Before you run for office, mine opinion polls for gold

Globally, opinion pollsters are treated as geeks in political circles, and locally it doesn’t help that our most celebrated pollster is represented by an extremely intelligent bespectacled political scientist. Every time survey data is released, politicians with their aggressive manner get on TV and discredit the findings because it doesn’t fit with their view of the world or because they honestly don’t know how the pollsters arrived at the results. The bullies meet the geeks in the play ground, once again.

Last January, I attended an event titled ‘Data versus Story’ at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications that aimed to improve reporting on opinion polling from media by developing dialogue between pollsters and journalists. At first, the pollsters and the media took firm opposing positions before gradually gravitating towards the centre and finally shaking hands, each side promising to pay more attention to their counter parts in future.

When I read the dailies last Wednesday following Tuesday’s opinion poll release, I was pleased to see a positive change in reporting, with deeper analysis going beyond information shared in the media briefing, indicating that someone in the newsroom took time to read through the detailed presentation to comprehensively present the facts to their readers. Media has certainly taken notice of the value of research and the insights therein which, as some would say, are hidden in plain sight.

Politicians, on the other hand, are determined to shoot the messenger as soon as they are sighted. I watched a TV debate, following the release of the survey results, between Johnson Sakaja of the ruling political coalition, Jakayo Midiwo from the opposition, and Tom Wolf the renown pollster. The two politicians locked science out and threw away the key because the entire debate circled around credibility of data and polling companies, without once referring to meaningful insights for either political party. Tom did try to bring reason into the argument, but it was clear that his words were falling upon deaf ears.

On closer examination, politicians may be playing to the gallery; by aggressively attacking purveyors of information that display their weaknesses, they might convince supporters that they are strong after all.

Around the world there are examples of surveys that have been proven wrong after the vote, but this is not a justification to throw the baby out with the bath water. Research conducted scientifically is by far the most consistent way to understand voters and it certainly beats, on all counts, listening only to your henchmen, your adorers and loyal patrons at your local. My most memorable experience with research was when one geek developed a nifty piece of handiwork which combined results of all opinion polls published before Kenya’s 2007 general election. In the computer application, the only variable we could alter was voter turnout in each constituency and it would then predict the outcome of the presidential race. We tested various scenarios on it, and when the final voter turnout numbers were published the application was spot on. It was all math; and the kind of math you want to have in your hands before you launch your candidacy.

It pays to understand how to interpret research data because of the abundance of rich information that is provided for free by various polling companies, and it is a wise move to acquire every PowerPoint presentation and Word document that they deliver to media. A detailed study of these will highlight key areas that need further examination. It helps to have a budget to buy raw data from research firms, all of them if possible. If the budget is tight, it may be prudent to buy data only for the regions that are most critical to the campaign.

A data scientist can derive penetrating insights that power campaigns and pinpoint zones that need focus of time and resources. On the other hand, it could make potential candidates abandon ship and avoid throwing good money after a lost cause. Research is certainly not the be-all and end-all of knowledge and people who use it best know how to gather data from various sources, and then independently make their own judgement. They create assumptions about their market after combing through data, and then test those assumptions on the ground by spending as much time as they can in the field listening and observing before making final decisions.

Number crunchers know how to uncover uncommon truths from datasets, and in most cases there are many positive indicators within, if one cared to look. It is possible to affect, or even dominate, several news cycles from one opinion poll and those who have this skill are likely to gain more ground and make better decisions in the final analysis.

In the words of Wole Soyinka ‘a tiger does not pronounce it’s tigritude; it pounces!’ Spewing vitriol about opinion polls at weekend political rallies is a waste of time because its not going to change ratings or fortunes in the upcoming general elections. It would be more prudent to hone skills to generate insights and learn how to let the data tell your story.

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