Learning from errors of pollsters

WINNER: An ebullient David Cameron emerges from Parliament on Monday with new Conservative Party MPs after his party won a surprise electoral victory last week that proved pollsters wrong.
WINNER: An ebullient David Cameron emerges from Parliament on Monday with new Conservative Party MPs after his party won a surprise electoral victory last week that proved pollsters wrong. Getty Images

Spare a thought for the pollsters and pundits now occupied with the unpleasant task of wiping egg off their faces. The outcomes of a couple of recent parliamentary elections — in the United Kingdom and in Israel — have left the professional predictors licking their wounds, searching for errors and trying to salvage their pride.

OK, thought spared.

Now that you have shown compassion for the experts’ plight, it’s time to learn some useful citizenship lessons from the disastrous performance of the people who forecast the political future, whose skills we have come to trust much as the ancients did their oracles.

When British voters went to the polls, everyone, it seemed, knew what the results would bring. It would be a nail biter with no winner. The two big parties, Conservatives and Labor, would fight it out, the Tories (Conservatives) might edge slightly ahead, but would not reach a majority.

As a result, the smaller parties would become kingmakers, with the big ones depending on them to cobble together a governing majority.

It wasn’t just the British pollsters. The American polling savant Nate Silver calculated the odds that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron would win an outright majority at “around 1 in 500.”

Well, well. The voters showed them. Cameron, who had been governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, emerged stronger than before, with an outright majority. Labor was demolished, with its worst performance in almost three decades. The LibDems, no longer king makers, barely exist in Parliament any more.

Political leaders (not Cameron) resigned en masse and in shame. The British Polling Council, the trade group, is organizing an investigation into what went wrong.

In Israel, the polls had also predicted a close election, even a defeat for Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu during the March election. The experts there got it wrong twice.

First, pollsters were saying that Netanyahu might just lose the prime minister’s seat. The center-left opposition was pulling ahead. Likud looked set to win just 22 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. But that did not happen. Voters gave Netanyahu a strong showing — nothing near a majority, but then no one wins majorities in Israel.

They gave his Likud 30 seats, enough to win the chance to build a coalition. That’s when the experts proved wrong a second time, predicting confidently that Netanyahu would easily cobble together a strong and stable right-wing coalition.

Netanyahu almost failed to put together a governing majority. He had 42 days to do it and pulled it off, just barely, in the last two hours. He now has a highly unstable coalition, with just 61 out of 120 seats. It could fall at any moment, and it makes the prime minister a hostage of his parliamentary allies.

The new government has such a tenuous foundation that Netanyahu has left open the highly coveted post of foreign minister; an insurance policy in case someone pulls out, so he can entice another party to join. The two most often mentioned are former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who stunned Netanyahu by refusing to join his government, and Isaac Herzog, the Labor leader who now heads the opposition.

In short, nothing turned out as predicted.

In Britain, pollsters are listing the problems that caused their debacle. “Shy Tories,” have been resurrected. That species was discovered in 1992, when voters told pollsters they supported Labor, and then voted for the hyper-beige Conservative John Major, making him prime minister.

Others speak of statistical sampling errors, of the trouble with online polling, and of the tendency of many citizens to make up their minds at the last minute.

It seems voters tell pollsters what they think they want to hear, or they change their minds after they answer the questions. Or maybe they think it’s embarrassing to be conservative.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Tory, says it’s time for Conservatives to make the case that their views are as moral and compassionate as those of the left and nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s all for politicians and pollsters to sort out. For voters, there are important lessons: Always take the polls and the experts’ views with a dose of skepticism.

There is a perilous human habit of following the crowd, to think “they” have it right; to want to back the winner. It’s a tough job, but it’s yours: Listen to the candidates and make up your own mind. “They” may end up changing theirs.