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The myth of internal political polling: The Week in Polls

The myth of internal political polling: The Week in Polls
By Dr Mark Pack • Issue #4 • View online
Welcome to the latest edition of my weekly round-up of British political polling, The Week in Polls. For more on polling check out my daily email digest with the latest polls, or my book, Polling UnPacked: the history, uses and abuses of political opinion polls.

Dear reader,
National polling
As ever, let’s kick off with the national voting intention picture, with five pollsters having polls out with fieldwork in the last week. It’s a familiar picture: Labour ahead on 39-42%, Conservatives on 32-34% (which compares with 33% for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2019 or 31% for John Major’s Conservatives in 1997), the Lib Dems on a much wider range than previously of 10-15% and the Greens on 4-6%. (See all the latest polls here.)
The latest Savanta poll looked like it showed a big movement towards the Conservatives (you see, the voters prefer a PM who parties and goes to Ukraine!) but… put the poll in the context of other recent Savanta ones and it looks very different. The story really is of a continued small but clear Labour lead.
I was going to talk about the reasons for variations between different pollsters, but as there was so little variation this week, I’ll save that for another time.
The misguided mystique of internal polling
Instead, let’s look at some of the polling lessons triggered by a report from Steven Swinford at The Times:
Although it’s not completely clear if Levido was making an interestingly brave take on public polling or was referring to private, internal polling, it’s a good prompt to bash the myth of the latter.
The media and others often bestow on internal polls a sense of mystique and unique insight, making internal opinion polls sound exciting and especially revelatory. They are not.
Internal political polls generally ask the same or similar questions as public polls. Moreover, the budgets political parties or candidates allocate to such polls are frequently modest, at least outside the USA – and even at many levels of election in the USA. 
Being private polls for a particular client, there is a risk that the lack of transparency results in skewed findings that favour the client, deliberately or inadvertently.
Likewise, it is much easier for reporting to slip up on what a poll really says if it is a report on a private poll, perhaps only briefly or partially seen by a journalist, and often a general political journalist rather than a polling expert. Even at the simplest level of whether some data comes from an opinion poll at all – as opposed to canvassing returns or other data gathered by political campaigns – it is far from rare to see media reports fail to make a clear distinction.
You also do not have to be too cynical to wonder if sometimes figures are made up, or at least generously weighted and rounded off.
Now, internal polls, where genuine, can be useful, to tease out extra information that those running parties and campaigns need to know, such as testing out different possible policy ideas and messages.
But if they tell a significantly different story from the public polls, that is almost always because they are wrong.
Yet they certainly sound more exciting - and hence, to take one example from my book which goes into this all in more detail, the Sunday Times story in 2020 about Boris Johnson being briefed on private polling ahead of the US election. There was nothing in it that you could not glean from reading the U.S. polling page on Wikipedia. But ‘here are some exclusive private polls, Prime Minister’ certainly sounds more impressive than ‘here is a page printed from Wikipedia, Prime Minister’.
Also in the polls...
Thank you
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Till next time,
Did you enjoy this issue?
Dr Mark Pack

Once a week round-up of what we've learnt from British political opinion polling, from the author of "Polling UnPacked: the history, uses and abuses of political opinion polling".

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