Don’t care: Why opinion polls should have a ‘don’t care’ option.

21 Jan

Despite the protestations of politicians, opinion polls matter. If they did not matter political parties would not invest so much money and energy into testing out policy stances via polls and focus groups. But there is a curious aspect of opinion polls that seems to be lacking: the ‘don’t care’ option. Many polls have a ‘don’t know’ option. This is understandable. People may not have made up their minds on which party to vote for, or which side of an argument they prefer. Or they may feel that they do not have enough information and so cannot make a choice.

Indeed, the ‘don’t knows’ are particularly sought after at election time. Evidence from a number of states in the global north shows that electioneering makes little difference: most voters have decided who to vote for long before election day and will not change their minds regardless of whatever campaign promises/stunts made by politicians. This means that campaign managers often concentrate on a relatively small group of ‘don’t knows’. These swing voters can decide elections.

But it is simply wrong for opinion pollsters to record respondents as being comprised of people who have an opinion and people who have yet to make up their minds. There is another category that deserves recognition in opinion surveys: the don’t cares. It might be surprising to political junkies, but many people are simply not interested in public issues. This constituency is not necessarily apathetic and uncaring. Its members may be occupied by other things. After all, there is a limit to the range of issues that we can have an interest in or an opinion on. People may reach the ‘don’t care’ option after much consideration. For example, they may regard the political system as being structurally deficient and see the range of choices (political parties and leaders) as being much the same. In such a scenario, the survey respondent might ‘not care’ who is elected in that they are unconvinced how they vote will make any difference.

There is, of course, good reason why many of those who commission polls do not want the ‘don’t care’ option to be made available to survey respondents: it might be very embarrassing. It would reinforce the evidence that there is a substantial constituency who are uninspired by political, economic and cultural leaders and policies. For example, if a survey were to ask: ‘Who would you like to be prime minister/president?’ and a sizeable portion of respondents said ‘don’t care’, what does this tell us about political leaders and their ability to inspire? Yet, the respondents who opted for ‘don’t care’ may have reached that position after much thought. They are basically saying ‘a plague on all your houses’.

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2 Responses to “Don’t care: Why opinion polls should have a ‘don’t care’ option.”

  1. Louise Woollett 21/01/2014 at 11:21 am #

    I have teenage daughters who will be eligable to vote in the next general election and despite my best efforts to politicise them they would certainly tick the ‘don’t care’ box. As for myself, for the first time ever I feel like not voting as I feel as if I am voting for a rearrangement of the existing furniture, whereas I would rather vote to chuck out the existing furniture and replace it with some socialist furniture. Currently, this option does not exist so I will probably spoil my ballot paper.

    • rogermacginty 27/01/2014 at 8:09 am #

      Thanks Louise. I feel that I should vote but I am genuinely at a loss as to who to vote for. A ‘none of the above shower’ option would be welcome on the ballot paper.

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