Sep 19, 2014
It’s the morning after the poll before.
I’ve just read an interesting James Ball piece on why the lack of exit polling was a Bad Thing. At first I thought it was going to be a journalist’s lament that journalists were being deprived of bones to pick over in that difficult bit between being allowed to talk about it and having any actual results to talk about. Oh dear. How awful.
But setting my wholly unfair cynicism aside, the real point of James’ piece was that this lack of information in some way diminishes our understanding of, and competence in, democracy.
[Personally, I don’t much like the practice, if I’m honest. As a voter, I’ve done my thing, and on the way out I really don’t see how it’s anyone’s business who I am or what I did. That’s just me.]
As James put it:
…we won’t know whether it’s because 16- to 17-year-olds, given the vote for the first time, turned out en masse, or whether it’s because of a last-minute change of heart among pensioners (who currently lean towards no).
This detail and data is what lets academics, journalists and politicians alike work out what really happened and how voters act.
And at this point, one of my favourite questions pops up. “Whose needs are being met here?” If the exit polling were restricted to basic questions on participation (e.g. age profiling) that might be useful to help find the missing turnout. But anything on actual preference will only have one effect – to allow the focusing of “messages” on defined demographic slices. To turn the overall outcome by taking close aim at particular levers to shift particular sub-groups. And is that ok? I’m doing a big hmmm in my head.
Surely the whole point is that messages – or better still, policies – have to read across an entire electorate, and be measured in the aggregate. Focus-group all you like in shaping those policies, but I just can’t see how exit polling serves wider democratic interest anywhere near as much as it serves party interests. If that’s the case, let the parties pay for them, and the media rake over them – but let’s be clear about who really benefits.
I suppose to some extent opinion-to-exit comparisons also provide a measure of public mendacity, but is that essential to make democracy itself more effective?