.00 percentage victory is still a victory." The KMT Taipei City Party Headquarters has already decided against changing the party's nomination criteria.
Opinion polls are not inherently evil. But so many irregularities have occurred critics cannot help wondering whether candidates are abusing the polls. Is it really true that "so many crimes and deceptions are perpetrated in thy name."
Polls are merely instruments to measure public sentiment. Their primary function is to "allow public sentiment to reveal itself," to "let the numbers speak." Now however, the two major parties have adopted opinion polls as the main basis for party primary nominations. Prospective candidates have agreed to abide by the poll results. This mechanism should function as a gauge of public opinion. Instead, each time a poll is held, a storm brews. Some people are even using the polls to make trouble. The "Mother Tsai" rumors and the Chiang vs. Luo struggle within the KMT are merely the tip of the iceberg. As we can see, polls may are not inherently evil, but behold the dust that they have stirred up!
How did this all come about? Polls are in theory merely neutral tools, They must be conducted in accordance with scientific guidelines. If polls are be exploited, their credibility will be undermined. But polls are essentially neutral tools. People who make use of opinion polls do not always hold neutral positions. Politicians pay lip service to "respect for democratic institutions." But once they acquire the power to influence the decision-making process, they resort to every means at their disposal. They look for the best way to promote their own interests. For example, the DPP has engaged in an internal tug of war over the use of "Blue excluded polls," "party member polls," and "all people polls." Was the final decision on which of these polls to use really made on the basis of the high-sounding reasons offered? The party is currently conducting an "all peoples poll." Even before the decision was made, rumors emerged. Given her public image, the rumors said, the "all peoples poll" might favor Tsai Ing-wen. Therefore once the resolution was passed, rumors emerged that some members might abandon the party. In other words, the very moment the polling method was chosen, political considerations already began playing a role.
Leave aside falsified data, sampling biases, and other extreme cases. Assume that when polling organizations conduct their polls, they attempt to remain neutral and adhere to the scientific method. Assume that "numbers don't lie." One must still interpret the numbers correctly. It is not as simple as "a 0,00 percent victory is still a victory." Under direct democracy voters personally cast their ballots. During an election, a one vote victory is still a victory. But polls are based on sampling. Out of the main body of the population, only a sample is polled. This sample is used to infer the results. John Chiang and Luo Shu-lei are embroiled in a dispute. A gap of less than one percentage point separates the two. This difference is extremely significant. One must be cautious when making any statistical interpretations.
But how did the KMT deal with this controversy? First it followed the recommendations of its district party headquarters and suspended Lei Luo-shu's rights as a party member. Later it followed the recommendations of its Public Relations Committee Chairman Su Chun-ping, who urged the party to respect the results of the poll. Was the change in the party's position truly the result of "respect for the democratic process?" Was it truly the result of adherence to the scientific method, and the belief that "numbers don't lie?" Or was it the result of other considerations that cannot be stated openly? Outsiders will always find it difficult to see the whole truth. But skepticism is understandable. They may well be exploiting the polls.
Now consider the even uglier rumors, and attempts to influence voter psychology. They may be conspiracies, or they may be acts of desperation. Either way, they are old electioneering tricks. They are undeniably attempts to ensure that one's opponent loses. Such is the nature of politics. But voters on Taiwan are seasoned veterans. They long ago developed countermeasures. The atmosphere of intrigue has deepened. For example, voters have a tacit understanding that they will "allocate votes on their own initiative." When interviewed by poll takers over the phone, they deliberately engage in disinformation in order to undermine rival parties. Anyone attempting to conduct a scientific survey will find himself lost in a fog. Therefore the DPP's "Mother Tsai" rumors and preemptive publicizing of poll results merely highlight the degree to which polls are subject to exploitation.
Polls have their uses. But they can also be abused. Using opinion polls to deceive voters is tantamount to election fraud. It seriously undermines the credibility of the polling process. The myth that the findings of social science are scientifically true has already been shattered. For anyone exploring social phenomena, polls have their limitations. This is even truer if people are deliberately manipulating the polls. Democracy is better than dictatorship. Using opinion polls to determine party primary nominations, is better than having them determined by the KMT Central Committee. But people may come to feel that "so many crimes and deceptions are perpetrated in thy name." If so, then those who play with fire may find themselvess burned.