All eyes are on the opinion polls in the run-up to Poland’s crucial general election on October 15th. Amid reports that the result is ‘on a knife edge,’ there is much excitement in the European media about Donald Tusk’s pro-Brussels Civic Coalition reportedly gaining ground on the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. One poll this week even claimed that the PiS lead was down from double figures to just 0.6%.
There is always a chance that these claims prove to be accurate, of course. But we should be wary of taking such numbers at face value or treating opinion polls as political facts. They are often more like political weapons, wielded by the media and the establishment in a bid to reshape public opinion rather than simply reflect it. And recent polls are often inaccurate because some voters—especially right-wing voters and supporters of populist causes—self-censor and don’t tell pollsters the truth.
There is an embarrassing recent history of pre-election opinion polls getting the results wrong, everywhere from EU member states and the UK to America and Australia. This has prompted a lot of breast-beating in high places about the problems with polling. Experts tend not to mention that one reason opinion polls are often wrong is because they consistently underestimate votes for conservative parties or support for populist causes of which the woke elites disapprove.
The most recent reminder of this problem came in Slovakia just last weekend, where former premier Robert Fico and his NATO-critical populist Smer (Social Democrat) party was competing with the pro-Brussels Progressive Slovakia (PS). As the Guardian excitedly reported on the eve of the election, “PS was just ahead in two of the final four opinion polls.”.
On election night, September 30th, two big exit polls predicted that PS had indeed won the largest share of the vote. Politico immediately declared that its exit poll put the progressives on 23.5% to Smer’s 21.9% and speculated how PS might now be able to form a coalition government in support of its ‘LGBT+ platform.’ EU centrists congratulated the progressives on their victory.
Unfortunately for these elitists, democracy quickly kicked in: the actual votes were counted, and it turned out that Smer had topped the real poll with 23%, well ahead of Progressive Slovakia’s disappointing 18%—5.5% less than reported in the exit poll. Fico prepared for power, and the pollsters and Brussels hacks went off to lick their wounds and prepare for a new offensive against the PiS government in the Polish elections.
Opinion polls should always be viewed critically. They are rarely neutral reports of public opinion. More often than not, polls are used as politically motivated media tools intended to tell people how they should vote. The question posed by one academic study is, “Do polls reflect opinions or do opinions reflect polls?” Those who commission polls, frame the questions, and report the results generally have a vested interest in getting across a pre-election message and persuading voters to conform to their views.
One example that sticks in my mind is the UK’s Brexit referendum in June 2016. The final opinion polls published in bold headlines before the vote had the Remain side up to 10 points ahead of the Leave side. The clear message was that the battle was over, so it was hardly worth for Leave voters to turn up at the polling stations. Leading Tory Brexiteer Michael Gove was so convinced they had lost that he retired to bed early rather than sit up through the night for the results. When the actual votes started to come through, of course, it quickly became clear to us Brexiteers that we had won, despite the polls and all of the black propaganda from the Remain establishment’s ‘Operation Fear.’ Gove’s wife had to wake him up to join in the celebrations.
And if the results of an opinion poll don’t quite align with the elites’ required narrative, then their media allies can spin the reports to make them fit the agenda. More recently, in the UK, the anti-Tory, pro-EU Observer newspaper (the Sunday sister of The Guardian) commissioned an opinion poll on the eve of Britain’s annual political party conference season. The paper’s front-page splash declared, “Tory turmoil as third of voters desert party … Exclusive poll for Observer reveals Conservatives have lost support in their southern England heartlands and the Red Wall.” Readers had to plough through half of the report to find the buried actual ‘headline’ result of the poll, which put the Labour Party’s lead over the Conservatives at 10%—still substantial, but only half the 20% leads that were common in polls over the summer.
The other crucial factor that makes polls so unreliable today is also a worrying product of our political times. That is the tendency of conservative voters—especially those of faith—and supporters of populist causes to hide their true opinions for fear of being branded a ‘far-right’ extremist or worse. Time and again in recent years, conservative-leaning voters have declined to divulge their true loyalties to opinion pollsters and even exit pollsters. That is one big reason why the polls have so often been wrong.
Such widespread self-censorship and fear of expressing heretical political opinions is a terrible sign of these intolerant times. As I argued in my book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, ours is an age when the constant cultural message is ‘You can’t say THAT.’
Some might think such self-censorship is less likely to influence the polls in Poland, a relatively traditional country with a conservative government. They should recall what happened in last year’s Hungarian elections.
The EU and the rest of the Western elites threw their weight and their media behind the United for Hungary opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz government. The powerful, shrill campaign to demonise Orbán and Fidesz as racist and neo-fascist seemed to impact the opinion polls. Whilst most polls had to acknowledge that the governing party was ahead, one poll published close to the elections even claimed that Fidesz and United for Hungary were running neck-and-neck on 47%. Come election day, however, Orbán’s party shocked almost everybody by winning a landslide victory. Conservatives defied the doomsayers and came out in force to re-elect Fidesz with an increased majority, its 54.13% of the vote towering over the liberal opposition’s 34.44%.
Poland’s governing Law and Justice party is now in the firing line, as Fidesz was last year. The EU elites are gunning for PiS because it too refuses to toe the Brussels’ line on everything from mass migration to sex education. Former European Council President Tusk has crawled out of his political tomb to lead the opposition Civic Coalition. As reported by The European Conservative, there are even claims of a secret plot by France and Germany to help overthrow the Polish government.
One Guardian/Observer columnist captured the desperation of the EU elites and their allies to see the back of PiS, warning that “the bitter struggle to unseat Poland’s hard-right government foreshadows a wider struggle throughout the EU.” If Law and Justice were to win again, he declared, it would not only put to question “future Polish adherence to the EU’s democratic rulebook,” but also raise fears of a “nightmare scenario” where Poland becomes a “standard bearer” for “authoritarian, anti-establishment and populist parties” elsewhere in next year’s elections to the European Parliament.
As always, these left-liberals turn the meaning of democracy upside down, so that the rulebook imposed by the unelected Brussels bureaucracy is inherently ‘democratic.’ whilst elected governments that refuse to do as they are told are obviously ‘authoritarian.’
It would be naïve to imagine that opinion polls in the Polish election campaign are somehow immune to the influence of this crusade to do down Law and Justice and big up the opposition. Of course, the ‘knife edge’ polls might just be right this time; as the old wisdom goes, even a stopped clock still tells the correct time twice a day. But recent political history offers a stern warning against assuming that an opinion poll reflects the objective state of public opinion.
The central role that opinion polls now play in political life, ‘driving the narrative’ of election campaigns, is itself unhealthy. There is a passivity about poll-watching, as if we were ancients reading the runes or chicken entrails in a bid to foretell a future that is beyond our control. In fact, an election campaign is a chance for us all to actively intervene in political life. In the Polish elections and the wider European elections to come, opponents of the EU supra-state and supporters of national sovereignty need to forget about following the polls and get out to fight for every vote.
In the end, the Poles, not the opinion polls, will decide the future of their democracy. So long as we can appeal to the demos—the people—we have a chance to win, no matter what the political soothsayers predict.