‘I’ve never seen evidence of opinion polls influencing voters... making people go with the winner or deciding to back the underdog’

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Elections are fun: Psephologist Sir David Butler Elections are fun: Psephologist Sir David Butler
SummaryIn this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24X7, renowned psephologist Sir David Butler talks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta about how he coined the words swing and psephology, the reason he remains optimistic about India after studying its elections for so long, and why bad opinion polls get driven out on own.

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24X7, renowned psephologist Sir David Butler talks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta about how he coined the words swing and psephology, the reason he remains optimistic about India after studying its elections for so long, and why bad opinion polls get driven out on own.

At a time when politicians are debating whether pre-election opinion polls are a good idea or an evil that distorts our elections, we are lucky to be talking to the guru of gurus when it comes to opinion polling, Sir David Butler. You explained to the world what a swing means.

Yes I suppose I have two words that I have been responsible for — I didn’t invent either of them. The first is swing. People talked about the swing of the pendulum between one election and next. They said it in the past, but they hadn’t made it systematic. When I was a very young man, I wrote an article which talked about swing and it caught on. It became absolutely central to the interpretation of elections, particularly when you had two dominant parties. So that’s one word. The other word I am responsible for is psephology. Now, it was an Oxford joke. Somebody said they are making a habit of the systematic study of elections. So we should have a word for it. And a classical scholar said, well the Greeks voted by dropping pebbles in urns. Psephos is the Greek for pebble. And so we made a joke of it, psepho-itry, psepho-analysis and other things, while working on elections in the early 1950s, and it just caught on... I’m rather embarrassed, I don’t think of it is a science, but quite a lot of gimmicks. Studying elections is not a science at all, it’s rather pompous. I rather regret having put it into currency.

But you have made a science out of it, for you have explained British elections to British viewers for 60 years now.

Yes, I was very lucky. They put on a programme, the first time a British election results programme, in 1950, and

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