How One Pollster Correctly Predicted Brexit

Graeme Hutton SVP, Group Partner, Research

As the world reverberates from Britain’s decision to leave the Europe Union, the shockwave making the vote all the more surprising was that no major polling company correctly predicted the outcome.

Yet one new organization, Qriously, did apparently foresee what would happen.

Qriously used a different technique to the established market research organizations. It used mobile. Harnessing the new programmatic ad serving technologies of the digital advertising world, it redeployed that technology to serve survey questions instead of ads to smartphone owners.

Critically, the day before the Referendum, seven out of eight research agencies incorrectly predicted that “Remain” (in the EU) would account for 51%-55% of the total vote. Qriously forecast just 44%. See their analysis here.

Qriously recruited respondents via quick-paced questions placed in app on mobile devices. This can provide an innovative way of soliciting a spontaneous response with, arguably, a more representative sample.

In contrast, the main polling organizations used either conventional voice telephone interviews or standard online surveys. According to Tom Clark, a highly respected journalist of the UK’s The Guardian, response rates from conventional telephone polls have been falling, in part due to telephone marketers, while online panels tend to be self-selecting, particularly so for political polling.

In 2012, Nate Silver became the preeminent U.S. election forecaster after he correctly forecast that not only would Barack Obama win the presidential election, he also correctly predicted the individual state vote for each of the 50 states.

When Silver reviewed the mainstream British polls leading up to the UK’s referendum, he ran a podcast entitled “British Referendum Polls Are A Mess.”

In defense of the seven research agencies that were wide of the mark, forecasting a one-off Referendum has significant hurdles:

  • Most pollsters compare historical survey results to previous, actual voting trends. By identifying the variations, they can weight subsequent survey results accordingly, a technique called past-vote weighting. This trend information was not available for Brexit.
  • For major issues related to a country’s sovereignty, most electorates are inherently conservative and opt for the status quo. This is exactly what happened two years ago when Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The UK also decided in an earlier referendum to stay the EU in 1975.

Innovation is the market force behind technology transfer. It implies competitors will quickly acquire any burgeoning technology unless patents are in place to stem the flow. The existing polling organizations are almost certainly reviewing the potential of programmatic as a way to create new panels or ‘rivers’ of potential respondents. As such, two issues arise:

  1. How long can Qriously maintain their market differentiation in programmatic surveys?
  2. Can the new programmatic-based approach to polling repeat its success in another critical prediction? For instance, how closely could it match Nate Silver’s flawless prediction of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, down to the individual state level?

Graeme Hutton is SVP, Group Partner, Research, UM. He is a member of the industry Council for Research Excellence’s Social Media Group and 4A’s Measurement Task Force. His clients include J&J’s consumer health business.