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Polling

The scene is my front room on a Friday watching the Late Late Show. But it was no ordinary Friday.


It was the 24th of May 2019, the day of the European Parliament elections in Ireland. Ryan Tubridy was about to announce the result of the RTE exit poll at 10pm once the polls were closed. My wife, my Director of Elections and my deputy director of elections were chatting nervously having opened a few drinks.


Then the bombshell. Ciaran Cuffe was on 23% and I was at 12%. I was coming in joint fourth and the poll, if accurate, would almost certainly mean no seat having been at 17 or 18% in earlier polls.


Naturally, we were all shocked. I got a call from the National Director of Elections, Darragh O’Brien, now the Minister for Housing. He said he didn’t believe the poll and that we would have to wait until the votes were counted. I wished I shared his optimism.


Because it was a European election, the boxes wouldn’t be opened and the votes wouldn’t be counted until polls had closed across Europe so we were faced with an agonising wait until at least Monday lunch time.


When the first count was finally announced, Ciaran was on 17% and I was on 14.5%, in third place.


I tell this story to illustrate how careful we should be about over stating the current polling position of Joe Biden. By all accounts, he is home and hosed.


But polling is neither an exact science nor a science at all. It’s more of an art form - very creative and open to endless interpretation.


Back in 2016 just before the election, Hilary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning the election according to a poll of polls. It is true that she won the popular vote and that Trump’s victory turned on winning key swing states that Clinton had ignored.


The electoral college system favoured Trump which is a paradox because the founders of the US Constitution designed it as an obstacle to populist majoritarianism.


The lack of any science in polling is a real problem because polls can influence outcomes. Back in my undergraduate days in the school of politics in UCD, we were taught about the ‘horserace theory’ of political polling. Voters preferred to back the guy who was coming up in second place, so the theory went. And if Trump was gaining on Clinton in the last few weeks, then this trend influenced many to back him.


This is one of the reasons why polling is banned in the last week of an election in Ireland. CHECK


But there are many other problems with polling. The most commonly articulated is that many voters are more more likely to tell a stranger what they want to hear. They are too embarrassed to say that they are voting for Trump because of his socially unacceptable views.


Also the US population is far less homogenous these days and so it is much harder to obtain a representative sample. To correct for this, pollsters will add additional weight to the views of someone otherwise under represented in the sample.


There is also a big difference between an online sample, which would obviously favour younger voters and a telephone sample. The number polled and the locations all add to the uncertainty.


To be fair, the UK exit polls were incredibly accurate in December 2019 on the occasion of Boris Johnson’s general election victory.


It is in this context that Joe Biden’s lead should be understood. From a political view, here in the EU, we are desperately hoping that the election is won by someone who respects normal conventions about the rule of law, multilateralism and old fashioned good manners.


Trump has abandoned many of the international conventions that set standards across the world. He has either undermined or withdrawn from the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and the . As a neutral country, his criticism of NATO is none of our business but it is one of the main reasons why Chancellor Merkel describes the US as an unreliable ally.


He has been openly critical of the European Union itself which is allowed but not when it is the kind of infantile nonsense that goes well with core Republican voters. He has supported Brexit which again is allowed but



I will be back in the front room on November 3rd awaiting what I hope is the end of a nightmare of climate vandalism, misogyny, racism, dishonesty and bad manners and I will wait until the key states of Florida, Wisconsin and others have declared results before opening any drinks.


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