TOM EATON: Pollsters fight it out in the game of polls
The stakes seem to be ramping up dramatically for Ipsos and the Institute of Race Relations ahead of the national elections
Game of Thrones, its more bookish fans insist, is a political drama, and perhaps they have a point. Yes, there are dragons and ice zombies and fairies who live under a tree, but when you think about it these aren’t much more fantastical than the EFF’s economic policies
The mythical world created by George RR Martin doesn’t generally go in for elections. Political negotiations are decided by meaningful looks, portentous swishing of capes and then a massacre. As Queen Cersei Lannister told us in back in season one when the writers were still trying: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
This week, however, I’ve been wondering how much bloodshed might have been prevented if they’d just used good pollsters to feel out the terrain before they sent in the dragons.
How hard could it have been to ask a representative sample of northerners and Wildlings about Jon Snow’s likability as potential King In The North? Where was the focus group for followers of the Lord Of Light, unpacking their expectations of the Prince Who Was Promised? Assuming a 3% margin of error, given that the night is dark and full of terrors, is he Snow, or, after you know who did you know what to you know who this week, is the Prince Who Was Promised maybe a Princess Who Was Given A Much Bigger Character Arc By TV Writers Because She Is A Fan Favourite?
Of course, pollsters don’t always bring clarity and manage expectations. Just look at SA politics rights now.
The stakes seem to be ramping up dramatically for SA’s two rival houses of pollsters, Ipsos and the Institute of Race Relations.
Before I continue I must stress that I am not comparing our current political setup to Game of Thrones. Other pundits have already done this, and I know they’re very sorry and feel very ashamed. That’s because it’s a terrible, terrible analogy. When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. When you play politics in SA, you win, or you lose and cross the floor and win, or form your own party and win, or you lose but get invited into a coalition and end up controlling a metro despite the fact that only 2% of its residents voted for you. Because here, winning means getting paid, and consequences are only for the poor.
Still, the stakes seem to be ramping up dramatically for SA’s two rival houses of pollsters, Ipsos and the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). After this week, one of them is about to ascend the Iron Calculator and rule supreme, while the other will be plunged into reputational oblivion faster than a Dothraki cavalry charge into slightly pixelated darkness.
According to this week’s Ipsos poll, a 70% voter turnout will see the ANC winning 61%. This seems like a sensible figure, but the IRR is having none of it: according to this lurching cohort of white walkers, a similar turnout will see the ANC crashing to 51%.
That’s not a divergence of opinion. That’s two organisations squaring off in a fighting pit. And only one of them is going to come out in one piece.
Which is a pity, because we need all the pollsters we can get, to probe the other important questions of our time.
For example, which Julius Malema will turn up on any given day? Will it be the one condemning the Sandton elite or the one sipping bubbles with it? Can polls even keep up with the hypocrisy of the man?
Is Steve Hofmeyr being denied the right to free speech, or has he just become one of the thousands of South Africans turned away every year by publishers and producers because what they have to say is artistically bankrupt, profoundly distasteful or moronic, and difficult to sell in large numbers?
And most importantly, what will Cyril Ramaphosa be shocked by next?
Yes, May 9 is going to be a very long day for either the IRR or Ipsos.
May 10, however, will be better. Because in the game of polls, you either get it right within 1% or you don’t, and nobody remembers anyway