Psephology and the Art and Science of Getting Election Outcomes Right with Accuracy

Who are Psephologists and Why are they so Important During Election Seasons?

With elections in full swing in India, Psephologists or those whose job is to conduct opinion polls and exit polls are much in demand.

With all stakeholders including politicians, the media, the opinion makers, and the wider public keen to know who would win and who would lose, there is much demand for such practitioners to bring their fabled skills to getting the election outcomes right with as much accuracy as possible.

Indeed, the stakes could not have been higher as businesses and rich industrialists are keen to know who would form the government after the elections that would have a direct bearing on their profitability and otherwise.

This is the reason why Psephologists have been very busy this election season, though the Election Commission guidelines prohibit them from publishing Exit Polls until after the last phase of polling is over.

In addition, there are reports that political parties and the business community have commissioned their own polls and surveys to assess the ground situation on how their prospects are. Indeed, the predictions can influence everything from their election strategies to who they need to ally with.

The Evolution of Psephology in India

While Psephology has been around in the West for many decades, it is only in the late 1980s that it gained prominence in India with the advent of televised election results shows.

The forerunner of the modern Psephologists in India is Prannoy Roy of NDTV who is the pioneer as far as conducting opinion and exit polls are concerned. For those of you who were old enough to follow the first televised election season in 1989 would very well remember how Roy used graphics and advanced technologies to bring home (literally as well as figuratively) the fervour of the Great Indian Elections into our drawing rooms.

Of course, with the liberalization of the Indian Economy, there has been a proliferation of the numbers of such pollsters who are by now very well organized and professional in their approach.

Gone are the days when Pollsters used to have more guesses and less exact science in their approach. Instead, the contemporary pollsters now use advanced statistical methods including scientific sampling and near accurate methodologies for predicting the outcomes.

Moreover, pollsters now have access to a Pan India sampling of voters that they can use to predict the outcomes as closely as possible.

The Downsides of Pollsters and the Perils of Inside Information and Biased Predictions

Having said that, there are some downsides to what pollsters can do and some limitations to how accurate their predictions would be. For instance, while they are lauded if they get their predictions right, they are also roasted if they go wrong.

This is the reason why leading pollsters often ensure that their predictions are backed by rigorous method and exhaustive sampling and ground level field work.

Indeed, in recent years, Opinion and Exit Polls have taken on a life of their own due to the high stakes involved.

Moreover, there are some reports that many businesspersons and political parties have commissioned pollsters to predict the outcomes not for publication to the world but for their private purposes which raises difficult ethical and moral issues.

Indeed, if true, this can mean that such stakeholders are having privileged and inside information which the masses do not know and this can lead to recalibration of their strategies.

While the practice of political parties commissioning agencies for polls and surveys is quite old and within norms, the fact that the general public do not have access to such information must lead the Election Commission into a rethink over allowing access to the public.

How Pollsters Work and the Role of Advanced Technologies

Apart from this, Pollsters also estimate the swing percentages and how caste and ethnic dynamics influence elections. Indeed, Psephologists often drill down into micro issues that affect the voters at constituency level as well as macro issues that affect the national level.

While Predictive Analytics and Big Data and AI or Artificial Intelligence driven opinion and exit polls are still in their infancy in India, there are attempts in this direction as well as can be seen from the Google Trends polling and the Crowd Wisdom sites on the internet.

Some experts believe that it is only a matter of time before such technology driven predictions would be used on a mass scale in India.

The point here is that with the internet penetration not as deep as in the West, the Indian Pollsters have to rely on traditional methods unlike the West where sites such as Five Thirty Eight have taken the lead in such methods.

On the other hand, this can lead to conflicts with the Election Commission and the Government if analytics driven pollsters publish their predictions throughout the election season. Thus, for the time being, an uneasy status quo is being maintained in India for now.


Lastly, there are concerns in some quarters that pollsters are being influenced by political parties to report their findings in a biased manner.

This is nothing but a serious transgression into their independence and neutrality and hence, such efforts must be actively resisted.

Moreover, this can influence the electorate as the Indian Elections are spread over two months and hence, unscrupulous politicians can ensure that based on the predictions, they either ramp up the pressure or use dubious methods on the voters.

To conclude, Psephology is both an art and a science and hence, those who master it become winners.

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