Why can’t journalists understand polls?

Why can’t journalists understand polls?

    Ignorant media boost Hughes in the betting

Four Mondays ago Jackie Ashley wrote a sharp attack in her Guardian column on the influence of betting andrew marr.jpgon politics in the UK and singling out this site in particular for the role it has.

But one thing Ashley ought to consider is that those who want to bet successfully on political outcomes have to understand polls – a skill that appears to be sadly lacking amongst many of her colleagues. For those risking their own cash need to be able to assess the importance of each survey and how the electoral process works.

A case in point was her husband, the former BBC Political Editor, Andrew Marr, yesterday. In his introduction to his interview with Simon Hughes on his Sunday morning show he played up the YouGov findings showing that his guest was well ahead amongst “Lib Dem voters”.

Unfortunately Marr said it was of the people that matter – Lib Dem activists. The whole interview then took place on a false premise although he did correct himself afterwards.

    The Lib Dem leadership will, of course, be decided by the ballot of 74,000 members who were sent their ballot papers last week. These represent a very small proportion of the 5,981,874 people who voted for the party last May.

The “move back to Hughes” story was based on a subset of declared Lib Dem supporters in the sample of 1,600. My estimate is that when the full data is made available it will show that barely 160 people were in that category and that the headlines were formed on the view of about 55 people who opted for Hughes.

This has echoes of that famous Populus “poll” during the Tory leadership race which had David Davis beating David Cameron by 50%-37%. That was splashed by the Times and sent the David Cameron price out from 0.09/1 to, at one stage, 0.5/1. Cameron, of course, went on to win by the 2-1 margin that the polls restricted to Tory members predicted.

Because most surveys are commissioned by newspapers the editors tend to focus on the ones that that have spent money on. Other papers tend to play down polls in other parts of the media. The result is that there is very little critical coverage of polling as a whole.

In the Lib Dem betting Hughes has tightened considerable over the past day and now stands at 7.8/1. Huhne is still favourite at 0.88/1 with Campbell at 1.58/1.

I’m sticking with the YouGov Lib Dem members poll of last Wednesday which had Huhne ahead but within the survey’s margin of area. So I make a lot if Huhne wins, and a reasonable amount if it is Campbell.

Mike Smithson

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