The hugely accurate polling in France and what it means for U.S. elections

Ipsos and our digital partner, Sopra Steria provided the most accurate estimates of the first round of the French presidential election delivering solid intelligence to their media partners including France Television, Radio France and more. In a hotly-contested race with more than ten candidates, Ipsos and correctly predicted the final order of the top six candidates (who comprised about 95% of the total vote) and predicted the voting percentage for each within less than 1%.

In the U.S. this election cycle from one of our oldest allies is drawing an unusual amount of attention due to the comparisons between the nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen and President Trump – both in terms of their ideologies and their unlikely success at the polls.

Since many of us are new to the ins and outs of French politics, it’s important to look at some of the differences between their system and ours. French presidential elections are made up of two parts: a first round somewhat similar to our primary system and a second round that is something like a runoff election. The first round differs from the U.S. in one critical way: it’s all of the major candidates against one another rather than candidates from one party vying to become that party’s nominee in a general election. The top two vote-getters proceeded to the second round where they compete head-to-head. It is possible for a candidate to win in the first round with only 20 or 30% of the French vote. In the 2017 French presidential election, there were five major candidates and an additional six competing in the race. The major candidates ranged from the far-left Melenchon to the Socialists Harmon to the Centrist Macron to the center-right Fillon and the far right Le Pen. Of these only the Socialist and center-right candidates represented established political parties. Le Pen, Macron and Melenchon all represented relatively new political forces in the French political landscape. The Centrist Macron won the largest share of the votes in the first round followed closely by the far right Le Pen.

As is the case in much of the U.S., the prevailing sentiment among the French electorate is that the governmental system is broken and not looking out for the interests of the common citizen. French citizens generally see the economy as doing somewhat poorly and they do not see establishment politicians as having done much to address these problems. Because of these factors the incumbent president has a very low approval rating and his successor for the Socialist Party never had a strong chance in this election. These anti-establishment forces gave significant electoral momentum to outsider candidates this cycle. The top vote-getters both represented an alternative to the establishment and one of the major runner-ups represented yet a third alternative representing the far left of the political spectrum.

Despite the disruption in the election itself the work of the traditional pollsters in general, and Ipsos in particular, was very accurate. This accuracy comes from a combination of deep experience with public opinion research in France combined with learning the lessons of the 2016 American election and the Brexit referendum. Key among these were ensuring that the sample represented all facets of the electorate, particularly groups that could potentially be under-represented — like working class suburban and exurban voters. By ensuring these voters were represented and survey sampling, our research accurately reflected the vote share for both the far left and far right populist candidates.