Polling Palestinians


As we've recently been reminded, there's no such thing as a perfect opinion poll, even in an over-polled society like ours. Accurate polling can present even greater challenges in the Middle East, however, and the more democratic events that occur in the region, the more those problems will matter. The story of the election of Mahmoud Abbas to the presidency of the PA, for example, featured as a subplot his failure to beat the exit-poll spread.

In the Middle East (and elsewhere), the widespread phenomenon of preference falsification can be exacerbated by cultural behavior. Many Arabs regard it as a matter of politesse to tell interlocutors what they want to hear. This is not necessarily an issue of telling or hiding the truth, but a reflection of circumspection, a response intended to put people at their ease and help maintain an easy social exchange. Whatever the motivation, however, it rather complicates the issue of measuring actual public opinion.

That's what made the last pre-election poll by The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion interesting: PCPO sought a way around opinion circumspection. According to the Center's director, Dr. Nabil Kukali (quoted in a PCPO email on Jan. 7), "response to the poll question about the choice of the presidential candidate was conducted in a secret way. The respondents were [given a 'ballot' and] asked to put a mark on the right side of the candidate's name and to drop the 'voting-sheet' into a closed box, specially designed for that purpose. Every respondent was requested to vote honestly in the same intent as he/she would do on Sunday, the 9th of January, i.e. on the Election Day. The poll is said to be considered as pre-voting."

It appeared to be a clever idea, but something went wrong. The PCPO poll, released Jan. 7, measured Mahmoud Abbas' support at only 51.8 percent, more than 10 percentage points below his reported percentage of votes two days later in the actual election. (I am assuming the election and vote count to have been honest and accurate, since I have no reason not to.) Anyway, back to the ME opinion drawing board. In the meantime, people continue to cite and argue over poll results in the region, especially in Iraq, as if those results meant something. Maybe sometimes they do, and sometimes maybe not.