Pollsters Look for Clues in French Success With More Votes Near

  • Simpler system, higher turnout help surveys of France voters
  • Third election in a row where French polls were accurate

Future of France: Macron and Le Pen Go Head-to-Head

The surprise was that there was no surprise.

For all the talk of hidden voters, shy National Front supporters, and soaring abstention rates, the first-round results of the French presidential election were smack in line with what surveys predicted. After last year’s upsets in the U.K’s Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential elections, the polling industry was buoyed.

“Don’t despair,” Bruno Jeanbart, deputy managing director at pollsters OpinionWay said, when asked for a message to his British and American colleagues. “Polling has become more difficult, but our tools still work.”

Scratch the surface of the French results though, and they may not offer much encouragement to those trying to gauge voters’ sentiment in elections in the U.K. and Germany later this year.

Last weekend’s success probably has more to do with the nature of the French system and the its electorate, rather than the techniques of the pollsters, according to Anthony Wells, associate director of political research at the London-based pollster, YouGov Plc. While Wells applauded his French colleagues accuracy, he also pointed out that they haven’t faced the same difficulties as their colleagues in other countries.

“Much of the problem in recent polling has been how how to cope with the rise of protest or populists movements, be it Brexit in Britain or Donald Trump in the U.S.,” he said. “The French have a long history of voting for the National Front and before that the Communist Party.”

Four Contenders

Still, French pollsters had feared this year’s vote might end their successful run. Macron’s En Marche! movement was entirely new, making it hard to judge the loyalty of its potential voters, and final projections had four candidates separated by less than five points.

Markets wobbled last week as a surge in support for Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon added a new element of uncertainty and, three days before the vote, Jeanbart said the contenders had “almost identical chances of success.”

In the end, as every poll for the past two months had indicated, it’s centrist Emmanuel Macron and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen who will face off in the decisive second round.

“There was a bit of nervousness because it was a complicated election,” Jeanbart said after the results were in.

Macron’s 23.8 percent on Sunday exactly matched the final projection in the Bloomberg Composite of first-round polls. Le Pen got 21.5 percent, 1.3 percentage points less than projected while conservative Francois Fillon at 19.9 percent and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon at 19.6 percent were less than a point away from their polling numbers.

Track Record

The models were similarly correct in the 2012 and 2007 elections. They did get the 2002 election wrong when they missed Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie pipping Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin to the second round. That mistake taught them to better calibrate support for the National Front.

“French pollsters have a long history of getting it right,” said James Kanagasooriam, a data analyst at Populus.

British pollsters say they largely use the same systems as their French counterparts. They create a sample that’s “weighted” to reflect the age and social class profile of the population, and they ask questions online where people are less likely to be evasive than if asked by a human. Some polling for Brexit was done by telephone, but phone polling has now largely been abandoned, Wells and Kanagasooriam said.

“If there was some silver bullet to adopt, we all would have,” said Kanagasooriam.

Read more about the challenges of modern polling

Another advantage in France is that higher turnout means fewer potential hidden voters, while the single national vote is easier to model than results the 650 individual elections for the U.K. parliament or the 50 state contests that decide the U.S. presidency.

On Sunday, 78.7 percent of the electorate voted compared with 66 percent in Britain’s 2015 general election, and even that was the highest since 1997. About 55 percent showed up at the polls in the last U.S. presidential election.

Even with the much more complicated electoral college system, U.S. pollsters weren’t really that far off last year, said OpinionWay’s Jeanbart. The final polls gave Clinton an average nationwide lead of about three points and she won she won the popular vote by about two. Though pollsters got Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan wrong, even there final surveys showed Clinton with only single digit leads.

For now though, as attention focuses on the May 7 runoff, pollsters’ success in the first round gives cause for confidence, said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence. Macron would defeat Le Pen by 61-39 percent, OpinionWay said in its daily poll Monday.

“Because pollsters had been polling voters about Le Pen for years, she was not underestimated,” he said in a note to clients. “More importantly, support for Macron was also correctly estimated, which means polls should provide reliable guidance about both candidates’ chances.”

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