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Why did the polls get it wrong in 1992

Why Did the Polls Get it Wrong in 1992?

Opinion polls play a major role in politics, they can be used by the Government to decide when to call and election, and, among other things, how their pre-election campaigns are run. Throughout the history of opinion polling, from the time when polling began to be widely used before an election, in 1945, until 1987, the last general election before 1992, the polls have on average been correct to within 1.3% of the vote share between the three leading parties, and the 'other' category (Crewe, 1992, p. 478). This puts all the previous opinion polls well within the 3% margin of error. Because of the past accuracy of opinion polling, the system has had great credibility and has always been trusted, both by the public, and political parties. The way polling forecasts can affect the way people vote is very dramatic, this is because they can be a 'self fulfilling prophecy', in that some voters like to back the 'winning team', and others only vote for a party they feel has a real chance. This was demonstrated in 1983, when the Alliance, frustrated with the media concentrating only on their position in the polls, leaked their own private polls to the press, resulting in a late surge of support (Crewe, 1992, p.478).

Britain generally has a much greater number of opinion polls carried out than in other countries, this is due to the large number of national newspapers, and the amount of current affairs programming on television. The period prior to the 1992 general election saw a much greater intensity of opinion polling than ever before. During the 29 days between the date of the announcement of the actual election date, 11th March, and the election date itself, 9th April, there were a total of no less than 57 national opinion polls.

The 1992 election will always be remembered as the one the pollsters got wrong, during the lead up to the election, they almost all showed Labour ahead of the Tories. Of the four polls carried out in the two days prior to the actual election date, all of them pointed to a hung parliament; one put the Conservatives 0.5% ahead, one put Labour and the Tories neck and neck, the other two showed Labour ahead by a narrow margin (Crewe, 1992, p. 8). On the actual day of the election, exit polls carried out by the BBC and ITN both showed there would be a hung parliament, although both of them had the Conservatives slightly ahead. They were both not far from the actual Conservative 43%, and Labour 35%, and if they had predicted using a uniform swing assumption, they would have been very close to the real result. But they adjusted the figures as they were suspicious of the results being so far out of line with the mornings polls.

The polls were not up to their normally high closeness to the actual results for one, or both, of two very broad reasons. Firstly there must have been a late swing of undecided voters to Conservative, or secondly, that the polls that were carried out were all inaccurate, obviously for the same or similar reasons.

Looking at the first explanation, the theory that there was a late swing of 'undecided' voters in the favour of the Tories, this would have meant that the polling companies had all been correct at the time. But this, in itself, could not possibly have accounted for the incorrectness of the polls. The swing would have had to be in the order of 4%, which is unbelievably high. Although there were an exceptional number of 'undecideds' on the eve of the election, and it was evident from the post election recall surveys that there was a late swing towards the Tories (Crewe, 1992, p. 485).

Before we can look at the second explanation, that the polls were simply wrong, we should look at where the 1992 polls differed from the past, remarkably accurate polls. Polling practices had not changed much from previous years, nor had the style of the polling, the questions, samples, etc. One reason that has been put forward is that the polls didn't check that people were eligible to vote or not, this may have caused major discrepancies in the outcome of the polls. The reason this may have caused such a big problem is that a lot of people may have taken part in opinion polls when they were not registered to vote, this is because they were avoiding having to pay poll tax. In general the people avoiding the poll tax in this way were Labour voters, which could explain why the forecast polls showed Labour in the lead. On the other hand some people may have thought that simply paying their poll tax entitled them to vote, and did not actually register. There were reports of dozens of people being turned away from polling stations, as they were not registered, this was especially true at polling stations near council estates, again this is where there would be a majority of Labour voters (Crewe, 1992, p.487). A Granada TV survey of unregistered voters, found that of those interviewed, 42% would have voted Labour, compared to 21% Conservative. Some have said that another reason for the polls inaccuracies was because they didn't take into account overseas voters, but these are in negligible numbers (on average 50 per constituency, 0.07% of electorate).

Another good reason for the polls inaccuracies is that, as one columnist put it, we are becoming 'a nation of liars'. This is because a lot of people simply lied to opinion pollsters. It is believed the majority of those who did this were Conservative voters, who because of the 'shame factor' didn't like admitting that they voted Tory. Also, there could have been a prominence of Conservative voters who didn't want to divulge their vote to pollsters. These could have accounted for up to 5% of voters (Crewe, 1992, p. 487). Also it is argued that some of the electorate taking part in opinion polls lied about their vote to express their views on certain issues, but still wanting to vote for a different party; for example, a person who actually voted Tory could have told opinion pollsters that they were going to vote for the Green Party because they are concerned about 'green' issues. This would, in theory, have caused the Conservatives to worry about the popularity of the Green Party, and focus more on environmental issues. This kind of thing would have affected the accuracy of the opinion polls.

The fact that some Conservative voters would lie when faced with an opinion pollsters questions does still not explain away the fact that exit polls underestimated the actual Tory lead. This is because these were carried out by a secret ballot, so a 'shameful' Tory would not have had to tell of their vote face-to-face with someone. So, the exit polls should have been far more accurate that the forecast polls. This discrepancy is possibly because the 'exit' polls were carried out at a selection of polling stations that did not reflect the nation properly as a whole. i.e. there was a lower proportion of council tenants interviewed in exit polls than there are in the total electorate.

In conclusion, I believe that the failure of the opinion polls to accurately predict the outcome of the election is a mixture of both a last-minute swing of undecided voters towards the Conservatives, as was evident from very late polls, and follow-up surveys, and a systematic underestimation of the Conservative lead, due to the aforementioned 'shame factor'; and also an overestimation of Labours position, due to the poll tax, as explained above.


Broughton, D. (1995), Public Opinion Polling and Politics in Britain, Harvester Whitsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.

Coxall, B. & Robins, L. (1994), Contemporary British Politics (2nd Ed.), Macmillan, London.

Crewe, I. (1992), 'A Nation of Liars: opinion polls and the 1992 general election', Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 45, pp. 475-495.

Crewe, I. (1992), 'Why did Labour lose (yet again)?', Politics Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 8-9.

Jones, B. & Kavanagh, D. (1994), British Politics Today (5th Ed.), Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Ippolito, S.D. (1976), Public Opinion and Responsible Democracy, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

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