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7. 9. 2022

Czech elections are about emotions

We have a presidential election coming up at the beginning of next year. The campaigns are now getting underway, but many Czechs don’t even think about the successor of the current head of state, or leave their decision to the last minute. In an exclusive interview, we asked Jan Tuček, director of the renowned Czech research agency STEM/MARK, how he sees the presidential election and more.

When do elections start for STEM/MARK? How many months, or maybe years in advance, and how?

We start thinking about the next presidential election the moment the previous one ends. We think about them from the internal aspect, and we work with the assumption that someone will need something from us. Now we’ve completed the seventh wave of tracking among people, we map the situation throughout the entire electoral period and ascertain the development of opinions and preferences.

Does voter behavior change with electoral periods? If for instance we compare the presidential elections, when Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg squared off against each other, two strong candidates, with the others in order? How big of a role does the attractiveness of presidential candidates play?

Of course, voters' behavior changes. The first direct Zeman vs. Schwarzenberg presidential election divided society. This division continues to this day and is reflected in all election opinion polls, in fact in all polls dealing with certain social issues. All Czech elections are about emotions, whether they are presidential candidates, parliamentary candidates or mayors. I remember when, after the Velvet Revolution, the Civic Forum nominated Helena Růžičková or Daniela Kolářová to parliament only to attract voters. It is different in Anglo-Saxon countries, but in the Czech Republic, the emotions associated with elections are usually negative rather than positive. Electoral turnout is mostly increased by candidates who are problematic, and voters feel the need to define themselves as being against them. A lot of the last elections were against someone rather than for someone.

Today's world is influenced by major events – pandemics, war, energy and economic crises – we are all facing something for which nobody could have prepared. How much will this affect the outcome of the elections and voter behavior?

I don't think the election will be influenced by what's going on, but by what topics the presidential candidates will pursue. I assume that, as usual, half the nation will follow populist candidates, and half will follow the rational ones. The candidate who best offers believable solutions, realistic or not, is likely to score points. Anyone who is able to present ideas or emotions to their potential voters that give the impression of advocacy will do well. In these complicated times, rhetoric is simpler than if nothing were going on, and the way candidates define themselves against each other will certainly be harsher.

As an agency, you have a special responsibility for what you communicate and disseminate as information. How much does such consciousness affect your work? Is there such a thing as a code of ethics in this field? Something that's already out of bounds?

We perceive the question of morality very strongly. A good research agency should be impartial in the creation of surveys. The questions asked in questionnaires should be put in such a way so as not to mislead, and to allow both sides to respond. At the same time, we know that the results of these polls are being written into voter behavior, but not to the extent that the public may think. Over the summer, in one of our presidential tracks, we asked: “How do the recommendations of authorities affect you – e.g. the president, representatives of the political party you voted for, pre-election opinion polls?” Only a fifth of the respondents admit that they take this into account in some way. In the end, however, they decide for themselves, and family members and friends have the greatest influence on one’s decision-making.

In addition, serious research agencies have committed themselves to publishing so-called public opinion research passports. Such a passport has about ten points and, for example, it states who is paying for the survey, and if someone is paying for it, how the respondents were selected, what were the questions, how we asked them, how the electoral or preference model is compiled, etc. If everything is so transparent like this, it is impossible for the research agency to manipulate the data in any way. Nevertheless, society often does not believe this, and I come across opinions that we “falsify” it somehow depending on who pays us. Believe me, it's really not in our interest. The research agency has precious little to fall back on, and one of those things is its solid reputation and trust among the respondents. When someone rings the doorbell and says they're from STEM/MARK, we need whoever's answering the door to know that STEM/MARK is here, that it's a reputable, serious agency, and that they can trust that the agency is not going to manipulate his or her opinion. This is one of the most important “beacons” that constantly shines above us and guides us, so that we do not mislead respondents.

How do you perceive the mood in society and the fact that a woman could become the future head of state?

That is a rather problematic question. In one study, we asked respondents precisely whether they could imagine a woman as president, and it sparked a huge discussion almost suffrage-like in nature, about why we also didn't ask if they could imagine a man as president. The debate eventually became rational, and most of those involved in the discussion defended us, saying that today this was quite normal. We have a relatively positive example in President Čaputová in Slovakia just across the border, and I think there are a lot of Czechs who would also appreciate a president like her. Of our current candidates, only Danuše Nerudová, who meets voters' requirements for what a president should be like, is actually an option. She is morally impeccable, she has experience, she is relatively young, so she certainly appeals to young voters. She is focusing on them too, but I see one problem. Young people are the most undecided, they change their opinions the most often and the fastest, so it is very difficult to have this group of voters “under one’s thumb”. On the other hand, I think society deserves a female president after what it's had now.

Have you ever been able to create a survey that did not turn out to your expectation? Have you ever had a bad guess at how the election would end?

We’ve managed to create plenty of surveys that did not turn out according to our expectations, but it rather concerns marketing or business research. It's hard for opinion polls that concern politics or elections, because as a researcher, one shouldn't project one's political views into it. For example, I can speak for Tuček the citizen at any time, but not for Tuček the director of STEM/Marek, though this is barely separable. The fundamental problem with pre-election research is that we often poll a month, two, six months before the election, but especially lately Czech and even world voters decide within the final 14 days, or even on their way to the polling station. So some things go as anticipated, but elections are different. This is usually not for having erred in our research, but because people change their decisions according to the current situation. It may happen that people are convinced a month before the election that they will vote, for example, for Jiří Paroubek. And Paroubek appears in public a week before the election wearing a forty thousand crown suit, yet claims: “I'm one of you.” But none of his constituents could afford such a suit, and he suddenly loses half of his votes. It also takes time to do research, process it, release it, and the mood in society may change in the meantime. I think that the last few elections – the important or popular ones, which are presidential and parliamentary in our country – did not turn out as any big surprise. For the previous parliamentary elections, regarding whether one side or the other would win by a point or two, it was balanced; for the presidential elections, unfortunately, it was clear from the outset how it would turn out.

Is there such a thing as an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” estimate of elections?

I think that optimism or pessimism only appears in voter turnout. The prevailing opinion in the Czech Republic since the revolution is that nonvoters are actually giving their vote to the communists. Ever since then, people have felt that going to the polls is like a civic duty. Before that it was a clear duty, when you didn't go, they would come to you with a ballot box and persuade you to vote so they could go home because you were the last one to do so. It's not a duty anymore, it's a right. But people still feel that it's the right thing to do, that they should vote. In pre-election polling, they often tell us that they're going to vote, or that they probably will, even though they already know they wouldn’t. They don't feel like it, they have no one to vote for, or the weather can be extra nice, and they instead go hang out in their backyard. By the way, the weather is quite a curious factor influencing election results.

There are voter turnout estimates that are projected in a voting model. But some voters are, let's say, more responsible than others, so it depends on how many of them actually do turn out. From this we can deduce a pessimistic estimate of the results of the electoral turnout. Something like an optimistic election estimate could perhaps be made from the point of view of each of us, but not from the point of view of a researcher. It cannot be said that it is optimistic that the social democrats receive 12% and pessimistic that it receives 4%. We often publish an indicator called “voting potential”, i.e. potential votes. That's where we count what would happen if all those who are considering voting for someone came and voted for them. Altogether, it will render more than 100%, because people are not yet decided and say that they will vote for either “Franky” or “Mary”, so we have to count both. Then the numbers look optimistic for “Franky” and “Mary” alike, but in fact it cannot be called an objective optimistic estimate.


And is feedback vital for you? Like a post-election look back?

Sure. Not only STEM/MARK does this, but together with other research agencies, we monitor opinion polls, evaluate average values and so on well before the elections. After them, we look at who best guessed it, who did best, we do the averages of it again, and we see if our field of market research is working as it should.

We go into electoral research with our hearts in our hands, so to speak, because this is one of the few situations where, very quickly after conducting the research, we can see whether we were on the mark or off. If it doesn't work out exactly, everyone believes it's a bad result for us. But if we compare the Czech research scene with the international one, the success rate of pre-election polling and estimates is very high in the Czech Republic. I am talking about serious agencies because, unfortunately, there are still “research agencies” doing pre-election opinion polling to order to support a certain political party and so on. Of course, we know which ones they are, which is why we don't count them in very much in these big analyses.

Are there trends or novelties in your field? You are one of the top agencies in the Czech Republic, so can you be inspired, for example, from abroad, in how to do it even better?

Certainly. Novelties and trends always get to us faster through market research than public opinion polls because it is about money in the first place, so development is pushed forward significantly faster.

On the other hand, the quality of Czech research, and this does not apply only to pre-election polling, but also to statistics, has relatively been at the forefront of both European and global perceptions for quite some time. Of course, new research methods are being created, we measure emotions through brain scanning, the pulse using bracelets, we do various ethnographic studies, and we have several available tools to gauge the success of advertising, but such classic sociological research is performed really well in the Czech Republic. In this area, we primarily respond to changes in society, which means, for example, that research is no longer always done in person, because people no longer want to let strangers into their homes. In addition, when the interviewer showed up on someone’s doorstep wearing a mask during Covid-19, it looked more like he came for someone’s purse than for information. We used to have a lot of older interviewers for whom it was good work, but the job is not quite so simple and young people want no part of it. So, we are gradually switching to modern technologies, whether it concerns online or telephone info-gathering, and Covid has accelerated this transition.

How many people must you ask to obtain a relevant sample of the data that you then process?

Most people think less than a thousand isn't enough. However, it is not so much about the amount as about the fact that the sample must be representative. That's the key word for all research. If you only ask men, you'll get different results than if you ask men and women together. According to theory, there is a rule that if your observed sample has a distribution according to the classical Gaussian curve, the so-called normal, i.e. at the beginning a little, on average a lot, at the end a little (in terms of various traceable properties), a sample size of 400–500 respondents suffices. Political research is usually done by the thousand, because it looks good in the media, but more important than the number of respondents is that they are correctly surveyed and that they are the ones who represent society. This means that there is the same proportion of college students as in society, the same proportion of young, old, etc.

How important is the age of the voter? Do you also do surveys among first-time voters?

We do, and we do research even among non-voters, because it's very interesting to learn who remained unimpressed and could not be persuaded to go and vote. Age and education are some of the most important characteristics that influence responses. For example, there is a group of people who consistently vote for the ANO political party - led by Andrej Babiš – senior citizens, primarily women, whose behavior is completely different from that of a young university student who would, of course, vote for someone completely different.

Who are the most likely to be influenced by a campaign? Are there differences depending on age, education or social background?

When we did research on the media literacy of the population, it was intriguing to learn that the ones who think they recognize fake news, propaganda or disinformation are the voters of the political party SPD. (laughs) Education and age are very important in consuming any information. But it's not just that, it's lifestyle. Today's people under the age of 40 or 50 all utilize the Internet, are able to gather information from various sources, and can even compare and contrast these sources and check them. The elders can’t do that, and when they get an e-mail after checking their inbox once a month, they take it as just as authoritative as if it came from the lady on TV. They are even active in disseminating the information received to their friends and family. This is both crucial and perilous.

Do the Czech elections have any specifics compared to other countries? Like the presidential ones that are closest to us right now.

The Czech nation has certain specifics. Our research shows that we are far more opportunistic, negative, even bitter. When you ask a Czech in a satisfaction survey how he/she assesses a service he/she recently used in a bank, he/she says: “It was great, the lady at the bank was very nice, I didn't wait long, and it was ready – so I give 8 out of 10.” If you ask in America, the respondent will say: “I waited a long time, there was no air conditioning, so I was hot, then I couldn't arrange what I wanted, but I'm giving them a 10.” And that's the difference. As a result, there are far more protest votes in the Czech Republic than anywhere else in the world, because we are still protesting against something out of sheer principle. It's easier to say: “I'm not going to vote for him, he’s trash, I could vote for this other one, but I'm not going to, so I'm going to vote for that one, the only one I have left,” rather than choosing one candidate with confidence. We also do not read any party platforms, in our country it is only about emotions, about what the husband thinks and who he will vote for, or the father… So it seems to me that the Czech voter’s attitude is always projected in the election result. Sometimes unfortunately so.

What has surprised you in the past years of your work?

Sometimes I'm surprised at the crazy things that some “research agencies” are capable of publishing. When people have at least some idea of what’s going on, they can see at first glance that, for example, the result of one final pre-election poll claiming that Mirek Topolánek would receive 16% of the votes was accompanied by a clear ulterior motive. Most surprising for me is that someone is able to stoop that low, or thinks that the voters are really that stupid. Now and then I'm also puzzled by the wording of some questions in the research of other companies. And as for responses, I was surprised by the result of one opinion poll we did during the COVID-19 period. We asked how afraid people were of the virus, whether they trusted the government to resolve the situation, what they thought about restrictions, lockdowns and so on. In one wave, we asked if people would mind if the borders stayed closed forever, and 8% of people said they would be okay with it and would like it. At first this really struck me, but then I realized that the 8% represented people who only took vacations in the Czech Republic, had never been abroad in their lives, knew no foreign language and were afraid to go anywhere, and so this was probably natural. But I was taken aback by the relatively high number of people who wouldn't mind having the borders closed 30 years after the revolution.

How much does your work affect you in your personal life? Do you need to have everything sorted by using tables and graphs, or can you live by intuition?

They say I'm a kind of intuitive boss. I put a lot of intuition into it, and I think that's one of my strongest qualities. When someone wants to get hired and I sit with them for 10 minutes, I know if it's good or bad fit, and how it will end up. On the other hand, numbers and logic are also very important to me, so it actually limits me a little in “spreading my wings”. I'm 60 years old, so I’m a bit cautious in doing so anyway, but every time I think about what's going on or what I'm going to do, thanks to the numbers and crunching them for so long, it usually all connects and fits in well. When I'm planning a vacation, it usually works out for me, too. That would sometimes drive my kids crazy, and it actually bugged me too sometimes, and I like to take a break from it. My colleagues can’t stand me because I can take a table that they created, taking up 250 fields, and I can see within 10 seconds which field is wrong because there was a wrong rounding or other error. This is obviously very annoying, and not just for them – for me, too, because I am cognizant of it, and I don't like it either.

Do you personally enjoy politics? Or are political surveys a kind of necessity for you, which is part of your job?

I do. I think it comes from my family background, my mother and father were both journalists, they are signatories of Charter 77, and since I was a child, I was raised in the midst of political views. I feel that it is this sociological and statistical approach to life that leads us to try to understand the reasons why things happen as they do. Politics is very interesting, better than a detective story or theater. When I read the newspaper, I immediately see why the article is written one way or another, why this particular question is in the interview, and it actually makes me feel so good to understand this. That I can say to myself, “Yeah, you asked like that so you could write this, of course…” Politics is also interesting because when you get older and you've been around for a relatively long time, you see some things repeat while others change completely. You are always surprised that people who are completely naive and unprepared make it into top-level politics, or that there are people who are very smart and structured, but they fail because they cannot work with emotions. And then you get so angry that those who are smart, structured, educated and can handle their emotions avoid going into politics intentionally because they don't want to. For example, I have persuaded Dana Drábová several times to run for president, but she keeps saying she doesn't feel like it. (laughs)

And when you go out for a beer with your friends…?

So I see any error in the bill right away. (laughs)

Are you a favorite companion because you can contribute behind-the-scenes, insightful information to the debate?

I don't know if that makes a person a popular companion, maybe he is able to “grab” some space to be interesting. I'm a favorite companion because I'm amazing and I have a good sense of humor and I'm smart, and I help people, so they like me. (laughs) Of course, I exaggerate a little as I get older, so I'm getting really annoying. But when you go somewhere and you are the “political researcher”, the debate often turns to this topic. Sometimes it's uncomfortable, firstly, half of the people don't care, and secondly, those who do care tend to be fiercely persistent and just won’t let it go. Then there is the problem that one must be extremely careful not to publicly interpret information from paid research. It's hard for me sometimes to separate the Tuček-Director from the Tuček-human being. I can say whom I vote for when I vote, or whom I wouldn't vote for and why, but I can't say that this is what came out from our surveys if that's not the case. It often happens that two or three political parties turn to us at the same time, and then we have to do their research in different teams, which do not know what the others are asking, how it worked out and so on. It's very complicated to keep track, but it's part of the corporate culture. You need to stay on top of things and remain impartial, because the moment someone labels you a socialist, no one but the socialists will order any more research from you. I don't think one should be hesitant in expressing an opinion, but must be able to strike a balance on that imaginary edge.

Thanks for the interview.