Dirty Harry once said “Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.” Talking heads, political pundits, talk radio and opinion driven editorials pervade our political culture today although many tend to take these things with a pinch of salt. Opinion polls however have tended to occupy a more respected part of our political discourse. That was of course until recently. The failure of the polls to predict the Conservative majority in 2015 or the election of Trump in 2016 has made the general public rather sceptical of their prognostications.
The first example of an opinion poll straw poll is from the election of 1824 where the poll indicated Andrew Jackson would beat John Quincy Adams. And whilst Jackson did win the popular vote that year, a deadlock in the electoral college meant the House of Representatives decided for Adams. By the 20th century a number of literary publications were using this new predicting device. George Gallop began to pioneer a scientific methodology that would last into the next century.
Public trust in opinion polls has been continually challenged with some truly catastrophic predictions. One of the biggest mistakes was the prediction that Republican Thomas Dewey would become president in 1948. In UK elections the polls have typically accurate predicted the result with a few notable exceptions. The polls in the 1970, 74, 92 and 2015 election all came up short.
The influence opinion polls have on voting behaviour is hotly contested with some arguing the polls have a sort of bandwagon effect, that those who are ding best attract more voters simply because of their position. Others offer the underdog effect to explain how candidates doing badly can garner support. Many countries have poll blackouts either the day or days before the election.