Case study 54 opinion polling faces new scrutiny

'The general election will determine which techniques will be used for opinion polling in future, although the diversity of current practices may make it more difficult for the polling industry as a whole to win credibility,' Mr John Curtice, a reader in politics at Strathclyde University, said yesterday.

He said that because pollsters had changed their methodologies in different ways after getting the 1992 election wrong, this election would be a test of which of the various methods now in use was most accurate.

The polling industry was as diverse in its methodologies as it had ever been, in contrast to the last election, when there was a broad consensus about how polling should be conducted, Mr Curtice said.

He told the Market Research Society conference in Birmingham that the election would provide an opportunity to assess the relative merits of telephone and face-to-face polling and of sampling on a random basis or by setting certain quotas for the types of people to be questioned.

A study following the debacle of 1992 said the surveys did not identify hidden Tories and that the controls in quota sampling were not enough to counter the possibility that people questioned in a quota poll were more likely to be Labour than the population in general.

The polls' failure in 1992 to reflect the Tory victory has allowed the Conservative party to cast doubt on the credibility of the overwhelming Labour lead, which most have shown for many months.

Among changes brought in since 1992, NOP and Mori have altered how they weight the quotas they set, by making more use of government surveys, such as the Labour Force Survey.

ICM and Gallup have both switched to using a form of random sampling rather than quota sampling and to telephone polling instead of face-to-face interviews. Pollsters have also adjusted how they weight figures depending on how people say they voted in the last election.

Source: Smith6 (reprinted with permission)

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