Increasingly precise, to what extent do polls influence voters?

Increasingly precise, to what extent do polls influence voters?

For Europeans, the opinion studies were not wrong. More reliable than before, they influence between 10 and 20% of voters. Hence the passion they arouse in candidates.

Polls are like the weather, they’re wrong all the time. Who can still say it in 2024? Opinion surveys proved to be particularly precise for the European elections on June 9. Three days before the vote, they credited Jordan Bardella with 31 to 34% of the votes, Valérie Hayer with around 15%, Raphaël Glucksmann with 14%.

Results: 31.37% for the president of the National Rally, 14.6% for the leader of the majority and 13.83% for the center-left candidate. Even the late surge of Manon Aubry, head of the list of La France insoumise, had been spotted. “It’s flawless, yet European women are prone to surprises,” admits Bruno Jeanbart, vice-president of the OpinionWay institute. This finesse in the predictions is challenging, especially as studies are multiplying: 111 published for the 1981 presidential election, 157 in 1995, 193 in 2002, 409 in 2012, 560 in 2017 and 467 in 2022. This poll fever threatens the democratic process?

The trauma of 2002

“I never believed in polls, politics is dynamic,” thinks Emmanuel Macron. The President of the Republic belongs to the generation traumatized by April 21, 2002, the date of the last big failure: the accession to the second round of the presidential election of Jean-Marie Le Pen. A few days before the election, the far-right candidate only received 8 to 10% of voting intentions, far behind Lionel Jospin. Finally, at 8 p.m., he obtained 16.8% of the votes and went into a duel against Jacques Chirac.

Since then, the gaps between voting intentions measured by survey and the final results have been reduced significantly. The methodology has evolved: surveys are based on larger samples, 2,000 people instead of 1,000, and are no longer carried out by telephone but via an online questionnaire. “It is easier to declare for Jordan Bardella in front of your computer than for Jean-Marie Le Pen on the phone with a pollster,” explains Bruno Jeanbart. The data is also better analyzed, based on the collection of very detailed results in the polling stations. Artificial intelligence does not intervene (yet?), because, “in the end, we have to ask people for their opinion”.

Appearing in 1936 in the United States, the polls arrived in France during the presidential election of 1965. At the time, their influence was less felt because political affiliations blocked the vote. A communist voter chooses the PCF, a Gaullist General de Gaulle. “The decline in party loyalty and the current great upheaval in political life favor the preponderance of the polls,” explains Emmanuel Rivière, political scientist. The type of election as well: the presidential election encourages useful voting. In 2022, the strong momentum at the end of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s campaign had siphoned off votes from the Greens, abandoned by voters wanting the rebellious leader to reach the second round. At the same time, some of those of Éric Zemmour fled to consolidate Marine Le Pen’s second place. And supporters of Valérie Pécresse abandoned her in favor of Emmanuel Macron to avoid a duel between extremes. “We estimate between 10 and 20% the number of strategic voters, very sensitive to the balance of power revealed by the polls,” underlines Bruno Jeanbart.


The appetite of journalists, analysts, observers and political scientists feeds the phenomenon. During the campaign period, on continuous news channels, the poll bubble swells under the flood of comments which penetrate minds and play on the psychology of voting. This sounding board also has repercussions on the candidates who adapt their campaign. “Their teams stick with us, they have an extremely precise vision of our work,” admits the vice-president of OpinionWay.

Should we review the law? Currently, it prohibits any publication forty-eight hours before the vote. Would a restriction further upstream, two weeks before, be desirable? “No, the forty-eight hours is the consensus. With around ten institutes and a control body, pluralism is preserved and the risk of manipulation is quite low,” estimates Emmanuel Rivière. In a connected world, a French ban would be illusory in any case. Any news site headquartered abroad could publish polls. And foreign interference would even make the situation dangerous, because rumors and fake news would get out of control. “Where there is a poll, there is democracy,” recalls Emmanuel Rivière, who puts things into perspective: “In any case, we only push people in the directions they want to take. »

467 surveys have been published for the 2022 presidential election. That is four times more than during the 1981 election, according to the Polling Commission.

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