Exit Poll predictions need to be discarded outrightly

Why do Exit Poll predictions need to be discarded outrightly

On Dec 7, 2018, once again, with every news channel predicting the poll results of the Assembly elections 2018 (touted as semifinal before the big Final) and giving wide range citing multiple independent Pollsters, we have the sense of déjà vu.

Which one of these, if any, should be trusted? And collectively, what is the picture that we have been presented as the Exit polls prediction? Or alternatively, should all this be consigned to the dustbin at the very outset?

What a better way than to look at the past records of pollsters?

Let’s go back to LS-2014. About 10 different pollsters gave their numbers for 543 LS seats. And the general impression after watching all the exit polls was that NDA, the leading group was expected to get the seats in the bracket of about 180-260 (one predicted 340 seats but that was rejected outrightly, if not laughed at, for not conforming to what the other 9 were predicting).

However, when the final tally of about 332 came out, all (except the one that was rejected outrightly) proved wrong despite prediction of such a wide bracket of 180-260. (Did that outlier who proved to be right against the gang of others get any special reward?)

The actual numbers projected collectively by these pollsters was outside the wide bracket not only for NDA (on the higher side) but also for the other two groupings likes UPA and Third Front (on the lower Side).

This, collective failure in 2014 was not a one off incident but was continuation of what happened in 2009  and before that in 2004 (on both the occasion, all the three  groupings got the final numbers outside  the wide bracket projected by these so called Experts/Pundits and Poll-scientists).

So, 2014 poll prediction failure was just in line with their usual track record of failure.

And even after 2014, they have maintained their record of failing miserably be it, Bihar, TN, Punjab or the monumental failure in UP 2017 & Delhi 2015.

Some will say that they have been proved right more often than being proved wrong (as if getting right 60% time is an achievement) but, then many are able to predict right more often without doing any such scientific survey.

Question is why they are proved wrong so often despite projecting a wide bracket to play safe. The reasons often touted out for failure are (a) Error in representative nature of Voters surveyed and (b) Difficulty in Converting Vote share to Seat projections.

No doubt, these are the challenging tasks (had these not been challenging, then anyone would have talked to some of his friends and predicted the results), but these are not the only reasons or in fact, the real reasons

The real reason lies in the motivation.

What is the motivation for a pollster to give the right predictions?

What is the revenue model of these pollsters and how much revenue depends upon their prediction coming true?

Does it pay more to be wrong than to be right?


It is no secret that most of the pollsters are politically motivated (if not incompetent) and their real mandate is to create public perception rather than to capture public perception.

How is that done?

It will help to read this story of Red Indians

  • It was autumn, and the Red Indians on the remote reservation asked their new Chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild.

    Since he was a Red Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets, and when he looked at the sky, he couldn’t tell what the weather was going to be.

    Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect wood to be prepared.

    But also being a practical leader, after several days he got an idea.

    He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked “Is the coming winter going to be cold?”
    “It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed,” the meteorologist at the weather service responded.

    So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared. A week later, he called the National Weather Service again.

    “Is it going to be a very cold winter?” “Yes,” the man at National Weather Service again replied,

    “It’s definitely going to be a very cold winter.”

    The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find.

    Two weeks later, he called the National Weather Service again.

    “Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?” “Absolutely,” the man replied. “It’s going to be one of the coldest winters ever.”

    “How can you be so sure?” the Chief asked.

    The weatherman replied, “The Red Indians are collecting wood like crazy.”

This story perfectly explains how they are inter-correlated and how they fail collectively

However, it is not that innocuous

As a political agent, you start with floating lies and it goes round & round before it returns to you from many different people (more so in the age of Social Media as you create an echo chamber by following people with the same ideology and mindset) and as more and more people you hear it from, you start believing it as a truth (forgetting that in fact, it was started by you and at that time, either it was a blatant lie or a feeble opinion). Original lie not just get repeated multiples times and a whole lot of spices get added to that by various recipients while they send it forward. Even If you realize that it is not true, you want others to believe it, as it is going to help you build a perception (atleast you believe that it is making a perception that will help in changing the mindset of floating voters in a desirable direction)

Your own absolute lie (or feeble opinion) gets amplified by repetitions and you start believing it as truth

The second important point lies in incentive structure

What is the revenue model of these Pollsters and how much revenue depends upon their prediction coming true?

You forget all the predictions a few days after the actual results. A few months later again listen to the some other predictions by the same pollster without paying any attention to its previous prediction.  How many agencies’ past record (may be other than Chankya) do you remember while watching the next round of exit polls?  How many channels showed the 2013 exit poll prediction of pollsters along with 2013 results while showing these exit polls so that the viewers could measure their present claims vis-a-vis their previous track record? The answer is ‘A big Zero’

Even if one accurate pollster comes out of so many, he gets shouted down in the cacophony when 10 others are predicting otherwise and a common viewer gets conditioned by the perception created by these 10 rather than believing the outliers. It is not possible for a common man to find out which of the 11 is true

So, in a nutshell, there does not seem to be any incentive to get proved right, atleast as far as viewer is concerned.

Infact, it is more rewarding to be  wrong publicly while providing the correct figures to people/organistation who can milk it for real gains (satta bazaar, stock market etc besides political party bosses who can open the communication channels to woo ‘Independents & Others’ at the earliest, in case of close contest )



Why was BJP subdued after Exit Polls

If you noticed while watching political debates in the wake of Exit polls of Assembly Elections 2018, BJP spokespersons were uncharacteristically silent/subdued and did not make much effort to oppose/discredit unfavourable exit poll results as usually the losing side does.

While the glee in opposition camp is understandable, why BJP & the pollsters (perceived to biased towards it), surprisingly are behaving as if it has lost the election

While opposition spokespeople (officials as well as Unofficial) are still in the old habits of making tall claims even after the last vote has been cast, BJP does not see, and rightly so, any benefit in that (Remember, how Amit Shah, then BJP’s election in charge of UP, 2-3 days before the actual counting on May 16, 2014, predicted 56/80 in UP while the final figure turned out to be 73/80)

BJP seems to have understood that it is the matter of just 85-90 hours between exit poll results and actual results and it does not help to float figures in its favour (voting as already happened and any tall claims won’t help garnering additional votes. Also, it helps to play underdog as it magnifies the impact of a win and diminishes the impact of a defeat

After better performance vis-a-vis Ext Poll predictions, it will help its campaigners to trash opinion polls in addition to such exit polls (Most people subconsciously don’t differentiate between opinion polls and exit polls) and claim that such polls wok against BJP

One of the pollsters who are perceived to be biased towards BJP has predicted 3-0 for congress. His this prediction of 3-0 win for congress falls in a pattern. It helps him in claiming more neutral position for future (irrespective of the actual result on Dec 11) without affecting BJP adversely anyway with his exit poll predictions. More importantly, he is predicting a big lead for BJP in LS2019 in the same states  setting the new narrative while the old ecosystem nurtured by Congress, having failed to devise new tactics, is still stuck with the same ways of hailing the coming of Rahul Gandhi for the nth time and crediting him with any win (prematurely).

To understand it better, let’s go back to 6-12 months ago period. 3 States MP, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh are long time BJP stronghold and if BJP wins these 3 states, it does not really add much to BJP’s prospect of winning LS 2019. No one is expecting BJP to lose these states (at the most, loss of a few seats).

Now, have a look at the scenario.  BJP is shown as loosing (and from Dec 7 onwards, BJP is playing along in this perception and it is helping it a lot. Winning these easy states, after giving the impression of losing it, helps it reap the better rewards.

  1. It gets the momentum by citing it as great victory (rather than an easy expected win), from the jaws of defeat , ahead of LS2019 and their reinforcing the perception of Invincibility
  1. It traps opposition in putting more at stake prematurely (remember the game of cards where after getting strong hand, you pretend otherwise so that the stake is raised by opponents)
  1. Once again (and that at a more crucial time than ever, on the eve of LS-2014) it punctures ‘Rahul coming of as a great leader ‘ after inflating it


My Limited Take on 3 States

Let’s try to look at the things objectively without getting influenced by the election related hype (like campaigning issues, opinion polls/exit polls) in past 8-9 weeks. What really has changed since then away from the usual election related cacophony? Has anything extra-ordinary happened?

The answer to my mind is a big NO


Madhya Pradesh

‘Mama’ Shiv Raj Chauhan is still popular and there does not seem to be any perceptible anger or discontent against either him or the party. There is no reason to believe that this 8.5% gap (BJP had 44.88 % vs. 36.38% lead in previous election) can be bridged in the absence of any big issue.

A theory is being floated around that people are not unhappy with CM but after 15 years want to try something new. That fact that this is being cited as the main reason to vote against BJP itself shows the dearth of issues against it.

Anyhow, even if it is accepted, then what is that something new people want to try?

A not so clean Kamal Nath and not so popular Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Trying something new in Rajasthan against CM VR Scindia (considered inaccessible) can be understood when the option available is the combine of Sachin Pilot (an unblemished energetic Young politician) and Gehlot (likable former CM of humble origin) but considering Kamal Nath-Jyotiraditya Scindia as an option in MP is laughable



Most people are talking about its record of changing government every 5 years as if the voters are duty-bound to vote that way to maintain record (Records are meant to be broken. Tamilnadu broke that tradition recently when it powered AIADMNK back, Punjab did that way back in 2012 with Akali Dal)

Last time BJP had huge lead (45% vs. 33% in 2013 assembly elections and 54% vs. 30% in 2014 Lok Sabha elections)

As said above while talking about Madhya Pradesh the alternative to incumbent CM in Rajasthan is formidable. Also, there seems to be certain discontent too, at least, in certain pockets. BJP seems to be losing certain votes but question is that ‘Can Congress bridge that gap (45 VS 33)’

The answer is Yes, Rajasthan is known for one of the largest chunk of floating votes in the country. (It not only has history of changing government every 5 years for last 20 years but also is  known for giving 25-0 verdict in Lok Sabha elections ,not just in 2014, but also in 1984 &  1989 for Cong & JD-BJP respectively).

So, a swing of 6% or even much more than that in the favor of Congress is not a big deal in state with a very high percentage of non committed voters

But, will it surely do that?

Answer is No.

On the other hand, can BJP increase its Votes/seats tally?

Though, not impossible, but doesn’t seem likely from any signals so far (regarding seats, it’s never easy to improve from the near dream tally of about 163/200)

All, I can say is that Congress is likely to increase its vote share and seat tally but by how much, that’s entirely impossible to say.



Even in previous elections, BJP had just scraped through to win this state. Despite defeats, Congress vote share in this state as stayed close to that of BJP (BJP got 41% vs. 40.3% by congress in 2013)

It is being pointed out that that Congress is likely to suffer because of Ajit Jogi-BSP alliance in the fray. But, even earlier those seats, where this alliance matters, have largely been won by BJP

Again this time, it will be difficult to predict the winner. Contest in terms of seats need not be close as a mere 3-4% votes swing from one party to another can


Author : Sunil Singla, IIM-A Alumnus, keen politica watcher, can be reached on his twitter id @sunsin11



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