By The Numbers: Polling in Foreign Territory

Zogby International has successfully polled elections in ten nations outside the U.

Zogby International has successfully polled elections in ten nations outside the U.S., including some very problematic places such as Iran, Mexico and Albania. We have found that the keys to success are sticking with the fundamentals of good polling and paying attention to cultural sensitivities.

As always, quality polling starts with developing a reliable sample, which in turn requires strong research into the nation’s political and social culture. To form a field team capable of creating a sample, you will also obviously need native speakers. However, once you have a capable field team in place, you should still send observers from your company to ensure that things go smoothly. Sounds easy, right? Now, let me tell you about the complications you’re likely to face—some of which will require you to improvise new methods on the fly.

In 2001, working for Abu Dhabi TV, we conducted the first U.S. poll in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Interviews were conducted by a respected Iranian firm face-to-face in front of respondents’ homes, and the questioning proceeded in a less formal manner than it would in a U.S. phone poll. Since Iranians have an aversion to talking about politics, interviewers began with an elaborate greeting and punctuated their conversation with phrases such as “God be with you,” or “Peace,” followed by small talk. The first question asked which world city the respondent would most like to visit. (Paris was tops at 30 percent).

Tehranand its suburbs are home to an accurate representative sample of the country’s likely voting population, and with sound weighting we were able to come within 3 points of Mohammad Khatam%u0131’s winning total of 78 percent.

The year before, we had polled the Mexican national elections for Reuters. At the time, a single party—the PrI—had ruled the country for more than seventy years, and the Mexican people were fearful of revealing their true political beliefs. Questions here were also asked face-to-face. Our poll was the first to show the challenger and eventual winner, Vicente Fox, with a lead. Our final poll a few days before the election was a statistical tie, with the PrI candidate, Francisco Labastida, up by 3 points. However, that poll also found that 61 percent of respondents believed the nation was headed in the wrong direction. That led me to write that if people believed a free election would take place, the PrI could very well be defeated. Fox went on to win 43 percent to 36 percent.

In 2009, we polled the Albanian national election for Top Channel. This was a very important election for Albania, which needed to show it could properly conduct a democratic election to improve its chances of admission to the European Union. The leading parties were the ruling Democrats and the opposition Socialists, and we received vitriolic e-mails from splinter parties saying we were tools of one side or other. In the end, though, our work helped show an Albanian public jaded from years of misinformation and dictatorial rule that independent and scientific polls could be conducted in Albania.

We assembled a team of experts to prepare an accurate sample, which was borne out by the actual results. We began polling six months before the vote. Official campaigning began in May, and the election was in June. Our early polling uncovered the trends and momentum shifts that would shape the election. The opposition party took an early lead, but the race closed as the election neared. Our final poll found a statistical dead heat, but a jump in the portion of respondents who said Albania was moving in the right direction—from 44 percent in January to 57 percent in our final pre-election poll—indicated momentum by the incumbent party.

The actual results gave the ruling Democrats seventy seats in parliament and the Socialists sixty-nine, with one seat too close to call. Sadly for Albania, as of this writing the last seat is yet to be filled. There has been violence and protest, and the European Union has not yet admitted Albania. Our experience polling in other foreign countries has yielded similar lessons: The key is always cultural sensitivity. While there are critics who say you can’t trust the polls in some nations, our work has shown it can be done.

John Zogby is president and CEO of the polling firm Zogby International. You can post comments on political topics in the Zogby Forums at

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