SMOKERS’ CORNER: WHEN THE POLLING GOES AWRY

Published January 22, 2023
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

One of the most well-known catastrophes of political polling occurred in the 1948 U.S presidential election between the incumbent Harry Truman and challenger Thomas Dewey.

Truman had become president when the four-term president F.D. Roosevelt passed away during his fourth term. Truman was the vice-president. Not as popular as Roosevelt, Truman had three years left from Roosevelt’s fourth term.

The media saw him as an accidental president who would barely be able to sustain the many unprecedented economic and political projects initiated by his famous predecessor. He was seen as the guy who was likely to just warm the presidential seat till his party, the Democrats, chose a more amiable candidate for the 1948 election.

Truman quietly went about consolidating Roosevelt’s programs and took the tough decision to end the Second World War in Japan by ordering the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

But surveys, polls and newspapers continued to portray him as Roosevelt’s pale shadow, who was likely to be demolished by the Republican Party candidate, if he was even given the chance to run in 1948. 

The recently concluded local bodies polls in Sindh have left a lot of egg on the face of political pollsters who had predicted a very different outcome. But equally to blame are media pundits that had accepted the flawed polling without putting in their own legwork…

He did manage to run. But a majority of pre-election polls revealed that he would lose. Badly. A major newspaper, the Chicago Tribune was so convinced by the polls that it printed the news of his defeat during the counting process. The paper could not change the headline the next morning when Truman was declared the winner. 

Ever since the Truman episode, pre-election polls have became controversial. Survey organisations put in a lot of resources to ‘correct’ the procedures used to reach more accurate conclusions. Yet, on a lot of occasions, they continue to get it wrong. 

During last November’s mid-term elections in the U.S, pollsters and pundits were predicting a sweep by the Republican Party, because President Biden’s approval ratings were drastically declining. Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, Biden’s Democrats won the Senate and managed to stall the predicted ‘sweep’ in the Congressional elections by the Republicans. 

During the 1970 national elections in Pakistan, a majority of Urdu newspapers began to predict a Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) victory. In fact, the daily Jassarat did what the Chicago Tribune had done. It published a headline declaring ‘JI’s sweeping victory.’ But the next morning, when the paper came out, the Awami League in East Pakistan and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in West Pakistan had won huge majorities. JI was routed. 

Just before the 2004 Indian elections, polls published by almost all surveys and major media outlets predicted a comfortable win for the incumbent BJP-led alliance against the Congress-led alliance. Yet, it was the former that tasted defeat.

During the recently concluded local body elections in Karachi, media outlets and polls (mostly held on social media sites) were predicting a sweep by the JI. They also predicted the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) would come second, followed by the PPP. 

The predictions and polls were proven wrong. The largest number of seats were won by the PPP, followed by JI, with PTI coming a distant third.

So what happened? 

It was a Truman moment for the PPP. Indeed, the turnout was low, between 20 to 25 percent, because of the boycott of the polls by the Muttaheda Qaumi Movement (MQM). But it was more in areas where non-Mohajirs were in the majority.

Twice last year, I wrote in this column that the PPP was putting in a lot of resources and effort in these areas and would become serious contenders in Karachi. This quiet shift was completely ignored by journalists, many of whom had developed an admiration for JI’s Karachi leader Naeem-ur-Rehman. 

They seemed to be spending more time surveying ‘polls’ on the internet than actually willing to visit the areas where the PPP was gaining ground. 

Their jaws went into a free-fall when the results began to come in. Mental laziness, ‘analyses’ informed by what they read on Twitter, and the continuing cultivation of bygone perceptions of Karachi’s politics, was the undoing of these journalists.

At the time of writing this piece, JI may still be able to install its mayor with the aid of PTI, but it will be a weak set-up, headed by parties that did not win a majority. 

Developmental projects launched by the PPP in Karachi — especially in low-income areas where non-Mojahirs are in a majority — greatly aided the party to seize Pakhtun votes that had been cast for PTI in 2018, reinvigorate the party’s Sindhi and Baloch vote-banks, and even bag the Punjabi vote in these areas that was supposed to go in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

The boycott of a struggling MQM was expected to benefit the JI and PTI. But low Mohajir turnout greatly constricted this equation. JI and PTI won most of their seats in Mohajir-majority areas, especially in Karachi Central, where PPP has been traditionally weak. But here as well, the party managed to bag a few seats, thanks mainly to non-Mohajir voters here. 

PPP performed well mainly due to the effort that the party put in this challenging, complex city, and JI came second on the reputation of it being a party that gets things done. 

PTI was routed because its performance in the city was negligible. It is a party that, as a whole, depends more on big talk and political stunts, which keep it ticking in the media, but Karachi’s voters can be merciless towards those who are all talk, and no action. 

Even when MQM was the leading party in this city, it had to combine Mohajir nationalism and militancy with some major developmental works to stay afloat. 

The PPP won big in Hyderabad as well, and swept all the other areas of Sindh that went to polls in the second round of the local bodies elections. The party had already swept the first round.

Interestingly, the second round took place after last year’s devastating floods in Sindh. Here as well, media outlets focused more on the misery caused by the unprecedented floods, and not much on the Herculean efforts by the PPP-led Sindh government to address the multiple issues caused by the floods. 

It should be a cause for concern in the journalistic community that there are not many journalists out there with the ability to carefully and patiently analyse political scenarios and outcomes. 

It is fine to confess that one’s predictions were wrong. But the outcome of this should be to understand why they went wrong, instead of joining the chorus of losing parties or parties that one predicted would win.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 22nd, 2023

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