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Are exit polls trustworthy?
Twelve exit polls out of fourteen predicted NDA's majority with seats varying from 282 to 365. Post exit polls it's a routine that the losing parties (as predicted by exit polls) usually rubbishes the exit polls citing that such polls have nothing to do with the real results. Many cite 2004 exit polls followed by 2009 exit polls, exit polls during 2015 Bihar Assembly election and 2015 Delhi Assembly elections. Now the question is whether exit polls are trust worthy or totally rubbish.

I too never take exit polls numbers very seriously. That doesn't mean that exit polls have no value. Since 1996 there have been multiple exit polls and to my understanding all these exit polls gave a trend although the final numbers aren't matching. The 2004 exit poll was an exception because almost all pollsters had predicted a BJP win but then there's reason why 2004 exit poll numbers were horribly wrong. I will come to that later.

To understand the trend in exit polls there's a simple method. If all the exit polls are predicting that a single party or alliance is leading, then generally the predicted parties win with big numbers. The 2014 general election, 2017 UP Assembly election etc prove the same. Even to some extent the 2009 general election exit polls also proved the same as most of the exit polls predicted advantage UPA with a slender margin but UPA-2 really bettered the numbers. In the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections most of the pollsters had predicted an AAP win although none ever imagined that AAP would secure 67 out of 70 seats.

When there's tight contest or says pollsters are divided, then either one party/alliance will win it big or it would be a hung house. In the 2015 Bihar Assembly election, fifty per cent pollsters had predicted an MGB win where as the rest fifty per cent had predicted an NDA win although the numbers were kept almost same to same. But MGB made a clean sweep in Bihar.

In Karnataka, MP and Rajasthan elections also, the exit polls mostly displayed either a hung house or a slender lead for the Congress or BJP. Those three states remain hung. The BJP was the largest party in Karnataka whereas the Congress was the largest party in MP and Rajasthan. In Chhattisgarh the pollsters were divided as to who would win and thus in a decisive mandate the Congress decimated the BJP there like the MGB had done in Bihar.

The point to be noted is that most of the exit polls are right in getting the vote share and fumble only at converting it into seats. India is a very diverse country and thus it's difficult to convert the seats from the vote share. For example, take the Tamil Nadu assembly election 2016, the vote difference between the AIDMK alliance and the DMK alliance was just 1% yet the AIADMK won 134 seats where as the DMK alliance won just 89 seats. The pollsters were also divided in their prediction. But as they say there's a 3% margin in vote shares in exit polls, so how can they convert the vote share to seats with just 1% general margin.

Let's now discuss why pollsters couldn't get it right in 2004 general election. In 1999 the BJP had a vote share of 23.75% but won 182 seats where as the Congress had 28.30% of vote share but won just 114 seats. In fact, the BJP lost 1.84% vote share compared to 1998 general election but won the same seats (182) whereas the Congress in fact increased 2.48% vote share compared to 1998 general election yet lost around 27 seats compared to 1998 tally. Now a further loss of vote share by BJP and Congress by 1.6% of vote share in 2004 general election naturally provoked the pollsters that Congress is further losing and BJP is gaining at the cost of Congress. But 2004 figures were Congress 145 (with vote share of 26.70%) and BJP has 138 seats with (22.16% vote share). Thus, if you study the vote shares of Congress and BJP in 1998, 1999 and 2004 it will be clear that conversion of seats from vote share was very complex in that period of time and perhaps that's the reason why pollsters went horribly wrong.

But the fact remains that pollsters most of the time remain right in their probable vote share of parties and most importantly whether a party loses or gains the vote share compared to previous elections. That's why one can gauge the trend if one goes through the vote share presentation of exit polls instead of number of seats predicted.

The general election 2019 results have proved that the exit polls showed the right direction as most of exit polls' vote share was right. However, conversion of seats was right for a couple of exit polls like News24- Today's Chanakya and India Today-My Axis exit poll.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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