Internet polling comes with its own downsides—namely, it’s difficult to reach certain parts of the populace, like rural voters and older voters who may not be regular internet users. But French firms have a fix for that: In some cases, they’ve even called possible respondents directly, in an effort to make their samples more representative from the start. “They have gone out of their way, really trying hard to recruit for those panels and using techniques to supplement them,” Evans explained.
In the second round, researchers got the overall result right. Macron, as expected, won the race by more than 20 points. But while the topline results were correct, polls significantly underestimated his margin. Most conducted in the final days showed the centrist winning by about 25 points, considerably lower than his eventual 32-point margin of victory.
Experts said this wasn’t necessarily because of misjudging support for the National Front, but because of the aftereffects of what was seen as a disastrous debate performance by Le Pen (and a consequence of France’s pre-election silence laws, keeping pollsters from publishing new numbers in the final 48 hours of the race). “I think there’s been a few green-eyed-with-envy British pollsters looking at the second round and saying, ‘You didn’t get that right,’” Evans said. “The evidence is they probably did get it right three days before, but there was that late swing.”
Macron and Le Pen debated on Wednesday, May 3, just four days before Election Day, and Le Pen’s performance was widely panned by observers and commentators: She repeatedly cited incorrect or false information, resorted to name-calling, and had trouble explaining and defending her economic plans. Under French law, no one is allowed to publish information that could influence the result of the election after Friday night at midnight, a provision which includes polls. As a result, the last polls of the race were conducted either before the debate itself or before its aftermath had a chance to fully sink in among voters.
OpinionWay, for example, published a rolling daily tracker using data from the previous three days. Its Friday poll, Jeanbart said, which gave Macron a 62-38 advantage over Le Pen, was made up of one-third data from Thursday (the day after the debate) and two-thirds from Tuesday and Wednesday (before or during the debate). And when Kantar-Sofres canvassed voters on Thursday and Friday, it found a four-point jump for Macron from its pre-debate poll, according to Rivière: from 59 percent to 63 percent. However, because the results of the poll weren’t ready before midnight on Friday, that data was never released to the public. Macron’s support “was increasingly growing and it was a clear consequence of the debate,” Rivière said.
With the coming legislative elections in June, French pollsters face yet another challenge: Macron’s En Marche will field its first-ever slate of candidates across 577 legislative districts, many of them newcomers to politics, and the traditional left-right divide in parliament is likely to splinter this year, while the National Front works to rebuild and rebrand after its presidential loss. Whether those polls will be right is still an open question. “We have a long track record with the demolition of the political system, which is quite different from the U.S., I think,” Rivière said. “These kinds of shifts, restructurings—we are used to them.”