Upset About Exit Polls? Don’t Worry, Voters Could Be ‘Lying’

The basic assumption on which the polls are made – that the voter is telling the truth – may not always be correct.

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

The exit polls are generally a better barometer of the election results and trends than the opinion polls. The general consensus among exit polls is that the NDA is coming back. The BJP by itself may just fall short of a majority.

The exit polls this time have broken the trend of the past few years, in which they had failed to present a clear picture. On most occasions, the exit polls were seen delivering ‘hung verdicts’, but this time, there is unanimity, although the numbers and ranges differ across polls.

Although the exit polls may not be able to accurately predict the seats and vote shares, they are generally able to indicate the direction of the trend correctly.

A caveat – we will have to wait for the final results on 23 May, which could get delayed due to VVPAT reconciliation. While the Indian exit polls went horribly wrong in 2004, we have also seen the polls in other countries misreading the writing on the wall: the Trump elections, Brexit, and most recently, the Australian polls.


In India, given the diversity, population growth, number of first-time voters and inconsistency in polling station coverage, historical elections data is far less reliable than say in Europe, the Americas or Australasia, where there are minimal changes in population, and no significant addition of new voters.

While most pollsters agree that the NDA is returning to power this time, there are huge variations in the seats tally. Take a look:

Upset About Exit Polls? Don’t Worry, Voters Could Be ‘Lying’
Source: Political Baba

Variations in Tally

  • Nielsen predicts the lowest tally for NDA: still +5 from a simple majority, implying that the BJP may fall short of a majority
  • Axis predicts the highest tally for NDA: +30 compared to 2014; +9 considering the current constituents of the NDA (including AIADMK)
  • Axis predicts the lowest tally for UPA: +18 seats compared to 2014
  • VMR predicts the highest tally for UPA, more than double the 2014 numbers
  • Axis predicts that ‘Others’ will lose half their seats, while C-Voter predicts that they will maintain their tally. I go with C-Voter in this case – ‘Others’ can’t be so low

Let’s take a look at the vote shares:

Upset About Exit Polls? Don’t Worry, Voters Could Be ‘Lying’
Source: Political Baba

State-Wise Numbers

  1. VMR predicts the lowest vote share for the NDA: still +2.6 percent versus 2014
  2. IPSOS predicts the highest for NDA: +10 percent compared to 2014. NDA’s vote share is expected to go up due to gains made in Odisha and West Bengal, and maintaining the vote share in UP
  3. IPSOS predicts the lowest vote share for UPA: +1.6 percent compared to 2014
  4. VMR predicts the highest for UPA: more than 7 percent
  5. IPSOS predicts ‘Others’ will lose almost 12 percent vote share, but their seat tally will fall only by 23
  6. C-Voter predicts the vote share of ‘Others’ will fall by 10 percent, but seat tally will be the same as that in 2014

This brings us to the state-wise numbers:

Upset About Exit Polls? Don’t Worry, Voters Could Be ‘Lying’
Source: The Quint, Political Baba
  1. In Uttar Pradesh, IPSOS predicts for NDA, twice the number of seats that Nielsen has prophesied
  2. In Bengal, Axis predicts five times the seats to NDA than IPSOS’ prediction. This, despite the fact that the lower-end of the overall seats predicted by Axis are the same as IPSOS’ overall tally
  3. In Odisha, Axis numbers for NDA are twice the number predicted by Nielsen

Method to the Madness of Exit Polls

The exit polls’ method is a four-pronged selection process of PCs, ACs, polling booths and voters, using a random sampling method. PCs, ACs and booths are selected keeping in mind swing seats, low-margin seats, stronghold seats. The number of PCs, ACs, polling booths and voters depends upon the total sample size intended. Surveys are usually conducted on the election days, when the voter comes out of the station after polling.

Detailed questionnaires are prepared and are also translated into the vernacular. The data is then weighed, to take into account age, gender, caste, religion and turnout.

Why Such Disparity in Results?

Polling entails employing scientific tools. Many voters – mostly rural – and also field investigators, may not understand the intricacies of this. Plus, the nature of contests also results in different seat calls. This time, the contest is close in UP, Maharashtra, Bengal and Odisha, with triangular fights adding to the complexity.

Also, the basic assumption on which the polls are made – that the voter is telling the truth – may not always be correct.

Some may deliberately lie (annoyed with interviews by a host of polling agencies) while others, especially the minorities, may not want to speak the truth for fear of backlash.


Shortcomings of Historical Poll Data

Historical data is largely depended on, which has its own shortcomings. Change in turnout, addition of new names to voter list, composition of polling booths, etc, pose many problems. Caste in a constituency is not available, as the last caste census was done in 1934. The new pollsters could struggle even with this data. The depth of research and cost-cutting hamper data collection.

There is also the pressure to deliver these predictions on time, and that in itself is a challenge. Advanced technologies are being used, but there is a human-element for field work that one can’t discount.

Often, investigators sample only convenient booths like urban/semi-urban ones. Given the above challenges, each pollster ends up with different sets of numbers even if they go to the same polling stations and interview the same set of people.

The Top Pollsters May Not Always Get It Right

C-Voter, which predicted an AAP victory in Punjab, was spot on in Tamil Nadu. Axis, which got Bihar right, got Tamil Nadu wrong. Chanakya, which got the Lok Sabha polls right, got Bihar and Tamil Nadu horribly wrong. However, both got UP right. The best of the pollsters by track record, Axis and Today’s Chanakya, have got it spot on (seat tally-wise) only 50 percent of the time.

Thus, it can be said that exit polls are like ice-creams. They quench our sugar-craving, but only till the next craving. Hopefully, by that time, the actual results will be out. Many reputations are at stake this time.

(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at@politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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