The Irish media is presently gorging itself on the revelation that for a number of years, at least four Irish political parties (and probably more) asked volunteers to pose as fake polling companies in order to go door to door and conduct market research. First, we learned that Sinn Fein did it. And then, because it would have been impossible to hide (yours truly, for example, was once a fake pollster for Fine Gael, along with many others), the other parties came out and admitted that they did it too. They have, they say, all stopped now.
As scandals go, if we are honest, it is not up to much.
For one thing, unlike most scandals, nobody was actually harmed here. The worst thing to befall anybody is that somebody knocked on their door, told them they were from a polling company, and asked them how they intended to vote. Generally speaking, their names were not recorded, or their addresses, or anything identifying about them, apart from perhaps their age, gender, and where they lived.
Now “sure”, you might say, “but was this not a wholesale effort by political parties to decieve and misrepresent themselves to voters”? And yes, it was. But so is almost everything that political parties do. Canvassing, campaigning, posters – all of them, in their own ways, are an attempt to paint the party in the most flattering light, and few of them are completely honest endeavours.
For another thing, no great advantage was gained by any political party. In the first instance, because they were all doing it. And in the second instance, because such amateur polling is very hard to do well. Unless your volunteers are very committed, and your statisticians very good, the margin for error on such polling will always be so high as to render it of dubious benefit. The only people who can claim to be harmed, in all probability, are those prospective candidates who were not selected because an “internal poll” showed them doing badly. The quality of those internal polls might not have been as high as they were lead to believe.
Third, the story does not reveal to us anything about Irish politics, or Irish politicians, that we did not already know. Politicians are always hungry for data, and information on how popular. To the extent, in fact, that they were willing, en masse, to do something as irrational as this. All those volunteer man hours wasted on polling of dubious quality were hours that could have been invested in canvassing, or leaflet dropping, or literally anything else that might increase their support. Polling is one of the least efficient ways to increase support for a candidate.
The only way this story would be interesting, or could turn properly scandalous, would be if it turned out that some party was doing “push polling”, targeting opposition candidates. That’s a kind of dirty trick that is common in America, and elsewhere. It would involve going to doorsteps, pretending to do a poll, and asking a question like “would you be more or less likely to vote for Joe Bloggs if you knew he was having an affair with his secretary?” The objective, of course, is to start a rumour that poor Joe is doing exactly that, when he is not.
If something like that was to emerge, then this story would become a very serious scandal. But there is no sign that it will. For the record, when yours truly was asked to poll for Fine Gael, it was simply to find out whether people had heard of particular candidates, and how they planned to vote. It was entirely harmless, and you might suspect, of very little ultimate benefit to the party in an election.
This is one of those things that they were all at. But there is no sign, to my mind at least, that they did anybody any harm. It’s just a slow news week, and this is the least consequential political scandal in manys a year.