Why Were the UK Election Polls So Wrong? A Statistical Mystery

Workers count votes at a polling place in Worcester, Mass.SuperStock via Getty Images

Last Thursday the UK’s Conservative Party stomped to an electoral victory that fairly shocked the country. The Tories won a comfortable majority of seats in parliament, enabling them to govern the nation without a coalition partner. That result contrasted sharply with the pre-election polls, which (on average) predicted a dead heat between the Conservatives and their long-time rivals in the Labor Party, each one projected to net 33.6 percent of the vote. The substantial error has provoked much hand-wringing among British pollsters, whose industry organization is conducting an official review of the fiasco.

So what did really go wrong? Nearly a week out, no one seems to have come up with a convincing answer, though a range of potential explanations—some connected, some mutually exclusive—have emerged. In an era when statistical analysis is coming to ever greater importance to fields as diverse as politics, finance, sports, and even culture, it is important to try to find the weaknesses of our models—and how they can be improved.

Here are

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