French election shocker: pollsters baffled by four-way race

Bloomberg.- 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.


Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and MelenchonPhotographer: Marlene Awaad/Christophe

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 U.S. 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.”


French political pollsters are aided by heavier reliance on Internet polling than in the U.S. and the U.K. 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 percent of voters have yet to decide on their candidate, according to estimates by multiple polling firms.

Despite the tightening polls, bookmakers still make Macron the favorite, with a 51 percent chance of winning. Fillon is next at 26 percent, having overtaken Le Pen this week. The National Front leader is at 24 percent and Melenchon at 11 percent. The bookmakers surveyed are based outside of France, where it is illegal to bet on politics.

Get the latest on the French election here

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

Nor do they confront quite the complexities their colleagues in the U.K. and the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

The reliance on telephones in the U.S. and the U.K. 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 percent. 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.”

Representative Sample

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 percent. On voting day three days later, he won 28.6 percent. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy was credited with 25 to 27 percent, and won 27.2 percent. Polls were similarly accurate before the 2007 election.


As of Tuesday, Macron was running at 23 percent and Le Pen at 22.3 percent, according to the Bloomberg composite of French polling. Fillon and Melenchon are both at 19.5 percent. A Kantar Sofres Onepoint poll released late Tuesday had Macron at 24 percent, Le Pen at 23 percent, Fillon at 18.5 percent and Melenchon at 18 percent. In the second round, Macron would defeat Le Pen by 64 percent to 36 percent, according to Opinionway, which also says Fillon would defeat Le Pen 58 percent to 42 percent.

According to Kantar’s Riviere, 60 percent of French voters are sure of the choice they have made this year. In 2012, 71 percent of voters had made a firm decision and in 2007, 66 percent 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.

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