Come election season, pollsters in India emerge like monsoon frogs and sing melodies that they only understand. They create hysteria immediately after the last vote is polled and continue till the moment of reckoning on the counting day-keeping media houses locked in euphoric debates in their ‘chat-rooms’, leaving audiences perplexed and confused. At the end of the day, the momentum of days together melts down with pollsters, accepting a few negligible exceptions, go wrong. And such of the ‘exceptions’ also betray the accuracy, notwithstanding their ‘hit and run’ predictions or assessments, proving right.
The entire exit poll melodrama in Indian politics, owing its existence to the growth of the electronic media, generally sends a message to the vast spectrum of audiences that most of the pollsters while away their time in posh hotels, on beaches and around picturesque environs, remaining closeted with politicians, acknowledging gifts and dine, wine and dance. Analyzing the assessments and outcomes of exit polls in recent years, the common man is forced to believe that their ‘so-called results’ sprout from the cozy hotel rooms, having remote connect with ground zero where the poll battle is actually fought. Many of them even don’t know anything about the candidates in fray and their backgrounds. Instead of interacting with electors or having on-the-spot feel of election trends, those in ‘exit-poll’ business remain engaged in sight seeing with families and engrossed in shopping in the iconic market-places of the places they visit. By the time official results get out, the audiences sum up the exit polls as Bollywood hits – the more dramatic, the better. But do the people really need the suspense and premature excitement, full of a rollercoaster of emotions? If the pollsters and the media houses believe so they are horribly wrong. They better put their act together and realize their responsibility towards the larger Indian community.
Indian voters are complex and most shrewd. They don’t give their mind to close ones, even families, least to speak of the so-called ‘sample seekers’. The pollsters must understand that response to their queries by electors may not always be accurate due to social desirability bias or other factors, leading to a gap between stated preferences and actual voting behavior. They understand it but keep the ‘show going on’; they keep entertaining themselves and the audiences. In the former case, one wonders at whose costs?
The question is why do pollsters generally go wrong in their predictions and assessments. To understand this, one must go into the whole gamut of the exercise undertaken during campaigning and the actual voting. The pollsters cannot counter the accusations of bias that significantly impacts their credibility. They cannot deny that their exercise actually furthers political agendas and pressure of their clients, who commission them for the job. Under the element of pressure, they employ the methodology to get the results the way they want. For this, the questions are framed and worded in a peculiar way to subtly influence the respondents. Another compelling factor for the pollsters is to satiate the agenda of the media organizations they are affiliated with. Therefore, the perceptions of media bias also spills over the conduct of exit polls. There is another class of pollsters, who unintentionally interpret data in such a way that aligns with their own beliefs and preferences or the obtaining narratives, thus impacting the credibility of their surveys.
Pollsters may unintentionally interpret data in a way that aligns with their own beliefs or the prevailing narratives, leading to confirmation bias.
Some pollsters have affiliations with media organizations, and perceptions of media bias can spill over to the exit polls they conduct. Media ownership structures can influence the presentation and interpretation of poll results.
The ‘exit polls’ will continue to remain far from the ground realities as long as the pollsters fail to maintain strict professional standards, adhere to transparent methodologies, don’t rely on media coverage, ignore astrological predictions and have clear communication with respondents to earn their trust and confidence. The pollsters have to detach themselves from the hospitality extended by political parties and their potential clients in the media. They should also desist to remain confined to the cocoon of ‘own people’ and diversify sources of polling and ensure a range of perspectives that contribute to understanding the voter pulse.