Do Voters Do What They Say?

May 26, 2019

When excitement mounted about elections in Australia this year, many people were confident that the current ruling party—the Liberal-National Coalition—would lose. Why? Because the party seemed to have unpopular views about issues ranging from climate change to immigration. Plus, the party had troubles at the leadership level and saw three prime ministers in just the last few years.

As is often the case, research groups polled voters before the elections, asking citizens how they planned to vote. Those polls indicated that the Liberal-National Coalition was unpopular and that they would lose the election, but when it came time to vote, the results said otherwise; they actually won. Wait … how can that happen? Imagine there were elections at your school. A week beforehand, you ask students who they’re voting for, and they tell you candidate A. Wouldn’t you be surprised if candidate B won instead? Yep, we would be too!

Many people in Australia are wondering just how accurate these polls are in predicting election results. Decades ago, opinion polls in Australia involved randomly calling residents and asking them who they would likely vote for. The key word here is randomly. The idea was that a random sample was a good indication of how the country as a whole would vote. So instead of calling all of the residents in one neighborhood, for example, a random sampling allowed polling companies to poll people from all over the country. Today, calling people at home is no longer the only way polling is done; instead, it’s a combination of home phones, mobile phones, robot calling, and more. Experts say that the people being polled these days are no longer random, and that the results could be very inaccurate. In addition, the companies that conduct opinion polls aren’t always very clear about how well they represent the opinions of the entire population.

So perhaps relying on opinion polls alone isn’t the best way to determine the eventual victor. Maybe the unreliability of poll results is due to people changing their minds or to flaws in how people are polled. Whatever the reason, the Liberal-National Coalition is back in power in Australia, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison remains in his role.

Have you ever been surprised at the outcome of an election?