TWO polls, one styled as the “State of the Nation” Poll by the CNN-IBN and another titled as the “Mood of the Nation” poll by the India Today over the past week have left everyone confused, if not about the real mood of the nation, then certainly about the ability of pollsters to gauge it correctly.
While the India Today poll says that the UPA may lose as many as 70 seats and drop to a tally of just 187-197 seats, contrarily, the CNN-IBN poll says that the UPA is likely to better its performance at the national level by winning as many as 280 seats. In terms of popular vote, the India Today poll says that the UPA is losing as much as 6.7 percentage points in votes nationally, while the CNN-IBN poll says that the UPA is gaining two percentage points.
Bizarre divergences indeed!!
Of the two, the national projections of CNN-IBN poll appear completely flawed as voters cannot be expected to give a resounding victory to a coalition after expressing a strong desire for change of the same coalition government at the Centre! While there may be occasions when people may not return to power a party that they believe has performed well in the government (as in the case of Vajpayee regime in 2004), it is utterly fallacious to think that people will vote in for a regime that has lost their goodwill and which they desperately want replaced. Tell me one such instance where a party has returned to power with a greater vote share after becoming thoroughly discredited among people. There have been none.
As far as I can remember, no two opinion polls at the national level have ever shown such divergence even in terms of whether a national alliance is gaining or losing votes. The CNN-IBN poll was conducted by the CSDS and the India Today poll was conducted by Nielsen almost around the same time. It is therefore difficult to explain the differences.
Huge Divergence in State Projections
The two polls also differ on the projections for most of the states. For instance, the CNN-IBN poll says that the Congress Party has a sizeable lead in a Lok Sabha election in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and a narrow lead in Delhi, whereas the India Today poll shows the BJP sweeping all these three states.
Paradoxically, CNN-IBN poll finds that the BJP is neck and neck with the Congress in a contest for the Madhya Pradesh assembly when it own poll shows that the state’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is one of the most popular chief ministers in the country with an approval rating of 78 per cent. To me it seems the wishful thinking of the pollsters rather than a reflection of ground realities.
In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan continues to be hugely popular. Even a large section of Congress Party’s traditional supporters are highly appreciative of his leadership and governance. The BJP has won almost every single election and by-election and wrested even the seats of the Congress in the last two years. Our ground reports suggest that the BJP is all set to post a huge victory in 2013 assembly elections. As of now, the Congress Party is not even in a position to give a good fight and would trail the BJP by more than 10 percentage points in votes.
Sample Size Small for State Projections
CNN-IBN poll has an all-India sample size of about 20,854 voters and the India Today poll has a sample of 12,000 voters. These are large enough samples for making national/ regional projections. Hence, both the polls should have arrived at broadly similar projections at the national level even if their projections varied somewhat at the state levels. Such state level variations in projections do not greatly affect the national projections as errors at state level tend to get cancelled out when they are aggregated to make national projections. Only when the pollsters have inherent biases that this statistical factor does not come into play and all the errors (mostly deliberate) are committed only in one direction.
Pollsters ought to exercise abundant caution when they put out findings based on small samples. The sample size in the CNN-IBN poll was less than 1500 in all states except UP and perhaps as low as 600 in some states. The average sample size in the India Today poll was even smaller.
Vote and seat projections with such samples are fraught with serious limitations. Bizarre Madhya Pradesh projections of CNN-IBN poll are either a victim of this greed or inherent bias.
Attempts to Boost Image
Rahul Gandhi is leading in the prime ministerial rankings of both the polls and this is largely on account of the fast depleting political stock of PM Manmohan Singh and non-projection of any leader by the Opposition as a PM candidate so far.
Here again, there are some inexplicable differences. India Today poll finds that the PM ratings of Rahul Gandhi have dropped from 28 per cent last year to 21 per cent this year, whereas the CNN-IBN poll has seen an increase in his ratings from 6 per cent in 2009 to 19 per cent this year. So is Rahul Gandhi’s popularity raising or falling? At a time when the image of the Congress Party has nosedived in the wake of successive corruption scandals, it is but natural that the image of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi as also that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken a big knock. If the pollsters believe otherwise, should we regard their poll findings as objective or a propaganda exercise?
PM leads in PM Ratings
Narendra Modi has received the highest prime ministerial rating for an opposition leader in both the polls with the India Today poll giving him a rating of 12 per cent, compared to a meagre five per cent given by CNN-IBN poll. Again, CNN-IBN pollsters’ ideology reflects more in Narendra Modi’s low rankings than the actual ground support in his favour, which is much higher.
With the Indian elections increasingly looking like presidential contests, at the time of elections people are likely to compare the prime ministerial candidates of different parties/ coalitions. These ratings would then become redundant and one-on-one comparative assessments will come into play.
A poll undertaken by the LensOnNews.com sometime ago sought to make such comparative assessments. A nationwide poll across 40 parliamentary constituencies showed that Rahul Gandhi was preferred over Manmohan Singh but Narendra Modi was preferred over Rahul Gandhi by a wide margin. Asked who would make a better prime minister between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, 53 per cent favoured Modi against only 38 per cent who voted for Rahul.
Opinion polls do not influence the way people vote in elections. Else, we would not have had so many polls going wrong in the past. While the pollsters in general had better success in projecting state election outcomes, the last two Lok Sabha elections held in 2004 and 2009 have proved all pollsters (including myself) wrong by a wide margin. Voters’ pulse is increasingly becoming difficult to gauge in national elections (raising nagging doubts about EVMs), and hence these poll findings should be taken not with a pinch but dollops of salt.
(The author is a noted Poll Analyst)