Colombo Telegraph

Astrologers Got It Wrong Last Time, Pollsters Get It Wrong This Time

By Niranjan Rambukwella

Polls often measure perception rather than behavior. This is one reason they often fail spectacularly in predicting electoral outcomes.

Election surveys at best imperfectly measure differences in turnout between voter segments. First, because some amateur polls don’t factor in turnout at all. Second, because even professional polls can only measure voters’ stated intention. Voters often say that they plan on voting but then don’t. There are two reason for this. First, they are ashamed of telling pollsters that they are not voting. Two, they are usually over optimistic of their commitment to voting.

Turning to our current situation. In this election poor UPFA base turnout and high UNP base turnout means that all polls, which primarily measure voter perception rather than behavior, are biased in the UPFA’s favour.

For example, imagine the Colombo District has 100 voters. Suppose I conduct a survey and find that 50 voters support the UNP and 50 voters support the UPFA. This does not mean that the UNP and UPFA will each get fifty votes. Suppose 80 percent of UNP voters actually vote in the election, while only 50 percent of SLFP voters do. That means that 40 votes will be cast for the UNP and only 25 will be cast for the UPFA.

While overall voter turnout in Sri Lanka is high, making the effect of differences in party base turnout levels less significant, this election is likely to be different.

First, turnout is likely to be less than he circa seventy percent average of the past two decades. Effective implementation of election law has put a dampener on campaigning. Also voters are likely to be suffering from election fatigue after the dramatic election less than eight months ago.

Second, both UPFA and UNP turnout are likely to vary significantly from historical averages. UPFA voters are confused due to party infighting. Confusion is one of the primary causes of demotivation and thus low turnout. They also know that they will not be able to form a government and have access to the government gravy train.

UNP voters on the other hand are on the verge of being in power properly for the first time in twenty years. This in itself has energized the grassroots campaign. The UNP also dangles the promise of access to state patronage. The incumbency advantage and the bandwagon effect of the UNP winning streak will be the icing on the cake.

Finally, according to a number of polls, about 10 to 20 percent of the public remains undecided. This figure almost certainly shifted in the UNP’s favour after the President’s letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. In addition, the swing is in the UNPs favour which means that the UNP is likely to get a last minute surge.

Therefore, assuming that polls are accurately assessing perception at around 105 UNP seats, it would not be unreasonable to expect the UNP to actually get closer to 110 seats and perhaps even an outright majority in combination with the SLMC.

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