Besides its obvious application in the development of campaign strategy, polling is useful for formulating political ideology and public policy…

Mfon Eyoma

There is virtually no other field of human endeavour where the prediction of outcomes is as critical as in today’s big-budget politics. Polling is specialised research and typically conducted by large consulting firms and academia through telephone surveys and questionnaires that target population samples based on demographic and psychographic criteria.

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Polling most probably started in 1824 with “exit” or “straw” polls; impromptu interviews conducted by newspapers with voters as they left the polling booth. However, George Gallup, who founded the American Institute of Public Opinion and the Gallup Poll in 1936, is credited as the father of scientific polling. The Gallup Poll was soon followed by the Public Opinion Quarterly of Princeton University in 1937, the Roper and Crossley Poll (FORTUNE Poll) in 1941, and the American Association for Public Opinion Research in 1947. Since then, pollsters have become an integral part of campaign teams, notably, Louis Harris (Harris Poll), in General Eisenhower’s campaign in 1952 and Dr. Richard Wirthlin, who became the first semi-official pollster when he joined President Reagan’s White House staff as an adviser. More recently, UK’s YouGov was founded by Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi in May 2000.

Besides the well-established global research firms such as Gallup, YouGov and Pew, universities like Quinnipiac and Monmouth and broadcast media such as Reuters/Ipsos, ABC News/Washington Post, CBS/Tech Republic and CNN have large research consultancies or partner themselves to run polls.

The need for polling in politics was underscored by Abraham Lincoln (U.S. President, 1861-1865) when he famously declared: “What I want to get done is what the people desire to have done, and the question for me is how to find that out exactly.”

Polling focuses political discourse on a topical issue and helps politicians assess public opinion and guide policy. In advanced democracies, the ballot routinely incorporates polling for so much public opinion on other issues that it can be rightly considered a national or state referendum. In the U.S. general election of 2016, voters were polled on other issues, ranging from the economy, terrorism and Supreme Court appointments to gun control, immigration and abortion.

Polling creates the avenue for public participation and a sense of involvement in governance, especially when leveraged by an honest politician such as Abe Lincoln in the preceding paragraph. In fact, polling and freedom are so inseparable that dictators never risk independent opinion surveys.

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Besides its obvious application in the development of campaign strategy, polling is useful for formulating political ideology and public policy in a nascent democracy such as ours, and because they can be conducted for any purpose, they are a veritable tool not only in politics but also in business.

Polls provide raw data that predictive analytics and audience insight tools analyse to understand the preferences and motivation of consumers and voters. Predictive analytics is a pattern-recognition application that identifies behaviour and unique behavioral connections. The Audience Insight app reveals, says Alexander Nix, CEO of data mining firm Cambridge Analytica in a recent interview, “core personality traits” and motivating triggers. Although Cambridge Analytica has been scandalized for its unauthorized mining and unethical use of personal data, the benefit of its technology in politics and commerce is hard to ignore. An online poll can reach a wider audience than traditional telephone surveys. With mobile devices and the Internet, an online poll is just as easy to send to respondents in China as in Europe. This is of particular advantage in the global economy age where companies looking to expand into a new market would like to test public reaction to their product first.

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Political polling generally follows the sophistication of electoral systems and communication infrastructure of a country. Nigeria as an independent country is only 58 years old and our democracy is even much younger, having been truncated for the larger part of those years. Our electoral system is still manual, and our telephone and postal systems were too poor to support traditional research methods of telephone surveys and questionnaires until about 2002. Our manual electoral system was further compounded by widespread irregularities and outright fraud so that ballot papers were not only unreliable but also inaccessible to psephologists for any meaningful post-election analysis.

Consequently, Nigeria did not begin to benefit from polls and surveys until the Internet and telecom boom, which really began in 2002. With improved ICT infrastructure and the growth of social media, several organisations have contracted research firms to conduct online surveys mostly for purposes of testing new products and markets but the political polls niche is still untapped. Media organisations often run snap or call-in polls on topical political issues of the day to augment their news coverage but these are opaque efforts that do not show any relationship between the few participants and the larger populace from which a general trend may be gleaned.

PollBook is a new platform to run polls, debate and vote on topical issues and mobilize support for popular action. It can leverage the Internet and new media to generate public interest in politics, especially among millennials, and then translate that interest to actual participation in the ballot and real actions that force policy and change.

We have replicated the electoral system of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and designed the “Register of Voters” to capture details such as age, gender, religion, political affiliation, educational standard, occupation, state of origin, state of residence etc. Under the state of origin and state of residence we have further identified the voter by her local government area, ward, state and federal constituencies and senatorial districts. Nigerians abroad will be able to select their country of residence from a dropdown and equally participate in the polls. When we analyse poll results by these fields, we’re able to predict a candidate’s chances at the general election with more reliable intelligence. All registration fields are non-mandatory but although non-registered or partially registered users may also vote in the polls, we will know and disclose their numbers separately in our poll results.

Currently, voters are restricted to fixed locations on Election Day but our system is deliberately more inclusive to generate the data required for a sustained and robust political discourse. For the candidates, our analysis of the results narrows the field to gain the intelligence required for political strategy and where more reliable data is required, we can verify a representative sample of voters through email and phone calls.

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So, if we run a poll to determine the approval rating of say, the President, we would not only find out if people are at all interested in rating the President but we would also know the number and demographics of the participants and determine the success and reliability of the polls by the turnout of voters. Traditional polls have been long suspected of manipulation because they’re not so transparent with their results, choosing to present them only in vague percentages with no indication of either their sample size or selection criteria. By creating an online Voters Register and mounting a sustained effort to drive participation, PollBook can demystify polling.

• Eyoma, a pollster and CEO of Datavision Limited, an ICT company, wrote vide [email protected]