Egypt's first democratically-held presidential elections, slated for later this month, have been accompanied by a battery of opinion polls. Some experts, however, say such polls are poor indicators of public opinion, and can actually serve to manipulate the vote.
"These polls can manipulate undecided voters, for example, dictating their political responsiveness by portraying the same group of candidates as 'frontrunners' at the expense of others," Said Sadek, political sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, told Ahram Online.
For one, say critics and experts, polls tend to make the voter believe that these frontrunners are the only candidates with a chance of winning, thereby bolstering their relative popularity and creating what they call a "bandwagon effect." Other contenders, meanwhile, who might otherwise have had a reasonable chance of success, end up being ruled out by voters as viable candidates.
"The polls bolster presidential 'frontrunners' at the expense of other candidates who suffer from the lack of exposure," Huda Abdel-Basset, media coordinator for Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi's presidential campaign, told Ahram Online.
The type of sample voters interviewed – especially their socio-economic backgrounds – can also end up distorting results and misrepresenting public opinion. A presidential opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet's Information and Decision Support Centre from 11 to 13 May, in which 1,359 people were interviewed via telephone, represents a good example of this phenomenon.
Ahmed Shafiq, the last Mubarak-era prime minister, led the poll with 12 per cent of respondents' votes; former FM Amr Moussa received 11 per cent; and renegade Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh received 9 per cent. Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, meanwhile, came in at a distant fourth.
Notably, however, upper-middle-class Egyptians accounted for 29 per cent of the sample voters, while Egyptians of the elite upper class – who represent a miniscule portion of the national population – accounted for a full 26 per cent of those polled. Thirty-three per cent of poll respondents, meanwhile, were of a low-income background – despite the fact that, according to World Health Organisation statistics, at least 40 per cent of Egypt's population lives below the poverty line.
Critics say that the slanted nature of the polling gave the faulty impression that Shafiq – the preferred candidate for many of Egypt's economic elite – was, in fact, the leading contender. The Brotherhood's Morsi, meanwhile, the preferred candidate of many low-income voters – and who many observers now believe could win an outright majority in the first vote – was relegated by the poll to fourth place.
According to experts, pollsters should make sure to use representative samples, ones that includes all socio-economic classes, political orientations and educational strata, as well as both genders.
The Sabbahi campaign's Abdel-Basset says that opinion polls based on unrepresentative voter samples are worthless for gauging the true extent of candidates' respective popularity among the voting public. She pointed to recent polls conducted by the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, which was based on responses by 1,200 sample voters.
"This sample is too small; it's unrepresentative of the entire population," said Abdel-Basset. She went on to point out that the Sabbahi campaign had its own methods for tracking candidates' respective popularity.
"We monitor Google search results for 'Sabbahi' and conduct interviews with people following his campaign rallies and press conferences," she explained. "But even these can provide only a very general indication of how he is doing – nobody can know for sure exactly where candidates stand."
In an Al-Ahram poll conducted between 5 and 8 May, Sabbahi came in fifth place after the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi.
Experts also question the competence and credibility – even the political motivations – of the centres and think-tanks conducting the surveys.
In this regard, Sadek noted that some of those who conduct the Al-Ahram polls are affiliated to particular political parties. Sadek even suggested that polls conducted by the Al-Ahram Centre – which is affiliated with Egypt's sprawling state media machine – were being used as an "agenda setting" exercise by holdovers of the ousted Mubarak regime to promote their favoured candidates.
What's more, experts note, opinion surveys that yield results undesired by the polling body can simply be buried. Sadek pointed to an Al-Ahram Centre poll conducted shortly before last year's parliamentary elections predicting – presciently, as it turns out – that Islamist parties would win between 60 and 70 per cent of the vote. Results of the poll, however, were never publicised.
Experts further stress the importance of posing poll questions objectively, without leading respondents to desired responses – a tactic, they say, which is often employed by pollsters. They also point out that personal interviews are much more reliable than telephone surveys in this regard.
"The worst way to collect data is via telephone," Al-Husseini Rady, a professor of statistics at Cairo University, told Ahram Online. "Respondents usually want to finish the call quickly, and are therefore more prone to simply tell the interviewer what he or she wants to hear just to finish the call."
Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential poll will be held on 23 and 24 May, with a runoff round on 16 and 17 June if no single candidate wins an outright majority. Egypt's next president will be formally named on 21 June.