You can tell that there are national elections on the way, simply because of the avalanche of public opinion polls that are being released on an almost daily basis, to inform us about what we're supposed to be thinking with regard to the various political parties, the individual party leaders, or even the economic abilities of the different candidates for the future chancellor of the exchequer. Companies such as Angus Reid, YouGov, Gallup, Harris, Ipsos Mori, ICM, Populus and Opinium are the main polling companies that carry out such statistical exercises in the UK; often in a very similar manner, but sometimes not.
Typically, most of these companies will collect their data through either online polling, or via the telephone, rather than using face-to-face interviews, which would be far more expensive and might sway opinions amongst those respondents who dislike such direct interviewing techniques. As a rule, most pollsters attempt to recreate the demographic mix of the population at large, in terms of age, gender, social class, length of residency, work status, whether they've taken a foreign holiday in the previous three years, and geographical location, as well as other incidental measures such as the newspapers that they read, which party they have previously supported, which party they are leaning towards, etc. Where respondents state that either they failed to vote in the last election, or consider themselves unlikely to vote in upcoming elections, then they are generally weighted down, or discounted entirely from the final calculations.
Studies in the United States has found some evidence that although necessary for politicians, businesses and policy makers generally, both telephone and internet polls can often have their own inherent weaknesses, to the extent that sometimes a successful outcome, in successfully matching polling evidence with actual outcomes, is just as much a case of luck, as it is anything else. It is sometimes the case that telephone polls are not truly representative of an entire market or electorate, for the simple reason that the less economically well off, the poorest section of society, are far less likely to have access to a telephone, or indeed a computer. Similarly, other studies in America have found that elderly people are far less likely to respond to a telephone poll, assuming that they bother to answer the phone at all, whilst younger households are reportedly less likely to have a fixed telephone line in their homes, than say their middle-aged or elderly counterparts. These are just a few of the potential problems and issues that virtually all public polling companies face, when trying to find out what ordinary people think about a range of products, policies, or whatever else the survey happens to be about. So when certain polling organisations try to give the impression that they have successfully identified every single possible group, whether by age, by gender, social class, residency, work status, foreign holidays, or even by the number of cars that they own, then it's perhaps worth being a little bit suspicious of their claims, because there are any number of in-built social and economic issues that make such data collection not quite so simple as they make it seem.
It is also worth pointing out perhaps that one analysis of the now much more common internet poll, suggests that by their very nature they are completely useless as a means of identifying the random view and opinions of random voters, ostensibly because there is absolutely nothing random about the people who participate in them, as the vast majority of those being questioned are being so through personal choice. For at least one leading American analyst, those who actively put themselves forward to be polled, are doing so because they have a personal interest and/or involvement with the subject at hand, which in his view makes them completely unsuitable to participate in what is supposed to be a random survey on the issues themselves, not of the preconceived or firmly held beliefs of the respondents. In the same way, where is the sense in only offering respondents a partially prompted choice of possible political parties, when other unprompted ones clearly exist for people to choose from? Having recently participated in a number of online surveys, the writer of this blog knows it to be true that he chose to involve himself in the activities of a particular polling company; and now knows how to avoid the rather obvious question of selecting either Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrats when posed the question of which one he would vote for. The point being that the poll questionnaire is deliberately designed to encourage people to choose one of the three traditional parties, rather than selecting any one of the minor political parties, which purposefully skews the outcome. There's nothing random in that, it's a flawed result, brought about by a flawed concept.
Of course, there is an argument that such questionable polling can often become a "self fulfilling prophesy", in that they help to convince wavering voters not to vote for a party, simply on the basis of the percentage that the polling companies have published for them, a vote for a minor party is going to be a wasted vote, thus encouraging some people to cast their ballot for one of the traditional mainstream parties instead. Additionally, where deliberately leading questions are posed to the respondent, this can often affect both their answer, as well as their overall perception of other specific groups, to the extent that the same question posed in a variety of ways can elicit a variety of answers, depending on how random the polling company was the results to be.
The reality is of course that significant numbers of people do want to genuinely participate in the decisions that directly affect their lives; and as a result willingly enrol themselves into polling panels, focus groups and online communities, with the intention of having their voices heard, which is admirable. Unfortunately for most, the big polling companies have been at their jobs a great deal longer than the average respondent and probably know the psychological makeup of the average voter, better than the individual knows themselves. In common with our modern media, it is a mistake to believe that today's pollsters are following the political developments of the day, because in all likelihood they are actually involved with shaping the political landscape that controls our lives. Polling companies reflect public opinion? Don't make me laugh, poll the other one!