The Endless Debate About the Validity of Surveys

Us, the people who are used to live in democracy, know that with each electoral cycle we get repeated speeches, meetings, harsh statements, and accusations by candidates. On the other hand, electoral authorities dictate regulations and schedules, call political actors for moderation and invite international organizations to witness the normal course of “another democratic party”. Mass media also carried out their common activities, they interview candidates, consult experts, show their favoritism for a particular trend, etc.

Along with this “Macondian” repetition of history, surveys come into scene. Partisans of less favored candidates generally tend to discredit surveys and disqualify the pollsters, as a way out from the political problem they encounter. Sometimes they look for companies of dubious origin to show results in their favor and give raise to a survey battle.

Given the importance pollsters have in monitoring the electorate, it is necessary to take a break to emphasize that although some pollsters are open to be used as a political tool; there are lots of companies in the world that throughout time and good practice have proven to be reliable.

Being business companies, pollsters watch over the continuous evaluation of their assets. In this case, the main asset of a pollster is its reputation. This particular intangible asset increases and generates value for clients for a long time. This value is not easily bought. It is almost unbelievable that a serious company wastes years of work for a defeated candidacy, particularly if a few years later another electoral cycle and new business possibilities will thrive.

Once this has been said, it is important to highlight that under some particular conditions there might be divergences between election results and what polls reflect days before the Election Day. The main reason for this is that surveys, in a way, work like instant pictures taken in a given moment. They show what is happening rather than what is going to happen. When there is too much “noise” surrounding the electoral process, either rumors, crossed news, etc., readings might not be right. For example, in Spain, after the terrorist action committed in the Atocha train station in May 2004, there was a radical change in the voluble Spanish public opinion only three days before the election. The former Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero was surprisingly elected while surveys suggested new victory for the Prime Minister at the time José María Aznar. No poll could have foreseen such change.
Venezuela is a country where the role of pollsters is frequently questioned. Curiously, its elections are the most audited elections around the world; results are ratified by observers from international organizations like the Carter Center, the European Union and the Organization of American States. Besides, the results obtained since 2004 have matched what prestigious pollsters have reflected.

The following table shows the close relation between the reflected preferences by polls and the official results of the Presidential Referendum in 2004.

As it is revealed, the most important polls showed a possible victory for the NO option. However, in spite of this evidence, multiple audits and acknowledgement of international observers of the proclaimed official results, opposition sectors claimed an alleged fraud and refused to accept the results. This attitude and the echo in some mass media have encouraged a false debate kept to these days about the polls’ validity.

In light of next presidential elections, history seems to be about to be repeated. Candidates give speeches; institutional organizations call for calm and participation; mass media take a side; and some opinion givers by duty, turn pollsters into the target of cruel attacks. Greater equanimity by the political elites becomes necessary to put an end to this ritornello.


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