The reputation of the polling industry has suffered greatly in recent times. Internationally, the results of the Brexit referendum and the US 2016 election have cast great doubt on the methodology and ability of public and political pollsters to predict voter behaviour accurately.
Unfortunately, the results of the recent Ipsos “Pulse of the People” Survey do nothing to improve that reputation in South Africa.
On 21 June, Mari Harris, Director of Public Affairs at Ipsos, released the results of a poll putting the ANC on between 55% and 60% support, the DA between 13% and 17% and the EFF between 7% and 9%. It’s not clear exactly when the fieldwork was conducted but it appears to have been done in May. These results have subsequently been cited by many media publications without questioning methodology or even interrogating past performance.
It is essential to interpret Ipsos South Africa’s political polling in the context of their record, which has not been accurate. Their work is almost consistently wrong and their accuracy appears unrelated to how long in advance of the election their poll is taken.
In a 27 July 2010 press release, Ipsos published the results of a poll conducted in May 2010, approximately a year out from the 2011 local government election. In this release, they predicted 13% support for the DA nationally. One year later, the DA received 23.94% of the national vote, almost double what Ipsos predicted.
Their performance in the run-up to an election is no better. This can be seen in the weekly polling conducted for eNCA in major metros in the lead-up to the 2016 local government elections. For example, they had the ANC on 26% two weeks before election day in Tshwane (their Week 8 results). The ANC ended up getting 41.25%. They were equally inaccurate in Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay.
They’re also often no good on the eve of an election. In their press release one day before the 2009 general election on 21 April 2009, (“2009 National Election: Possible results”), Ipsos predicted an average 13% support for the DA, with results ranging between 11.34% and 14.66%. The DA received 16.66% of the vote.
Ipsos’ political polling has been wildly inaccurate in South Africa stretching back many years. In fact, going by the 2010 poll referenced above, an Ipsos result between 13% and 17% could auger very well for the DA’s chances in 2019. However, the fact that real election results for the DA almost always fall outside of the margin of error of their polls points to serious methodological flaws in their research, which makes it impossible to draw any serious conclusions from their public opinion polling.
It is also important to acknowledge that a poll, no matter how accurate it may be, can only be a snapshot in time. Trends are what count in the lead-up to elections and, as of yet, there is no credible public political polling that can show trends in respect of political parties ahead of the general election in 2019.
At the end of the day, the only poll that matters is the one that takes place on Election Day.
Elections are about the voters. Not political parties. Not the media. And not political pollsters.
The voters will decide who has the most compelling offer and vision for the country. They will decide who will best stop corruption, create fairer access to jobs, protect our women and children and secure our borders.
I am confident that that we will see the continuing of the most clear trend in South African politics in the past decade – and that is the trend of the DA growing and increasingly becoming a party of government that will challenge for control of the Union Buildings.
Any pollster worth their salt will have seen that the people of South Africa are desperate for immediate change that removes an oppressive system of corruption that does not put the people first.
Like the UK and US in 2016, I think political pundits are in for a surprise come the general election in 2019. DM
Jonathan Moakes is the Democratic Alliance’s chief strategist.
A medium popcorn & soft drink combo is the nutritional equivalent of three quarter-pounders and 12 pieces of butter.