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‘Wasted vote syndrome’ and human behaviour - Polling phenomena to look out for as election nears

In the lead up to the General Election, there are fascinating phenomena attached to political polling that the public could start to see, ranging from the intricacies of human behaviour to “wasted vote syndrome”, a researcher says.

Source: Seven Sharp

University of Auckland lecturer and polling researcher Dr Lara Greaves said, in her opinion, the best way for people to use poll results in the lead up to the election is to look at longer-term trends rather than focus too much on one poll result.

She said single poll results were just a “snapshot in time”.

Comparisons could also be made between polls of the same company over time, Dr Greaves said.

She said there were two ways people generally reacted to polls — either join the bandwagon or back the underdog.

“There’s the idea that people then go jump on the bandwagon because such and such is popular,” she said.

“That’s the idea of where, suddenly, you see this poll in the press and you see that people are shifting towards [that party] … people are more likely to take whatever party the support is going in the direction in a bit more seriously.

“The underdog effect is the idea that people will shift party votes to try to support the party to get over the [five per cent] line.”

Suspicion about polls

Dr Greaves said it was common for people to respond to polls with some suspicion and wonder why they’d never been polled.

“But your chances of being selected are quite slim because each poll is only 1000 or so people of the millions of people in New Zealand.”

But, she said people’s suspicion about polls go a long way back.

Winston Peters. Source: Getty

In 1999, NZ First MP Winston Peters introduced a bill which attempted to ban political polling 28 days from the General Election, believing voters would be swayed by the results. 

Dr Greaves said there was some truth to the belief. 

There hadn’t been any recent large studies in New Zealand, but a 1999 study found there was a “small percentage where voters shifted parties”, she said.

She said more research needed to be done in New Zealand to better understand the “psychological effects of polling in an MMP environment”, especially as the country had already gotten to grips with the voting system since its introduction in 1996.

But, in general, “people do generally like to back a winner”, she said. 

“In politics, when your team wins, then it’s like when the All Blacks win.

“You kind of get this boost to your self esteem and your wellbeing. It’s just a small one, but still.”

She said polls were important to assess the “pulse of the nation”, especially with the country’s five per cent threshold to enter Parliament under MMP and the potential for coalition Governments.

“There's a great quote along the lines of political polls are designed to teach us that our friends are wrong," Dr Greaves said.

“Otherwise, we wouldn’t have any good indicator of how the public thinks. I think we need that rather than it just being a group of media commentators, academics … we would kind of get in this groupthink mentality.

“We all think our mates are going to vote in the same way.”

She said polls could also show whether political messages were resonating with the public. 

Smaller parties and the ‘wasted vote syndrome’

As to how polling could affect smaller parties, she said the way people reacted to their poll results would depend on the party. 

For some small parties, Dr Greaves said they suffered from “wasted vote syndrome”.

“The closer they get [to the five per cent threshold], the more legitimate they look and they’d have a higher chance of getting people to shift to them,” Dr Greaves said.

“So, people’s belief in their policies and kaupapa needs to outweigh that idea that your vote is going to be wasted because the party’s not going to get a seat.”

But, Dr Greaves said people needed to keep in mind there were aspects that could influence polling results. 

For example, people being interviewed by pollsters were generally less likely to express views they think others viewed as “edgy”, she said.

How accurate can polls be?

Dr Greaves said landline and cellphone calling was still the industry standard, but some polling companies were beginning to experiment with online methods.

She said Māori, Pasifika and Asian populations were often underrepresented in polling samples, meaning polling companies needed to compensate by weighting their poll results to better reflect the actual population make-up. 

“So that's where you're potentially introducing some errors or misrepresentation, and each political polling company’s weighting methodology is their intellectual property so they don’t release that.”

She said there were a number of reasons for the groups’ underrepresentation, including socio-economic factors meaning some groups were more likely to be renters and move around more, language barriers, acculturation and distrust for pollsters.

Because the extent of polling’s effects on people’s opinions needed further study, she said the way poll results were reported needed to be carefully considered.

Dr Greaves said she’d also like to see polling companies release more of the technical details behind their methodology, both for the sake of researchers and the general public.

“But, on the whole, they're pretty good. And they're pretty statistically robust.”