Why Did The Polls Get It Wrong

In 1992? Essay, Research Paper

Why Did the Polls Get it Wrong in 1992?

Opinion polls play a major role in politics, they can be used by the Government

to decide when to call and election, and, among other things, how their pre-

election campaigns are run. Throughout the history of opinion polling, from the

time when polling began to be widely used before an election, in 1945, until

1987, the last general election before 1992, the polls have on average been

correct to within 1.3% of the vote share between the three leading parties, and

the ‘other’ category (Crewe, 1992, p. 478). This puts all the previous opinion

polls well within the +/-3% margin of error. Because of the past accuracy of

opinion polling, the system has had great credibility and has always been

trusted, both by the public, and political parties. The way polling forecasts

can affect the way people vote is very dramatic, this is because they can be a

’self fulfilling prophecy’, in that some voters like to back the ‘winning team’,

and others only vote for a party they feel has a real chance. This was

demonstrated in 1983, when the Alliance, frustrated with the media concentrating

only on their position in the polls, leaked their own private polls to the press,

resulting in a late surge of support (Crewe, 1992, p.478).

Britain generally has a much greater number of opinion polls carried out than in

other countries, this is due to the large number of national newspapers, and the

amount of current affairs programming on television. The period prior to the

1992 general election saw a much greater intensity of opinion polling than ever

before. During the 29 days between the date of the announcement of the actual

election date, 11th March, and the election date itself, 9th April, there were

a total of no less than 57 national opinion polls.

The 1992 election will always be remembered as the one the pollsters got wrong,

during the lead up to the election, they almost all showed Labour ahead of the

Tories. Of the four polls carried out in the two days prior to the actual

election date, all of them pointed to a hung parliament; one put the

Conservatives 0.5% ahead, one put Labour and the Tories neck and neck, the other

two showed Labour ahead by a narrow margin (Crewe, 1992, p. 8). On the actual

day of the election, exit polls carried out by the BBC and ITN both showed there

would be a hung parliament, although both of them had the Conservatives slightly

ahead. They were both not far from the actual Conservative 43%, and Labour 35%,

and if they had predicted using a uniform swing assumption, they would have been

very close to the real result. But they adjusted the figures as they were

suspicious of the results being so far out of line with the mornings polls.

The polls were not up to their normally high closeness to the actual results for

one, or both, of two very broad reasons. Firstly there must have been a late

swing of undecided voters to Conservative, or secondly, that the polls that were

carried out were all inaccurate, obviously for the same or similar reasons.

Looking at the first explanation, the theory that there was a late swing of

‘undecided’ voters in the favour of the Tories, this would have meant that the

polling companies had all been correct at the time. But this, in itself, could

not possibly have accounted for the incorrectness of the polls. The swing would

have had to be in the order of 4%, which is unbelievably high. Although there

were an exceptional number of ‘undecideds’ on the eve of the election, and it

was evident from the post election recall surveys that there was a late swing

towards the Tories (Crewe, 1992, p. 485).

Before we can look at the second explanation, that the polls were simply wrong,

we should look at where the 1992 polls differed from the past, remarkably

accurate polls. Polling practices had not changed much from previous years, nor

had the style of the polling, the questions, samples, etc. One reason that has

been put forward is that the polls didn’t check that people were eligible to

vote or not, this may have caused major discrepancies in the outcome of the

polls. The reason this may have caused such a big problem is that a lot of

people may have taken part in opinion polls when they were not registered to

vote, this is because they were avoiding having to pay poll tax. In general the

people avoiding the poll tax in this way were Labour voters, which could explain

why the forecast polls showed Labour in the lead. On the other hand some people

may have thought that simply paying their poll tax entitled them to vote, and

did not actually register. There were reports of dozens of people being turned

away from polling stations, as they were not registered, this was especially

true at polling stations near council estates, again this is where there would

be a majority of Labour voters (Crewe, 1992, p.487). A Granada TV survey of

unregistered voters, found that of those interviewed, 42% would have voted

Labour, compared to 21% Conservative. Some have said that another reason for

the polls inaccuracies was because they didn’t take into account overseas voters,

but these are in negligible numbers (on average 50 per constituency, 0.07% of


Another good reason for the polls inaccuracies is that, as one columnist put it,

we are becoming ‘a nation of liars’. This is because a lot of people simply

lied to opinion pollsters. It is believed the majority of those who did this

were Conservative voters, who because of the ’shame factor’ didn’t like

admitting that they voted Tory. Also, there could have been a prominence of

Conservative voters who didn’t want to divulge their vote to pollsters. These

could have accounted for up to 5% of voters (Crewe, 1992, p. 487). Also it is

argued that some of the electorate taking part in opinion polls lied about their

vote to express their views on certain issues, but still wanting to vote for a

different party; for example, a person who actually voted Tory could have told

opinion pollsters that they were going to vote for the Green Party because they

are concerned about ‘green’ issues. This would, in theory, have caused the

Conservatives to worry about the popularity of the Green Party, and focus more

on environmental issues. This kind of thing would have affected the accuracy of

the opinion polls.

The fact that some Conservative voters would lie when faced with an opinion

pollsters questions does still not explain away the fact that exit polls

underestimated the actual Tory lead. This is because these were carried out by

a secret ballot, so a ’shameful’ Tory would not have had to tell of their vote

face-to-face with someone. So, the exit polls should have been far more

accurate that the forecast polls. This discrepancy is possibly because the

‘exit’ polls were carried out at a selection of polling stations that did not

reflect the nation properly as a whole. i.e. there was a lower proportion of

council tenants interviewed in exit polls than there are in the total electorate.

In conclusion, I believe that the failure of the opinion polls to accurately

predict the outcome of the election is a mixture of both a last-minute swing of

undecided voters towards the Conservatives, as was evident from very late polls,

and follow-up surveys, and a systematic underestimation of the Conservative lead,

due to the aforementioned ’shame factor’; and also an overestimation of Labours

position, due to the poll tax, as explained above.


Broughton, D. (1995), Public Opinion Polling and Politics in Britain, Harvester

Whitsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.

Coxall, B. & Robins, L. (1994), Contemporary British Politics (2nd Ed.),

Macmillan, London.

Crewe, I. (1992), ‘A Nation of Liars: opinion polls and the 1992 general

election’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 45, pp. 475-495.

Crewe, I. (1992), ‘Why did Labour lose (yet again)?’, Politics Review, Vol. 2,

No. 1, pp. 8-9.

Jones, B. & Kavanagh, D. (1994), British Politics Today (5th Ed.), Manchester

University Press, Manchester.

Ippolito, S.D. (1976), Public Opinion and Responsible Democracy, Prentice Hall,

Englewood Cliffs, NJ.


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