Spare a thought for pollsters around the world; they’ve gotten a bad rap, and their job isn’t getting any easier now.
As RealClearPolitics analyst Sean Trende wrote in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprising win in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it was not the polls that missed the outcome -- as Trende noted, the national polls actually performed better last year than they did in the previous presidential election -- it was the pundits. Blame groupthink, blame a tendency to favor the status quo -- blame the data geeks whose in-house mashups of polling numbers led to aggregate predictions that were comically overconfident and ultimately wrong. (98 percent? Really?) But ultimately, blaming the pollsters became the useful fallback.
The same malaise affected the pollsters after Brexit. It’s been somewhat surprising to see established the conventional wisdom that the polls missed Brexit, because it simply is not true. Some polls had Remain ahead and others Leave, but the spread was close at the end and tightening, which reflected a basic reality: Polls are reactive more than they are predictive.
As we wrote in early 2016, the idea of leaving the European Union always had valence in the mainstream of British politics. If Leave started off polling low, it was because the referendum was an answer to a question no one was really asking, and relatively few would have been bothered if the proposition never reached a ballot. Nevertheless, the British never were enthusiastic about the European Union, and after Brexit emerged from a longstanding spat within the British right and was presented to voters as an in-out proposition, events took over as they tend to do. Polls couldn’t predict that the sudden surge of refugees to Europe would open immigration as the defining issue in the final weeks of the campaign. They couldn’t predict that far-left Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn would prove useless in promoting the EU cause to his base, which included the voters most stridently fought over. But they did react to the shifting dynamics, and while the final prognostications may not have matched precisely the results, the trend line of a tightening race was clear, and EU supporters we talked to were in a justified panic on the eve of the vote.
It doesn’t get any easier for pollsters now, yet France’s election, tight and tough to call, provides a teachable moment in the utility of polling numbers. Journey with me if you will to the sunny streets of the southern port city Marseille, where last week center-right presidential candidate Francois Fillon, the scandal-dogged entity who is the closest thing to a standard candidate on offer this cycle, took time during a rally to lash out at not one, not two, but three top competitors. His rhetorical targets newly included Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose archaic far-left views, including a 90-percent tax on income above 400,000 euros and withdrawal from NATO, didn’t stop him from rocketing up the polls into a competitive fourth place in an 11-candidate field. (Maybe Fillon honed in on the right target? The latest polls in our average have Melenchon hitting a plateau, and Fillon rising.)
To put it mildly, France’s election this Sunday is unpredictable. To put it more frankly, it is a Mad Max hellscape of a four-way race. The path toward the presidency was littered with the wreckage of the once-credible before the survivors even emerged from the party primaries. Indeed President Francois Hollande, a Socialist dragged down by muddle-through economic policies and an ineffectual response to a string of terror attacks, became the first incumbent in the history of the Fifth Republic not to even run for re-election. Other notables -- Manuel Valls, Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy -- soon joined him in the unexpected ranks of the vanquished. France is in enough turmoil to spark talk of the end of the Fifth Republic and a new constitutional arrangement. This makes the polls more difficult to read -- yet they are telling us something very revealing.
The surest thing the French polls reveal is a high degree of volatility. That volatility starts with who made it through in the first place. Depending on who you ask, the putative front-runner Emmanuel Macron is either a sort of radical centrist or secretly a Socialist stooge indebted to big finance -- he runs the upstart En Marche! movement, but was minister of the economy for two years under Hollande. Melenchon is a longtime curmudgeonly fixture in French politics, but benefits now from dissatisfaction with the centre-left; for a crude analogy, think of him as a sort of Jeremy Corbyn with an outside shot of actually winning, though as Kevin Lees points out, Melenchon has underperformed his polls before, and there are signs he is moderating his platform some. Fillon is dogged by his scandals but stubbornly sticks around. Then you have Le Pen, the consummate faux political outsider who improbably benefits from the best combination of established party machinery and voter support. Le Pen also, and for the better part of a decade, has sought to moderate the image of her party, the Front National.
As I write this, Melenchon’s numbers have risen substantially. He has vaulted from polling at around 11 percent to averaging out at 19 percent in our own polling average, as Le Pen and Macron’s numbers slip into the mid- and low-20s. Fillon remains a quiet force despite his scandals, hovering at the edge of parity with the front-runners in the latest batch of polls. The Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, ranks as an irrelevance, and some left-wing editorial pages and social media have urged Hamon to drop out and consolidate the leftist vote. (Do read Lees’ analysis on why that wouldn’t necessarily propel Melenchon to the second round.)
Can Le Pen Win?
This is the question that obsesses the foreign press and terrifies EU leadership, and the answer according to the polls is far more complex than the headline numbers, which would give Macron a big win in a runoff between the two. In that scenario, our poll average gives Macron a 22-point lead. But that’s not so comfortable a lead as it might appear. Poll after poll shows the shallowness of Macron’s support. Take IFOP, considered the gold standard. In the most current update to its rolling average, 69 percent of Macron’s voters say they are sure of their vote; 84 percent say the same of Le Pen. Considering the tightening spread over Fillon and Melenchon, Macron’s appearance on the second-round ballot on May 7 is far from a given. And if he does go on to the second round, he will need to win voters from Melenchon and others; they do not appear enthusiastic.
Regardless the second-round opponent, there are big obstacles for Le Pen if she makes it:
“The Front National’s best electoral score, in all of its history, gathered less than 7 million votes (in November 2015 for the French regional elections),” Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Paris office, reminded us. “The last presidential elections’ victors won with over 18 million votes.”
Yet, Lafont Rapnouil adds, the stars could very realistically align for Le Pen.
“Turnout might be significantly lower than average, and that usually benefits Front National’s candidates,” he said. “The traditional two party system is going through a severe crisis ... which suggests a totally unknown dynamic, especially in between the two rounds. Parts of the electorate which used to be like ‘dams’ against the FN -- such as Catholics, women, civil servants -- have stopped denying the possibility that they would vote for Marine Le Pen.”
France and the Interregnum
But the polls are helping to tell a story of which Le Pen is just one part. The unexpected rise of Melenchon and the establishment of a four-way race elucidates what Lafont Rapnouil’s colleague, ECFR director Mark Leonard, described to RealClearWorld last year: The arrival of an interregnum, a period of history where the old order is dying, and nothing new has yet replaced it. Trump’s election and Brexit’s success were seen as successful insurgencies, but the election in France, as the roller-coaster polls make clear, is the first global event taking place fully within that interregnum. (With the possible exception of the Dutch election, which saw the center-right adjust to and in moderated forms successfully co-opt Geert Wilders’ provocative views on immigration and the European Union, while a couple of smaller left-wing and centrist parties surged as Labor collapsed.)
The traditional left-right axis is fraying; the parties representing the old way either languish deep in the polls or, in the case of Les Republicains, are led by a candidate who -- and read Robert Zaretsky on this -- differs considerably from his affiliated political predecessors. Uncertainty prevails: The most important numbers lie below the headlines. A recent BVA poll indeed found that 34 percent of French voters who say they are sure to vote are however unsure how they intend to vote. Thirty percent of those on the voter rolls say they may not even vote at all. To top it off, legislative elections will follow, and it’s an open question whether the new president will have a majority in parliament or will not, in which case power shifts to the prime minister.
A wholesale realignment of the party system is certainly possible. Prolonging the suspense, we won’t have a true answer until mid-June. What the polls show us right now, with individual candidates from Macron to Melenchon rapidly rising, then slowly slumping, failing to inspire true confidence and ultimately leaving us to observe this four-way muddle, is an election that is fully and consciously about the interregnum Leonard described. The storyline is no longer simply about the rise of the far-right or the possible demise of the European institutions: Those factors are now taken as givens and established as valid political forces, and the forces opposing them have organized as such. The French, the Germans, and others are now deciding which elements of the old and new to carry forward. There is no great enthusiasm for any of these candidates -- not for the fresh-faced defender of Europe, nor for its longtime adversary. The French go to the polls with a world-weary skepticism, unsure of the new face they want to show the world, and aware they can cosmetically alter that face later on.
Lafont Rapnouil: “[I]ndeed, we may be on the verge of a complete overhaul of the party system. Still, I wouldn’t rush to proclaim the death of either the Socialist Party or Les Republicains. The restructuring of the political landscape will not happen based on the presidential election, but more likely based on the results of the following legislative elections, on June 11 and June 18, and the political dynamics -- coalitions, cohabitation? -- that will prevail during the next presidential term.
“So far, the Fifth Republic has proven quite resilient, and provided governments with stability and authority. I would not confuse the demise of the political system and that of the constitutional framework.”
All of Europe watches and waits.