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Pollsters, Politicians and Calypsonians

By Selwyn Ryan

 I have been asked by several persons for an evaluative comment on the recent NACTA poll which puts the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in a virtual “tie”. They assume that given SARA’s pioneering role in conducting polls, I could tell them what the figures are saying when they are decoded.  

Before indicating what my main responses have been, let me explain what is meant by that oft heard expression that a poll is merely a “snapshot” in time, and that its findings would probably be more favourable to them nearer the election, particularly if the environment is dynamic and fast changing.

One should note that many of these “snapshots” might more accurately be described as “portraits”, especially if the pollster did not do all that was necessary or possible to ensure that the sample which was chosen to represent the assumed reality was as faithful as could be in terms of demographic diversity, and that the wording of the questions asked was fair in terms of the information being sought. Stupid or misleading questions generate stupid and misleading answers. Given the complex nature of our society, one has to be minded that interviewers themselves or the interview process does not  introduce biases. Face-to-face polls may be contaminated if the field worker does not look like someone with whom confidential information could be shared. Trust is an important commodity in these exercises. Phone samples have their own technical problems, especially if both mobile and land lines are being used. Polls are expensive, and money, time, and good judgement are needed to “get it right”.

These  introductory comments were not meant to devalue or invalidate any poll that was recently conducted. They were meant to help  anxious lay readers make sense of what most pollsters do or say they do. 

Let us now look at the main finding of the recent poll. We are told that when respondents were asked how they would vote, respondents put the People’s National Movement (PNM) slightly ahead of the United National Congress (UNC) (39-37). Given the fact that there was a four per cent margin of error, the result was declared a virtual tie. The results were reversed when respondents were asked whom they preferred to have as Prime Minister. 

A small majority (42-41) preferred Kamla. 

The pollsters however tell us that Indians were  44 per cent of the population which they sampled, and that Afro Trinis  were 37 per cent.

 Were the latter on balance underrepresented? It would seem that they were, with possible consequences for the main results. According to the latest official census, Indians are 35.4 per cent of the population, Afros 34.2 per cent, and mixed 22.8 per cent.

 Sampling errors may be corrected by computer assisted procedures called “weighting”. A weighted poll designed to correct the underrepresentativeness of Afros in the sample may well reveal that Dr Rowley was ahead of the PM in the preference stakes and not the other way around. In sum, “bragging rights” about  being preferred may well belong to Dr Rowley and not to the Prime Minister. Small differences in rank order are of crucial propaganda value in competitive elections in which outcomes are achieved by small margins.

The NACTA data provides us with some indication as to how the main political horses and their jockeys are doing as they come around the bend. The Rowleyites must be quietly pleased. The Partnership must be panicking. We also have information that the Congress of the People (COP) is virtually dead and the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) is now the “third force”.

Polls are of course the only way one gleans information about the state of political opinion and likely behaviour. In our particular environment, calypsonians often serve as purveyors of popular opinion about  political behaviour.  In my judgement, the calypsonians were very deservedly rough on the Government in general and the PM in particular.  It seemed as if the calypsonians had taken careful and detailed notes  of much of what occurred in the past year. Their picong was vicious must have led the politicians to wince. On one particular occasion, I remarked that if I were in the PM’s shoes, I would cringe and even think seriously about not continuing. Kamla  however seems to have developed a thick skin.  Either that or she has heard much of what was being said live and direct and had become inured. She may  in fact have become philosophical. As she said, the calypsonians were “commenting” not “alleging”,  and they were entitled to their own view: 

“We have license. We have freedom of expression, and calypsonians are entitled to their views.  If they see it this way, they sing it this way.  I am not troubled by that; it does not worry me.”

 Kamla had said much the same after having been defeated in Chaguanas West last year when she once again denied that there was any truth to the assertion that she had a “drinking problem”, and that  as a result, she could not do the people’s work. 

 Kamla counter-charged that since 2010, a campaign was being waged against her but did not say who was behind the campaign. One could guess. It appears that her strategy for defusing the campaign was to refuse to engage in disputation.  It seems to be working. People now seem to be taking the view that  there was nothing wrong if she took a “little sip” whenever she felt it to be necessary.

It also seems that she acted wisely when she chose to shrug off the remarks of the likes of London and Skatie who were all very hard hitting in their songs.

To do otherwise was to start a fight which she could not win. Chalkie may however not have been quite accurate when he moaned that the age of the crusading calypso was over.

The subtlety which obtained in the classical era may however be a thing of the past.

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