Opinion Polls in the North: Sheer incompetence, or something more sinister?

It has long been accepted that the track record of ‘professional’ polling firms in the political sphere in the north of Ireland is one that leaves much to be desired. However, the consistency of their incompetence begs the question: are these organisations professionally incompetent? Or is predicting election results in the north of Ireland simply beyond the capacities of these pollsters? Or, given the recurrence of a theme indicating a reduced level of support for Sinn Fein and the DUP, is there a more sinister reason for the continued publication of such wide-of-the-mark polls only days/ weeks prior to elections?The evidence of the collective incompetence of the pollsters is overwhelming, and is outlined below from each of the last four major elections in the six counties (2001 Westminster, 2003 Assembly, 2005 Westminster and 2007 Assembly.)

The pciture within unionism is similar to that within nationalism. DUP/ Sinn Fein continuously fare poorly in the opinion polls, whilst UUP/ SDLP fare much better in the ‘make-believe’ world of the pollsters than the real world of elections.

But whereas the trend within polls in recent elections has been one which has at least recognised the real supremacy of the DUP within unionism, this has not been the case within nationalism, which has lead to many false dawns for the SDLP when the real polling begins and ends.

The recurrence of a theme indicating a revival in fortunes for the SDLP is unmistakeable: in 2001, the pollsters put the SDLP 9% points AHEAD of Sinn Fein going into the election: they ended up behind Sinn Fein in first preference votes, suggesting the poll was nearly a full 10% points wide of the mark in relation to levels of support within nationalism.

In 2003, the pollsters put the SDLP 2% points ahead of Sinn Fein: once again, Sinn Fein emerged victorious by 6.5%, suggesting the pollsters were 8.5% off in their predictions of the margin between the nationalist parties.

In 2005, the pollsters had the two nationalist parties level pegging going into the election: once again, Sinn Fein emerged 6.6% ahead of the SDLP.

And in 2007, the pollsters put Sinn Fein 2% points above the SDLP going into the election. Unsurprisingly, they got it wrong- again. The margin between the two nationalist parties had grown in real terms to 11.3%, meaning the pollsters were out by more than 9% points.

All of which is important when we consider the ability of political spin doctors (particularly, though not exclusively, from the SDLP) to ‘persuade’ elements within the media to run with stories suggesting several of their candidates are in line to make electoral breakthroughs. Opinion polls making seriously flawed predictions contribute to the false hype around specific candidates, which ultimately culminates in expressions of shock and surprise when the electorate deliver a completely different result.

Examine the UMS/ Belfast Telegraph poll published on 31 May 2001. In this poll, the party’s share of the vote was UUP 25%, DUP 14%, SDLP 25%, Sinn Fein 16 % and Alliance 5%. The margin of error of 3% was ridiculously breached in the case of 3 of the 4 main parties when the ballots cast returned the following results:
UUP 26.8%
DUP 22.5%
SF 21.7%
SDLP 21%
Alliance 3.6%

Now, move forward to the November 2003 Assembly election. The UMS- (now going by the name Millward Brown)/ Belfast Telegraph poll found the following levels of party support only weeks prior to the election:
UUP 26%
DUP 20%
SF 20%
SDLP 22%
Alliance 6%

And, once again, the poll proved to be significantly wide of the mark when the results came in:
DUP 25.6%
UUP 22.7%
SF 23.5%
SDLP 17%
Alliance 3.7%

This time, all of the four main parties came in outside of the traditional 3%margin of error for polls, with the same trend as in 2001: namely, Sinn Fein and the DUP massively under-represented and the UUP and SDLP over-represented.

Step forward in time to March 2005, when Millward Brown/ Belfast Telegraph joined forces once again to publish a pre-election poll with the following figures for each party:
DUP 28%
SDLP 20%
Sinn Fein 20%
UUP 16%
Alliance 5%

Of course, when the votes were counted, the following results came in, once again bearing little resemblance to the MB/Belfast Telegraph poll:
DUP 33/7%
Sinn Fein 24.3%
UUP 17.7%
SDLP 17.5%
Alliance 3.9%

As you can see, the pattern of under-estimating the Sinn Fein and DUP vote was once again confirmed, as was that of over-estimating the SDLP/ UUP vote.

Finally, to the 2007 Assembly election predictions, published in the Belfast Telegraph, this time by MORI/ IPSOS:
DUP 25%
SF 22%
SDLP 20%
UUP 16%
Alliance 9%

The results in the past week indicate yet another abysmal failure on behalf of the pollsters:
DUP 30.1%
SF 26.2%
SDLP 15.2%
UUP 14.9%
Alliance 5.2%

Once again, Sinn Fein and the DUP reached levels of support considerably beyond those predicted by the Belfast Telegraph poll, whilst Alliance and the SDLP in particular came in well below the predicted figures.