[Viewpoint] The pitfalls of opinion polls

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[Viewpoint] The pitfalls of opinion polls

Hur Byung-ki, former chairman of the board of Korea Polytechnic University, has been polling Korean politics for 30 years. He canvassed for the ruling party in the 1990s as well as the 2000s. He took 1,000 opinion polls ahead of the presidential election in 2002. In 2007, he helped the then-Grand National Party design the framework to survey presidential candidates.

But the expert on political polls advises that it is meaningless to canvass to gauge best candidates for public office, including legislators. Yet political parties place blind faith in opinion polls, employing them as a benchmark to short-list nominees to run in elections or primaries.

Opinion polls are hardly reliable. Asking respondents to lie about their ages while answering questions over the phone is common. Pollsters constantly dial supporters for rival candidates to keep the line busy to prevent them from answering telephone polls by a rival camp and some even bombard idle fixed lines to raise the response rate.

And when they keep to fair play, the poll and actual ballot outcomes are often different. In the local elections held just two years ago, polls showed ruling party candidates ahead of their liberal rivals bidding for mayoral and gubernatorial offices in Incheon, Gangwon and North Chungcheong. Ballot counts came out just the opposite. Polls taken just ahead of an election, in particular, should not be relied upon. Polls are conducted on random samples. In advanced countries, pollsters usually call 3,000 of a 50,000 pool and take answers from at least 1,000, or 33 percent. But the response rate in polls taken in Korea hovers at around 10 percent. In recent ones, the rate even stops at 2 percent. Calls need to be made to 50,000 to get answers from 1,000 and receive a permissible average. Those who do respond to the calls are ones usually positive toward the candidate. The results, therefore, are biased and skewed to serve their campaign purposes.

Answers can vary depending on the wording or phrasing of the question such as “Which candidate do you prefer?” or “Who will you vote for in tomorrow’s election?” Opinion polls also do not take into account the people who actually vote and those who do not make it to the voting booth.

Opinion polls do not help election results, and yet, local political parties still worship them. They have been doing that since candidates Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-joon formed a coalition during the presidential election in 2002 in hopes for the latter to steal conservative votes from a ruling party candidate.

Roh and Chung had been running head to head in approval ratings with less than 4.6 percentage points - within a margin of error - before the coalition. Chung ducked out, and Roh went on to win the election. In 2004, the Grand National Party invented a novel way of extrapolating vote outcome based on poll results to advocate that it was reflecting public opinion in the party consensus. Even when the “public opinion” was discovered erroneous and often fixed, parties choose to ignore it.

Nominating candidates for elections is one major role of political parties. Parties must select competent candidates fairly and democratically and present them before voters. They also must list their capabilities, potential and policy visions for voters to choose. It is their right as well as obligation. And that’s the only way political parties can gain power and uphold representative democracy. American political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg argued that public opinion polling should remain as a “subtle instrument of power,” instead of exploiting it as a kind of giant public relations project.

One university professor who participated in the ruling Saenuri Party’s discussions on reform said that the party well knew that it could not trust opinion polls. But polls nevertheless become an easy and simple way to select candidates.

Korea’s political parties may be either too lazy or clueless. Or they may just want to escape responsibilities from the outcome. Parties are hardly in the position to criticize the government when they cannot fulfill their critical role of selecting candidates.

Parties must restore their role if they want to uphold democracy and election principles.

*The author is deputy editor of political and international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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