The consequences of polls on politics

hey surely cannot substitute meaningful political engagement where candidates touch the heart of where we live by giving value to face-to-face engagement within our communities

(File photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
(File photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Polls play a significant role in contemporary politics, and the methodological and logistical tools used to gauge the nation's mood are fascinating. Surveys offer valuable insights allowing political players to review policies and the rest of us to speculate about future trends. At best, polls measure the electorate's views on a range of issues, including the level of support for political parties and leaders. Polls can also highlight the issues that matter most to the electorate. Such data are invaluable for policymakers who seek to align their strategies with public preferences and sentiments. However, there are also consequences, which are rarely broached, that inspired this article.

Scientific polling emerged in the 1930s with the introduction of sampling techniques and systematic data collection, which provided accurate and reliable data. After World War II, the mass availability of communication technologies made polling more feasible, notably through telephone surveys. Poll results started attracting the attention of newspapers and broadcasting stations, boosting public interest and awareness. Political parties in Malta embarked on regular polling much later. At first, the results were kept within the confines of campaign war rooms. One party leader declined to look at data lest adverse polls shatter his confidence during campaigning. In the 1990s, The Sunday Times commissioned sociologist Mario Vassallo to conduct regular polls at a time when the main parties were running neck-and-neck. Other newspapers soon followed suit. These polls emphasized the competitive nature of elections and the significance of individual votes, especially when Malta embarked on the referendum campaign on EU membership.

In elections, poll results can influence voter behaviour. Potentially, they can discourage voter turnout if people believe the outcome is a foregone conclusion. They can also create bandwagon effects where voters support the perceived frontrunner. They may also impinge on the electoral prospects of individual candidates whenever surveys are employed as a reality check before one attempts to run for office. When polls indicate insufficient support, one may choose not to run, believing that the effort and resources required will not yield a positive outcome. Hence, while surveys may motivate the popular and the populists, the less glittery candidates may become disheartened irrespective of their substantive potential. I wonder why some valid incumbents decided not to fight for their seats and withdrew from the electoral race even before it started.

Overuse of polls can destabilise political leadership and hinder effective governance. A leader's position is most vulnerable when their personal popularity falls below that of their party, as we have seen in the PN’s recent past. If a leader or even a cabinet minister's approval ratings decline, there are often immediate calls for change and reshuffles, regardless of the long-term strategic plans that were mandated in the elections. This tends to undermine the implementation of plans designed to address complex issues that require tough decisions.

The frequent and overplayed nature of polls may also lead to respondent fatigue, whereby respondents grow weary of repeatedly sharing their opinions. This is probably more relevant in small contexts where, as the axiom goes, Malta żgħira u n-nies magħrufa (Malta is small and people are known), so we are probably more guarded in our answers related to political sentiments. Recent experience during the MEP and local council campaigns revealed that such factors diminished the accuracy and reliability of results, as respondents may give less thoughtful answers and they may also decide to mislead or join an army of ‘undecided’ electors.

We must remember that although polls provide us with a snapshot of public opinion, public mood is fickle. There is a lot of truth in the saying "a week is a long time in politics" because it underlines the volatility of public life. As we tread on shifting sands, one unpredicted event may swing public opinion overnight. Hence governing by polls puts political players under pressure to keep themselves from falling from the tightrope. To do this, they may need to contradict themselves.

An obsession with poll numbers can result in politics driven by perceptions rather than by principles, which contributed to the erosion of ideological foundations. In the past months, we observed some conspicuous political U-turns. The tragic death of young worker Jean-Paul Sofia and the Labour Party’s shoddy response to it, muddled the essence of the party’s existence. The change of heart regarding the bill on terminations in cases where a pregnant woman’s life is in danger, satisfied anti-abortionists and angered the pro-choice liberals and feminists when this was expected to give a new lease of life to the party’s civil rights agenda. U-turns have political ramifications. They frequently garner political mistrust and disenchantment.

One other consequence is that long-term strategies are frequently superseded by short-term gains and superficial distractions. As sociologist Anthony Giddens had noted, short-termism is a critical pitfall for democracies, particularly in the face of massive challenges like the threat of climate change. Sadly, political realism tends to prioritise the preservation of power and control over the need to safeguard the long-term interests of current and future generations.

The media's impact on amplifying poll results is significant. Sensational headlines and, at times, oversimplified interpretations of complex data can distort public perceptions, creating a feedback loop where polls influence news coverage, which then influences public opinion. In the process, we may give undue importance to temporary shifts in public sentiment instead of promoting informed deliberation. In this context, we may be shocked but not too surprised by the current rise of populist movements that tend to exploit public emotions.

Political polls can be valuable tools for measuring public sentiment and guiding campaign strategy, but their limitations and potential for misuse mean they should complement other forms of political analysis and engagement. They surely cannot substitute meaningful political engagement where candidates touch the heart of where we live by giving value to face-to-face engagement within our communities. Bridge-building with a diverse and vibrant civil society, the participation of political think tanks, the inclusion of public intellectuals and multiplier effects cannot be discounted.