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February 23, 2019

Kenyan opinion polls have their limits but are still valuable

Tom Wolf of Ipsos Synovate Polls addressing the Media./FILE
Tom Wolf of Ipsos Synovate Polls addressing the Media./FILE

Any Kenyan who claims to be a political pundit will have heard of Nate Silver.

He is the American statistician and writer who first rose to global fame in 2008, when he successfully predicted the outcomes in 49 of the 50 states in that year’s US presidential election. He then went on to exceed this unprecedented feat in the 2012 election – Silver correctly predicted the winner in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

After this, for many of us who write about politics and world affairs for a living, it became an article of faith that when it came to understanding American politics, all that we had to do was to read Nate Silver's latest predictions in his wildly popular FiveThirtyEight blog, and the truth would be revealed.

Not any more.

In the 2016 presidential election, the previously infallible Nate Silver proved to be as fallible as anyone else. Up to the very last minute, the FiveThirtyEight team predicted that Hillary Clinton had a 71 percent chance to win the 2016 US presidential election.

To put it mildly, this was a huge mistake.

For us in Kenya, it is important to bear in mind the rise and fall of this famous prognosticator who was widely hailed as a genius at the peak of his fame, because it reminds us that – no matter how clever or sophisticated the model used – predicting how millions of voters will behave in something as complicated as a presidential election, is not a pure science.

Given the extreme polarization of our political system, we actually need to learn to respect our Kenyan pollsters more, not less, as they have – very broadly speaking – been reasonably accurate in their polls.

Kenyan pollsters accurately predicted the big picture of both the tragic 2007 and the controversial 2013 presidential elections as a statistical tie (at roughly 46% each for the two leading candidates), which meant that the final tally would be primarily dependent on the voter turnout in the regional strongholds of the leading candidates. And so it turned out to be.

But polls, after all, can only be a snapshot of a particular moment in time. There can be no guarantee that the picture revealed will continue to apply.

But they only reveal where a candidate stands now.

The elections are still eight months away.

And in politics that is a very long time indeed.

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