An Insight Into Polls

An-Insight-Into-PollsQuestion: If we take notice of the polls, are young people more likely to vote to stay in the EU or to leave?

Answer: Leave – at least according to the latest poll in The Observer

During the next few weeks we are going to be bombarded with the results of opinion polls about the EU Referendum so now might be a good time to talk through the significance of polls with the youngsters in your family. Let’s look at a few questions they might be asking you.

What is the purpose of opinion polls and how do they operate?

The overall idea is that you take a small cross section of people and ask them one or more questions.  You then assume that the answers given are representative of all the people and base percentage results on that.  For more information about percentages please see the quizzes that involve percentages on the page at

Polls can be conducted by asking people on the street, by asking them to fill-in online questionnaires or by telephoning them.

Can polls be relied upon to be accurate?

Unfortunately, no. There are two major problems – finding a truly representative collection of people and asking a completely unambiguous question.

In 2015 none of the major opinion polls were suggesting that the Conservatives would gain an overall majority but they were all wrong.  A post-mortem by the pollsters themselves invariably led to the conclusion that they asked the wrong people!

It is all too easy for people to be misled by the wording of questions as evidenced by the Scottish Referendum.  Although this question was not designed for opinion polls it goes to show how careful a questioner has to be….  The Scottish government wanted the referendum question to be “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” but after much deliberation the Electoral Commission decided that when phrased this way the question was biased and what was ultimately agreed upon was “Should Scotland be an independent country?”  See the BBC website ( 

Why are there so many different polls?

The EU referendum seems to be absolutely straight forward – we need to know whether people will vote “in” or “out” but in the world of the pollsters nothing is ever that easy.  During the last week we have seen polls that try to evaluate each of the following:

  • The influence of young people
  • The influence of Jeremy Corbyn
  • The influence of the in-fighting within the Conservative party
  • Whether David Cameron should resign if the vote is for “out”
  • Whether people really understand the issues.

What is the value of polls?

For most of us, polls are nothing more than light entertainment but to politicians and businesses they are crucially important.  Throughout an election campaign the politicians will constantly watch opinion poll results to try and evaluate the effectiveness of the messages they are trying to get across.  Businesses will often pay tens of thousands of £s before deciding to launch a new product or change an existing one.  For both politicians and businesses, opinion polls form a major part of their decision-making.

What can we learn?

Probably the most significant lesson for children who see opinion polls over the next few weeks is that many important aspects of life are far from clear cut – there are usually two sides to every argument.  Watch the to-ing and fro-ing of the polls and try to judge for yourself what it is that is influencing opinions.  But don’t be too surprised if the greatest polling experts in the country get it wrong again!

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