Keeping Polls Under Wraps

Green spikes of reed sprout among the ashes in the ruins of Kaiafas forest, near Pyrgos in southern Greece's Peloponnese peninsula, on Friday, Aug. 31 2007.
AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris
By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys

Who restricts poll reports? And why?

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the need to poll in times of crisis. My principal example came from Greece, where August fires killed 65 people, and raised concerns about the government's response and speculation about the possible effect on the impending parliamentary elections. But those questions couldn't be answered. Greece has a law that restricts the publication of polling results for two weeks before Election Day.

Such laws are not unusual. In 2002, at least 30 countries had legal restrictions on the publication of pre-election poll results. Nine countries had increased their time restrictions since the mid-1990's, while 15 others had decreased or eliminated theirs. Countries with limits on the publication of pre-election polls included Western European countries like Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, and countries in Asia and Latin America, too.

In Greece, however, the restriction on reporting pre-election polls was brand new, and it also carried disclosure requirements. A published opinion poll there has to be based on at least 1,000 interviews; and the questionnaire, the collected data and the survey report must be deposited with a special public committee.

In the U.S., First Amendment protections for the news media prevent such prior restraints on publication. The one that does exist -- not reporting likely outcomes from exit polls before the polls close on Election Day -- is a self-imposed promise made by the news organizations that commission those exit polls. And even that limitation has been circumvented: by early afternoon on Election Day 2004, leaks that suggested Democrat John Kerry might win appeared on Web sites that had NOT made the promise, and the resulting speculation about the outcome of the election caused a brief flurry of selling on Wall Street.

The Greek law's requirement of disclosure is something that professional survey research organizations have long desired. The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), the National Council on Public Polls (NCPP), and the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR), among others, require disclosure of information that would allow a reader or listener to judge the value of a poll.

However, these organizations also oppose government restrictions on publication of pre-election polls. (The Internet has made those restrictions more difficult to enforce. How could the French government enforce its law prohibiting the publication of poll results, if those results appeared on Web site based in Switzerland?)

But the two-week Greek pre-election restriction meant that there was no way of publicly tracking changing opinion after September 2, since the election took place September 16. Criticism of the government's response to the fires seemed widespread; but on election day the incumbent Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and his Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) Party held on to power with a nearly 4-point margin over its main opponents, the socialist PASOK party. Although New Democracy's majority was reduced, it retained control of the Greek parliament.

What exactly happened in those two weeks? Without polls, we don't really know. Both major parties lost seats to minor parties. Could the government have recovered from its first, halting steps to combat the fires? When did voters decide that the leading opposition party had serious defects? Were the fires an election issue at all?

We have no sense of exactly how and when Greek voters changed their minds. Most countries with restrictions don't forbid taking polls in the days before an election; they forbid only publishing the results close to Election Day. So, the political parties and government may well know what went on, and why, but the Greek electorate - and the rest of us in the world -- won't.

In the U.S., we've often seen that a lot can happen in the last few weeks of a campaign. The final debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980 took place about a week before that election, and helped turn a close race into a Reagan landslide. Al Gore gained on George W. Bush right at the end of the 2000 campaign, as did John Kerry in 2004.

According to national exit polls, 17 percent of voters in 1996 and 2000 finally made up their mind how to vote in the last week of those campaigns. In 1992, in the three-way contest with Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and the in-and-out (but always exciting) Ross Perot, the figure was 24 percent. Nearly one in four voters said they weren't sure what they would do until the last week before Election Day. That figure was just as high (25 percent) in the 1980 race. Sometimes, as happened in 1988, fewer voters are affected; but most of the time polls suggest there can be a lot of change at the end of a campaign.

In fact, in congressional (non-presidential) elections, there are even more last-minute deciders - in 2006, 28 percent of voters said they decided which candidate to support for their district's U.S. House seat only in the last week of the campaign. One in ten claimed they had decided on Election Day.

Pre-election polls can track those changes and help us understand them here in the U.S., even if they could not in Greece.
By Kathy Frankovic