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The University of Southampton
Economic, Social and Political Sciences

Informing understanding of election polling

Researchers in Social Sciences at the University of Southampton have been at the forefront of the study of election polling worldwide, explaining recent misses of the polls in UK elections, informing the practices of survey organisations, and the reporting of polls in the media.

Professors Patrick Sturgis and Will Jennings have been leading the research that is advancing understanding of voters’ preferences and the methodological factors associated with performance of the polls. 

Research challenge

In the aftermath of the 2015 and 2017 UK general elections, the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, and the 2016 US presidential election, the performance of the polling industry came under a great deal of critical scrutiny. Some claimed that election polling is in ‘crisis’, while others have raised concerns about the effects that polls could have on voters and parties, and thus the outcome of elections. 

Professors Sturgis and Jennings have been working on survey methodology and opinion polling for over a decade. Their research seeks to understand the methodological challenges faced in conducting surveys, sources of error in the polls, and how voters’ preferences evolve over time in different political and electoral systems. It also has investigated whether polling accuracy has got worse compared to the past. 

Context

Can we trust the opinion polls? When and why do polls get it wrong? How informative are opinion polls about voters’ preferences at different points in time? Polls are widely used and much discussed in the humdrum of politics but often with limited regard for their methodological features or track record. Research at Southampton has made important contributions to our understanding of the performance of election opinion-polling in the UK and across the world.  

Our solution

Our researchers have been conducting a number of projects aimed at understanding sources of error in vote intention polls (and the methodological challenges involved in conducting election polls), how voters’ preferences change over the election cycle, and improvement of methods for survey research. They also have led official inquiries into polling by the British Polling Council and Market Research Society and the House of Lords Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media. 

  • Their research underpinned the findings of the official inquiry (commissioned by the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society) into the performance of the pre-election polls in 2015.
  • Recommendations of the inquiry informed changes in the methodologies used in the polling industry – such as in the introduction of new turnout weighting methods and increased efforts to recruit politically disengaged respondents to online panels.

  • The conclusions of the inquiry enhanced understanding of the 2015 polling failure through presentations to industry and academic conferences, as well as briefings to the media. Their report has been downloaded just under 30,000 times from the Southampton website.

  • Sturgis was the specialist adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on Political Polling between 2017 and 2018, and its report drew heavily on findings from the previous inquiry which he chaired.

  • Jennings’ comparative study of election polling accuracy in 45 countries published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour was also cited in the House of Lords report, and was discussed by the Pew Research Center in a recent feature on ‘why well-designed polls can be trusted’.
  • Jennings’ research with the ‘Polling Observatory’ has been used by OfCom in its regulation of election-related broadcast material in the UK since 2015.

  • Polling data collected by the researchers has been used in the coverage of elections across Europe by media organisations such as The Economist and El Pais. Their research has been featured in media outlets such as The Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Wired Magazine, The New Scientist, The New Statesmen, and Prospect, and they have appeared on the BBC and other broadcasters to discuss their findings and the state of political polling in the UK and elsewhere.

The research of Sturgis and Jennings on election polling has reached both national and international audiences. They have appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Political Thinking, BBC1’s Daily Politics (on multiple occasions), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s PM, and Newstalk in Ireland’s Moncrieff.

The Polling Inquiry report was covered widely in the media, for example by the BBC (and by the Editor of the BBC Political Research Unit), The Guardian, The Mail OnlineThe Week and The Telegraph.

Sturgis and Jennings have written comment pieces on polling for outlets such as Prospect, The New Statesman, The Huffington Post, The TimesThe International Business Times and The Washington Post. More widely their research has been covered by, amongst others, The EconomistThe Guardian (on multiple occasions), The TelegraphNate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight), Mother Jones, The New Statesman, Smithsonian magazine, El Pais, Bloomberg, The Atlantic, The Sydney Morning HeraldNew Scientist and Wired.

Key Publications

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