We are often asked whether polls influence the outcome of elections. The usual answer is that we don’t know but that we don’t think so. The conventional wisdom is that the polls may exert equal but opposite influences. Thus the published polls may have a “bandwagon” effect: gathering support for one party as that party seems to be winning. Alternatively they may have an “underdog” effect: building support for the apparent loser so as not to give the winner too large a win.

Let’s look a little deeper into the effect of polls and the pollsters. There are, in fact, three types of polls running in the lead-up to the election. First, there are the published polls, which are available to anyone who reads the media. They are commented on by journalists, sometimes with care and accuracy and sometimes with abandonment and inaccuracy. Sometimes their true meaning is carefully assessed, at other times it is horribly distorted. In this situation the two influences mentioned above are left to play out their effects.

The second type are cousins to the first. They are quantitative surveys commissioned by the parties themselves to let them know how their candidates are performing in particular electorates. They are used by party strategists to make decisions about resource allocation and other tactical questions. The results are held tightly by the party officials unless it is considered politically expedient to leak them. They have little overt influence on the outcome but may assist a party to win a close fought contest in a particular electorate.

The third type are the fairy godmothers or the bastard children to the family, depending on how you look on them. They are the focus group discussions which tend to be conducted among swinging voters in particular, but which may be conducted among any group of voters whose opinions may be of interest to party planners. We would argue that over recent years they have been used, increasingly, to distort the political process. Let us explain.

When focus groups were first used they provided a refreshing picture of how voters thought and felt. In particular they made up for the fact that many leading politicians were too busy or too separated from ordinary folk to be able to listen to what they were saying about their own lives and the life of the country. But increasingly a number of things have happened which together raise questions about the role focus groups play in the policy process.

The first is that the parties seldom publish a policy position or take a step which has not been sanctioned by research. The second is that voters’ prejudices, as well as their preferences can, and perhaps are, built into policy responses or the party platforms. The third is that voters’ words are used both to reinforce a party’s positive statements or for the negative purpose of attacking a rival party or politician.

The net effect of this can be that caution, conservatism and populism outweigh evidence-based considerations or long-term social development.

Consider what sort of Australia we would be living in now if our immigration policy had been settled this way. Our research shows that voters always believe that immigration targets are too high, and further that immigration by people from “unusual” places should be limited. If these views, or prejudices, had been built into our immigration policy we would not have the number and variety of citizens we now have.

Or consider the structural economic changes made by the Hawke-Keating government. Tariff reform, exchange rate reform and other economic policy changes which in retrospect laid the foundation for the last decade and a half of economic growth would not have been introduced if popular views were the basis for decision making.

In our view the political process requires a nice combination of listening to the electorate and leadership based on conviction and strong argument – not on a slavish and tame feedback of community views to the electorate. It may be argued that this is a risky path for a party to tread. We disagree. We have more faith in the good sense of the electorate than this conservative view implies.

We would argue that global warming has created a new urgency about the future of this country. Any process which facilitates vigorous discussion and argument about future options should be encouraged and any process which inhibits it should be discouraged. Focus groups could be used for the former or for the latter. As a methodology they are neutral. In the hands of the political players they are not necessarily so.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.