How useful are opinion polls? experts weigh in

July 26, 2017 (4 weeks ago) 9:30 am
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The latest opinion polls from two pollsters showed contradictory results for the presidential race/FILE

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 26 – When Infotrak and Ipsos both released opinion polls on Sunday, July 23, 2017 but gave different results for the presidential race, opinion was varied.

Ipsos placed Uhuru Kenyatta at 47 per cent while Raila Odinga followed him at 43pc with the undecided vote standing at 5pc. Infotrak, on the other hand, placed Odinga at 47pc and Kenyatta at 46pc giving the Opposition chief a lead, with the undecided pie standing at 8pc.

Battle lines were quickly drawn with each side sharpening their daggers in readiness to defend or dispute the results. In the public domain, the unresolved question that stuck out like a sore thumb was whether opinion polls are indeed reliable.

According to Prof Philip Nyinguro, Chairman, Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Nairobi, opinion polls are necessary because “they indicate future events but they must be conducted scientifically.”

Dr Fred Jonyo, senior lecturer in the same department agrees.

“It is important that any political system that believes in democracy must also solicit the views of the people. But they are good only when done professionally,” he added.

The jury is still out whether a nation like Kenya where people vote along ethnic lines can actually predict political behaviour.

Nyinguro argues that the opinion polls might not be so effective after all.

“In developed democracies, opinion polls can really sway the undecided but that is complicated when you have ethnicity as a major factor,” he said.

Nyinguro believes that opinion polling, an attempt to predict human behaviour, is a herculean task that is marred with many challenges.

“It will also depend on their public declaration of the instruments they used to mitigate the limitations of human behaviour. People lie but have you developed instruments to detect and control the lie?” he quipped.

“For example, did the opinion pollsters acknowledged that you can have an error?” he asked.

Angela Ambitho, Director of Infotrak & Harris disagrees with Nyinguro’s assertions.

“I don’t think people lie,” she rebutted. “If you make a respondent comfortable by using someone from their demographic group, then all those factors held constant, I would not tend to think that there are Kenyans who would set out to lie,” assured Ambitho.

“If you design your introduction, questionnaire well and train your enumerators so that they make your respondents feel comfortable, then if the respondent wanted to lie, they would reject your interview,” she said while speaking to Capital FM news.

“We don’t normally find cases where people reject doing interviews as much as we do with market research. In actual fact, people are actually eager to participate in the opinion polls because we are a politically charged society,” she concluded.

Nyinguro who was not yet done with the pollsters questioned the qualifications of the staff who are carrying out the work.

“What is the quality of the staff handling the opinion polls? Let Angela, Wolf and all the other pollsters tell us their qualifications,” he asked.

Ambitho who exuded confidence in her team explained that they have been doing opinion polls since 2007 which gives them a 10 years experience now.

“The qualification of our team is perhaps the best in the industry with 10 years experience,” she boasted.

“They have worked in other countries and they got it right in places like Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda among others. They don’t know those countries like they know Kenya where they were raised, how can they go wrong here?” she added.

Capital FM News also tried to get a response from Tom Wolf of Ipsos but his phone was off. By the time we were publishing this article, Wolf had not responded to our queries.

Nyinguro added that “the authenticity of opinion poll results are subject to the reliability of the method used to predict behaviours of human beings who sometimes defy predictions.”

According to him, people who need to pay more attention to opinion polls are those who are in the political race.

“In an election, an opinion poll is more useful to the candidate to know whether they are weak, what voters want among others,” Nyinguro noted.

Nyinguro, however, dismisses the concept of undecided voters claiming that “where ethnicity is concerned, whether a professor or a businessman, they already know who they are going to vote for.”

“They should have been asked further why they are undecided,” he said.

– Opinion Polls aim –

Nyinguro says that the two major aims of doing an opinion poll should be “to explain and to predict but it must be scientific.”

Jonyo emphasises that leaders ought to “solicit the views of the people not only for election purposes only but to gauge attitudes, beliefs, and their thinking in terms of possible political outcomes,” he said.

Part of the queries that Ambitho had been asked to explain is why she the firm only focused on 31 counties instead of 47 while doing their sampling.

“Sampling isn’t a census. When you are doing a sample, you are taking a sample of the whole. You use your intelligence to then determine how the different parts that make up that whole will be represented so that you give each part as a large unit, in this case, the region so that you give them fairness in the report,” she explained.

Another unresolved question is how the opinion pollsters fund the overly expensive exercise and what’s in it for them.

Ambitho said that they bank rolled their own opinion poll partly to accomplish their purpose and remain relevant.

“You are doing your job, in doing your job, you remain relevant, in remaining relevant, you then may get that advertiser,” Ambitho explained alluding to why they bank rolled such an expensive exercise.

“We can’t be called to do opinion polls in other countries while we can’t do one in our own country,” she affirmed.

Opinion polling was thrust into the limelight during the 2007 elections when the battle was between the armies led by Mwai Kibaki of Party of National Unity (PNU) versus those led by Raila Odinga of Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

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