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Do not believe in polls!

The real losers of the recent general election in Germany are neither Chancellor Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) nor Angela Merkel’s Conservative Party, although both lost votes compared to the 2002 election (4.2 and 3.3 per cent respectively). The real losers are Germany’s polling companies that all predicted a considerable lead for Angela Merkel. Estimating the share of votes for the five political parties, infratest dimap, a leading polling institute, was out by 10.6 points altogether – essentially, the data was useless. During the election night, Lutz Haverkamp of the Berlin-based newspaper Tagesspiegel already joked that “tomorrow we will unsubscribe from the pollsters and have a company party instead”. He was probably not the only one who thought so.

The 2005 elections were not the first time when polls turned out to be absolutely flawed. In 2002, the polls also predicted a victory for the Conservatives. So what went wrong? Pollsters blame the voters: Because traditional party milieus erode and voters decide on an ever shorter notice who they will vote for, they argue, forecasts are difficult to make.

In reality, voters have just learned to exploit polls for their interest: Instead of wasting their vote in a protest vote against a government, they punish the parties with low support in opinion polls. This was clearly the case in Germany: The electorate was unhappy with the tough economic reforms of the Schröder government, but, on the other hand, was not willing to give their vote to the even stricter Conservative party either. The result is a party political stalemate that will probably have led to a grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD by the time this newsletter is published – arguably the worst option and likely to end in further regression.

Still, is there anything we can learn from the election? Yes, there is: Do not believe in polls. They often do not reflect reality. Instead, politicians should listen to the British author, mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russel (1872-1970) who once argued: “One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” For Gerhard Schröder, however, this is apparently not new: His incredibly successful election campaign transformed him from the “challenger in office” to the self-conscious statesman he used to be.

This text was first published in the newsletter of the York Union Debating Society.

Foto: Konrad Gaehler, Wahldiagramm, Lizenz: CC BY 2.0

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