Why Exit Polls Of­ten get it Wrong

Blame un­equal dis­tri­bu­tion of so­cial power

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page -

On Mon­day, af­ter the last phase of In­dia’s marathon 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tions got over, tele­vi­sion chan­nels broad­cast their exit poll re­sults. Since these elec­tions have been por­trayed as a ref­er­en­dum on the BJP’s prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date, Naren­dra Modi, the exit poll re­sults were hardly sur­pris­ing. Across chan­nels, the polls pre­dict a vic­tory for the BJP-led NDA al­liance. Var­i­ous chan­nels pre­dict that the BJP alone will win be­tween 190 and 260 seats on its own. Be­fore you ex­ult or col­lapse in de­spon­dence, depend­ing on your po­lit­i­cal views, pause for a minute. On Mon­day, this news­pa­per car­ried a story, based upon re­search pub­lished in

on what pre­vi­ous exit polls have pre­dicted and com­pared these with ac­tual out­comes.

The re­sults ap­pear to have a dis­tinc­tive pat­tern. Be­tween 1999 and 2009, across three Lok Sabha elec­tions, poll­sters have con­sis­tently over­es­ti­mated the num­ber of seats that would be won by the BJP and its al­lies. In the 2004 polls, that saw the Congress-led UPA come to power in New Delhi, the fore­casts even got the win­ning di­rec­tion wrong: all polls ex­pected the BJP-led al­liance to win. In 2009, things looked less san­guine, with the Congress al­liance ex­pected to do bet­ter than its ri­vals, but even here, the BJP was ex­pected to win far more seats than it ac­tu­ally did.

Af­ter­wards, there were mut­ter­ings about deep con­spir­acy the­o­ries or fi­nan­cial pay­offs to tilt opin­ion in the BJP’s favour, leading to the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion bar­ring exit polls till all voting was over. Yet, one does not re­quire a con­spir­acy the­ory to ex­plain why the BJP is over­rated in exit polls. In a deeply hi­er­ar­chi­cal and cas­t­erid­den so­ci­ety like In­dia, al­most all elites speak their mind openly and fear­lessly, but the sub­al­tern groups do not. The un­will­ing­ness of mi­nori­ties, lower castes and Dal­its to talk openly about their voting pref­er­ences, fear­ing reprisals later, is an­other pow­er­ful fac­tor that tilts the data away from re­gional, caste-based and mi­nor­ity group­ings. And the party that gets their vote gets cred­ited with a low vote share. It is moot if the trend will hold.

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