Fake Polls in Ukraine: So What?

There's a lot of handwringing in Kyiv about all the bad polls the newspapers are publishing in the weeks before the election on September 30th. The sociologists have their panties in a bunch that the science of statistics is being used to mislead voters. Bloggers like Mark MacKinnon worry that it's evidence that it's 2004 all over again.

I say: So what?

Sure, it's not very nice to mislead opinion leaders and journalists and smart people by running fake or paid-for polls in newspapers. Ukraine's media, while not under state control, is run by competing bands of oligarchs who use their papers and TV stations to advance their own agendas. Shocker! Running fake polls is not the most misleading or dishonest thing they do. For many, their political coverage is wholly paid for by political parties and they are paid by the parties to release damaging or misleading information about their opponents. I have a hard time believing any sentient voter in Ukraine doesn't already know this.

The only people who are really being hurt by this debate are the "sociologists." I do feel bad about that. Sort of. I also sort of feel bad that voters are being misled, but no voter makes their decision about who to support based on which party is winning or losing in the polls. But most importantly, I don't think that fake polls are the worst example of deception or even evidence that elections will be stolen.

From a campaign perspective, any campaign that's basing its strategy on newspaper polls deserves to lose. They need to hire their own pollsters and ignore the chatter in the press. Furthermore, any campaign who's paying its pollsters for favorable data is sort of missing the whole point of why you need a research-based campaign strategy in the first place.

Strategic campaigns are based on knowing everything -- favorable and unfavorable --about the political environment, about your opponents, and especially, about your own party and its strengths and weaknesses. If you don't know this information, or the data you're relying on is fake or manipulated, you're only hurting yourself and your own prospects for victory. As a pollster, I look good when my clients win. Why would I base a strategy on fake data or data that doesn't reflect the reality of the campaign? No one benefits when bad news from polls is ignored.

That's not to say there aren't obstacles to collecting good data in Ukraine, even for legitimate campaign pollsters. In the former Soviet Union, many phone houses have close ties to the government. Too much monkey business can go on during the data collection and processing to trust them. And, there are always problems physically collecting the data and problems securing participation from people who aren't accustomed to giving honest opinions (but come on, this isn't Afghanistan or Iraq. If you can get decent data in Anbar or Helmand Province, there's no excuse for failing to collect data in rural Sumi Oblast. It just costs money). It is possible to hire professional and unbiased data collectors in a place like Ukraine, as long as you pay them and are all over them like white on rice at every step of the process. Finally, push polling is a problem in the U.S. as well. As a legitimate pollster, you deal with it.

All this is to say good research can be and is being done in this part of the world. It's just not being commented upon by the Kyiv Post and Zerkalo Nedeli. If it's truly strategic research, newspapers will never see the data unless there's a strategic reason for the campaign to selectively release it.

I'm not sure to what degree fraud will mar Ukraine's election (I doubt it will be widespread). But there are a lot more effective ways to steal elections than releasing fake polls and guys here know all about them. In fact, tempests in teapots like this are a distraction from all the insidious ways elections do get stolen.