French election turns into a four-way contest, putting pollsters to the test

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 2:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 10:58pm

The four-candidate battle to reach the runoff in France’s presidential election is putting pollsters to the test as never before.

With just a few days to go before Sunday’s first round of voting, every poll for the past month has shown independent Emmanuel Macron and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen taking the top two spots. Macron would then easily win the May 7 runoff, polls show. Yet both front-runners have been steadily slipping over the past two weeks, and Republican Francois Fillon and Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon are now within striking distance.

It’s a challenge for French pollsters, who have a near-perfect record in forecasting the vote share for the top five finishers in the first rounds in 2007 and 2012 and the subsequent runoffs. Until recently, the expectation was that France wouldn’t have an electoral shock like Britain did with Brexit and the US went through with the election of Donald Trump. 

“This situation is totally unprecedented,” said Emmanuel Riviere, managing director of Kantar Public France. “The fact that there are four potential finalists makes the situation very complex.”

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French political pollsters are aided by heavier reliance on Internet polling than in the US and the UK. And French elections are simple - one person, one vote, across the nation. The two-round system means a straight face-off between the top two candidates in the runoff, reducing voter options.

The difference for this year’s first round is that the top four candidates are within a range of fewer than 4 percentage points. Given margins of error that are typically between 2.5 points and 3 points, the race is tighter than it might initially appear. On top of that, as many as 40 per cent of voters have yet to decide on their candidate, according to estimates by multiple pollsters. 

Pollsters haven’t forgotten 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, unexpectedly qualified for the runoff. That was considered a big failure for French polling, and companies say they’ve adjusted their methods since then. 

Nor do they confront quite the complexities their colleagues in the UK and the US did. In the case of Brexit, it was only the second nationwide referendum on EU membership since 1975, meaning pollsters had no voting history to weigh polling results. And the US electoral system is so convoluted, even many Americans don’t understand it.

“There’s one round, 50 states, and an electoral college - we have nothing close to that complication,” said Edouard Lecerf, director of political opinion studies at Kantar TNS.

Helmut Norpoth, a political science professor at New York’s Stony Brook University who predicted Trump’s victory, says French pollsters are right to collect information via Internet surveys.

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“The reliance on telephones in the US and the UK is a problem,” he said. “They are dinosaurs.”

A generation ago, about one-third of people would agree to be questioned when called, said Jerome Fourquet, director of opinion studies at pollster Ifop. Now it’s about 5 per cent. At the same time, the number of people with an Internet connection is now about the same as those with a phone. “Online polling is more reliable,” Fourquet said. “People are less likely to be shy about their vote on a computer screen than when talking to a human by phone.”

Registered voters are contacted by email and asked to answer a series of questions. Then they’re grouped to ensure a mix of ages, social class and the like to ensure the sample is representative.

The five polls carried out on April 19, 2012, the last day polling was allowed before the first round that year, showed Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande winning between 27 and 30 per cent. On voting day three days later, he won 28.6 per cent. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy was credited with 25 to 27 percent, and won 27.2 per cent. Polls were similarly accurate before the 2007 election.

As of Tuesday, Macron was running at 23 per cent and Le Pen at 22.3 per cent, according to the Bloomberg composite of French polling. Fillon and Melenchon are both at 19.5 per cent. In the second round, Macron would trounce Le Pen by 64 per cent to 36 per cent, according to Opinionway, which also says Fillon would defeat Le Pen 58 per cent to 42 per cent.

According to Kantar’s Riviere, 60 per cent of French voters are sure of the choice they have made this year. In 2012, 71 per cent of voters had made a firm decision and in 2007, 66 per cent had done so. Only in 2002 were voters about as unsure.

Noting that most of the undecided voters were on the left, Riviere said: “There is a real sense of hesitation about what to do.”