What do the polls really tell us?

— Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
Jul 30, 2012

JULY 30 — You will perhaps allow me to provide a brief commentary on your story “Actual voter sentiment not shown in opinion poll, say analysts”, The Malaysian Insider, July 28.

As any knowledgeable person will tell you, it is pointless to argue about small variations, such as rises or falls of two or three per cent, in a leader’s popularity as indicated by polls such as that of the Merdeka Center.

National trends are assessed on the basis of carefully chosen samples of less than 2,000 respondents. The margin of error in such cases is usually around three per cent.

So it is pointless to argue about small variations.

What is significant about the Merdeka Center’s figures, what has been shown to be a consistent pattern for some time now, and what cannot be denied is this: that those polls show a dramatic gap “across the board” between popular support for (or positive perceptions of) the prime minister and support for his party.

If the PM consistently rates at around 60 per cent (three out of five) and the party at around 40 per cent (or two out of five expressing themselves as “satisfied”), something interesting may be happening. Some interesting forces and perceptions are likely to be “in play.”

“Interesting” perceptions here must mean perceptions that are complex, nuanced, differentiated, not simple or obvious.

This is another reason why it is pointless to attribute great significance to, and argue passionately about, small monthly variations in polling results.

Small differences, even if they are real, will simply not sustain major conclusions about rising or declining popularity. Small numerical fluctuations are not a basis for drawing dramatic quantitative inferences, for identifying major trends. The numbers simply cannot “bear the weight” when heavy, substantive conclusions are drawn from them.

So, what is going on? What might the figures be telling us?

My own theory is as follows.

Polls have documented a substantial decline in the “popularity” of, or positive popular perceptions and attitudes towards, Umno/BN in all major community sections of the electorate.

PM Najib, the party leader, is seemingly much more popular than his party.


The substantial, and now quite “tenacious” and entrenched, negative attitude towards the party is based upon the fact that it has been around for half a century, and is now quite widely seen as having underperformed, especially over the last decade or two.

The view is now quite strongly held by a significant part of the electorate that the last 20 years of Umno/BN rule have been disappointing.

That negative view and attitude have had time to “take hold.” For that reason they are hard to change or replace. The figures here are consistent because many people’s adverse attitudes have hardened and now resist modification.

By contrast, although he has long been a familiar figure on the national scene, PM Najib has been in charge for barely three years.

To put the matter unkindly, he has not had enough time to make himself as unpopular as his party.

More than that, many people seem to be angry at Umno/BN because of the way that it has used its power. Some are convinced, no matter what fresh political messages are directed towards them, that it has abused its power.

For some that abuse involves great “sins of commission.” For them, the party and its government have used its great powers wrongly.

For others the abuse consists more of “sins of omission.”

They feel that the party has not used its great powers well. That it has wasted its great opportunities, that it has squandered Malaysia’s chance to do many of the great things that might have been achieved.

Whatever has been achieved, they feel — and however good that may be compared to what has happened in less fortunate countries — is far less than what might have been done. Than had been possible. Than they felt, and had been encouraged to feel, entitled to expect.

But PM Najib is not seen as solely or primarily responsible for these disappointments, this underperformance.

They know that, in his own often dour way, he has tried. That he keeps on trying.

But while they see him as a “tryer”, people don’t really see PM Najib as very powerful.

They see him as often beleaguered, even in his own party. Some even see him as hesitant, vacillating, uncertain, indecisive and even weak.

This is not a positive perception.

But it is not a perception that involves deep and powerful feelings of resentment.

In other words, the fact that he is not perceived as strong — here meaning strongly in charge of his party, and personally strong enough to impose his will upon it — to some significant degree “insulates” him from the adverse attitudes towards, or the quite widespread unpopularity in some quarters of, his party.

He is to some degree personally distanced and protected from the substantial partisan resentment that Umno/BN has earned on the basis of its long-standing strength. Of its taking for granted (as its detractors see the matter) its right to that strength and power. Of its being seen by them as not having put its strength and power to good, effective and appropriate use.

In this sense, his positive poll figures do not really suggest that he is himself a great political “positive”, only that he is a good “neutral”, that he is not personally associated with, or a powerful symbol of, what many people see as his party’s great political “negatives”.

One has to suspect that this is the view that the party’s own polling has suggested to the “brains trust” of strategic operatives in the Umno/BN political engine-room and powerhouse.

If PM Najib were really a very strong positive, then the election campaign should centre upon him personally.

But if that were the case why are the party’s “election wizards” now promoting their “generic” branding exercise, the “I Choose Malaysia” PR initiative — a strategy that does not mention PM Najib, or his ministers, or his party; that does not offer any background images of the Malaysia (past, present and future alike) that Umno/BN has spent its whole political life crafting?

One can only conclude that they see the personal popularity of PM Najib as being of a “shallow” type.

That is to say, it is not a deep “gut feeling” in the same way that political resentment (and also political adulation) are.

Though wide in quantitative reach, PM Najib’s popularity is not qualitatively deep. It is not itself powerful enough to be his party’s political salvation.

Or, to use the US expression, despite his popularity that the polls (including those of the Merdeka Center) have consistently demonstrated, PM Najib is seen even by his own party’s elections strategists as having “politically short coat-tails.”

Not many, that is, will ride to power behind him by hanging onto him.

Opinion polling is a powerful political instrument. The ability to read the figures, and also to look behind them, is an indispensable political skill. Even an art.

Those who read the numbers in a simple-minded way generally get things wrong. Often disastrously.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Monday, 30 July 2012 - 4:29 pm

    Are we talking predictions and opinions on polls and all focusing on the positives and negatives of Najib plus or minus points?
    “Those who read the numbers in a simple-minded way generally get things wrong. Often disastrously.” said the Professor.
    In Malaysia the simple minded folks just want to get rid of corruptions..race and religion politic.
    We want a clean government.
    Has the Professor read our situation well?
    When matters involving the best interest for the country and people ….you do not need a professor to tell you what to do.

  2. #2 by lkt-56 on Monday, 30 July 2012 - 4:46 pm

    Yup. He is weak and has no coat tail for his party to ride on. Hence the message I choose Malaysia. I will chosse Malaysia as well and that to me means voting out the incompetent, corrupt, and racist incumbent government.

  3. #3 by boh-liao on Monday, 30 July 2012 - 5:45 pm

    Speedy recovery, LKS

  4. #4 by monsterball on Monday, 30 July 2012 - 8:48 pm

    What is this “Speedy recovery, LKS”
    Do U know something we don’t know?
    Spell it out.

  5. #5 by Winston on Monday, 30 July 2012 - 9:47 pm

    All this talk of the level of popularity is a lot of baloney!
    Firstly, how can a person who is well known for his large amount of baggage be popular at all?
    Secondly, the party he represents will in most ways be personified by him.
    So, how can the party be less popular than him ?!!!!

  6. #6 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Tuesday, 31 July 2012 - 12:19 am

    The ending remark is very true. I believe even the good prof himself missed a point here. Ask any malaysian on the street of his view on jib, the answer more likely than not would be negative. But how come the poll results on jib’s popularity is so very positive? This is a peculiarity. Something peculiar to malaysians. Amongst themselves, malaysians are more open and are ready to speak their minds and their true feelings. But when approached by people who are seemingly in authority, they would immediately revert to being politically correct. The merdeka survey people are being viewed by the people (somehow and erroneously) as representing umno – someone with authority. So of course they would give replies that are more politically palatable.

    How come they can be frank when it comes to umno? That probably is because umno has no face but the name jib carries with it a face. So those people surveyed gave jib a “little bit of face”. And this act has nothing to do with real support which could well be very different. So yes the good prof is correct. Jib could be in for a real shock if he swallowed the polularity poll result hook and sinker.

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 31 July 2012 - 6:08 am

    AhCHEATkor would hv won an Olympic gold medal 4 giving out $$$ n more $$$ 2 bribe voters n bankrupting d nation in d process
    He thinks dat $$$ can buy him love, popularity n votes

    LKS’ twitter: “Specialist’s advice – continued medical treatment n observation. Will not be up n abt yet.” Hence, speedy recovery 2 LKS

  8. #8 by Loh on Tuesday, 31 July 2012 - 9:20 am

    ///But if that were the case why are the party’s “election wizards” now promoting their “generic” branding exercise, the “I Choose Malaysia” PR initiative — a strategy that does not mention PM Najib, or his ministers, or his party; that does not offer any background images of the Malaysia (past, present and future alike) that Umno/BN has spent its whole political life crafting?///–the author

    Najib is more popular than UMNO because UMNO is the personification of Mamakthir. UMNO “election wizards” has done the good job of showing Mamakthir in ‘I Choose Malaysia” so that people can still see the image of the person they hate. It is the end of UMNO.

  9. #9 by k1980 on Tuesday, 31 July 2012 - 9:53 am

    AhCHEATkor would hv won an Olympic gold medal in c4ing

  10. #10 by PoliticoKat on Thursday, 2 August 2012 - 10:22 am

    If BN has a popularity of 40% while Najib is still popular with 60%, then Malaysians are idiots.

    Politics in Malaysia is not driven by individual politicians but by party decree.

    You are not voting for Najib or uncle Lim, you are voting for UMNO or DAP, BN or PR.

    I am amazed that Malaysians have not realized that in BN at least (I hope this will not be so in PK) that who you vote for is unimportant, it is which party that candidate stands for.

    A monkey running under the BN ballot would be just as good as a 20yr political veteran running under the same ballot. Their decisions and policies will be identical.

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