“Unfortunately, the exaggeratedly high emphasis placed on the results of opinion polls emasculates political competition and makes many leaders rest on their oars.”
Opinion polls in general and political ones in particular are not so much ‘scientific’ research tools as they are advertising products. Like in a lasting war, the protagonists need encouragement, as what usually makes the difference is the moral tonus. In a ‘battle’ there are several moments when the situation wings in balance, when campaigners either take the decisive assault or ‘run away’ in complete disarray. An electoral opinion poll partly plays such a role.
When figures give reasons to expect an almost sure victory, the conditions of the future campaign are different. A sudden self-assuredness habilitates not just for attitudes of a superior derision of the opponent’s situation, well received by an audience who is avid of its share of ‘gladiator fighting’, where the asymmetry of forces and disproportionate attacks by ‘the stronger one’ arouse rough emotions and satisfaction in a spectator who is little interested in longer-term ramifications, but also gives the mental comfort that’s so necessary for a better conception of electoral strategies.
In politics and in war what is mostly appreciated is force and the victory over the opponent brings along public recognition. However, before the actual electoral victory decided by figures alone, there are still some concrete facts that make people vote one or another way. The point of the campaign is to compete in front of the ‘judges’ and win as many ‘points’ as you can. However, in spite of what some may think, the essential thing is not to convince with arguments that you can implement a certain measure. No, first of all you need to demonstrate that you can nail down your opponents. This is why the publication of opinion poll results during the actual voting hours is prohibited, as it could be influenced by that. The same principle operates before that, so the period of the ban should be normally extended. Meanwhile, the polls will continue to work as subtle means of ‘manipulation’. But there is also another thing that makes opinion polls so ‘manipulative’. Most people vote in a mimetic manner, because they do not have true personal opinions. Such people are very easy to influence as they are little interested in the values or principles paraded by the competitors. Sometimes they are personally attracted by some punctual things, but the political debate usually remains at such a general level that the polarisation does not depend on too concrete subjects. But, most often opinion polls fulfil exactly the role of being the opinion ‘of the others’, leading to the following syllogism in the voter’s mind: ‘if the majority vote for X, they must have a reason to do that’, which creates another tie with the already popular candidate. A particular nuance of this mentality is the one that gives value to the strong candidate from the point of view of his power formalised by the results of the vote. In not so many words, it’s preferable that whoever is elected enjoys a more comfortable scope of power than to share it with other ones which leads to a less effective administration. There are some people who prefer a balance between the various parties and between power and opposition, but there are definitely more who want effective governance.
On the other hand, the debate on the psychological role of opinion polls can also be led from the point of view of political actors. Seen like a war cry in front of an enemy who still causes a bit of concern if not sheer fear, encouragements are more important than one may think. Even if for the internal balance of a party always living with the threat of changes in the hierarchy of power, encouragements are used to discourage ‘inopportune’ rebellion. Former party leader and PM Calin Popescu Tariceanu did not appear to be interested in a putsch of the unhappy PNL troops as long as Crin Antonescu was romping in opinion polls.
Polls are therefore also a weapon designed to gain trust and support from your own ‘troops’. In the special situation of an alliance, the intention is to demonstrate to the sceptics its at least tactical virtues.
Unfortunately, the exaggeratedly high emphasis placed on the results of opinion polls emasculates political competition and makes many leaders rest on their oars. The live – selective, of course, but concrete, too – interaction with concrete people is replaced by the ‘statistical’ imaging of extremely circumstantial answers that involve the political conscience of the respondent in the most restrictive of ways. At least the old times‘ rallies were engaging political passions stirred up by a certain ad-hoc rhetoric and even entailed a tiny commitment on behalf of the public, not to mention the virtues of solidarity – even if a primary one – with the rest of the participants.
Another aspect that should never be overlooked is the sometime surprisingly wide confidence intervals. We should never forget the latest presidential election where the candidate who eventually lost rushed to toast with champagne after learning the results of a favourable exit poll. The say ‘He who laughs last, laughs longest’ should make all these ‘opinion poll knights’ with their slightly snobbish air more cautious. The truth is they are just too lazy to be true politicians and also too coward to come out from behind figures and face reality.