A Quick Guide to Political Polls

A Quick Guide to Political Polls

19 October, 2022

Political polls can make for interesting and often exciting reading. But before you get too excited (or depressed), can we use them to know who will win the next election?

The simple answer is no. And here is why.


The polls give an indication of preferences based on a sample of individuals. Those numbers are then used to digest what the overall picture *might* look like. But remember, it is a sample.

Blog & Podcast: Take a sampleWe can rarely know everything about a big group but in taking a sample we must recognise the limitations as well as the insights.

Our understanding of the real total is only as good as the sample we take. Knowing how that sample relates to a wider group or population is the context we need for the results to have any meaning.


The other issue is that the distribution of that sample. Despite the best efforts of pollsters, that sample is never evenly distributed across the whole country. It makes predicting who will win local seats quite tricky because peaks and troughs of support will influence local results.

Blog & Podcast: DistributionWhy a “one in whatever” distribution of cases isn’t as straightforward as it might look and what this means for our reaction

Ask yourself how evenly those cases are distributed within that group or population and then what the factors are or might be that make the spread less even.

Local effects and human behaviour

Because local seats are based not just on preference of political party but also local opinions of issues and candidates. I can recall a seat in the 1997 General Election that had been held by a party for over 60 years yet a local candidate beat a future Prime Minister because of the local connection.

Much like a google review of coffee shops, the party might be great but the local candidate hopeless (or the other way around).

Blog & Podcast: Measured OpinionHow do you use the opinions of others to make decisions effectively? In this blog we use scales, coffee shops and the size of hotel bathrooms to find out.

These qualities - the location, the service or the pastries - explain more about the review. Sometimes they are useful proxies for the quality of the coffee but we can’t take that for granted either.

Polls provide insights but they don’t give definitive answers. The only way we find out is by holding the election.

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