A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

The polls have shifted no more than usual, but the result may yet be a surprise One of the many strange things about this volatile campaign is how little it has actually changed most of the fundamentals that held when it started. A modest rise in the polls for the Lib Dems from start to finish is a usual feature of campaigns (up about 4 points) and in 2010 this is what has happened (albeit via a big surge in mid-campaign). Even looking at the findings about what people think about the party leaders shows a fair amount of continuity despite the first Prime Ministerial debates in a British election. The main change is that more people have a high opinion of Nick Clegg than before, albeit mostly on the softer criteria of ‘charismatic’ (up from 12 per cent to 45 per cent over the campaign) and ‘in touch with ordinary people’ (up from 24 to 37 per cent). Neither Cameron’s nor Brown’s ratings (both pretty poor) moved much, with the biggest change being that more people now consider Brown good in a crisis (up from 18 per cent to 24 per cent). Compared to past movements during campaigns, in favour of Neil Kinnock and John Major, opinion about the Labour and Conservative leaders did not shift. The post-debate polls, woefully misreported for the most part, confirmed merely that people thought the leader of the party they intended to vote for anyway ‘won’ (whatever ‘won’ means in a debate) but that most people were impressed by Clegg. The debates therefore amplified the usual process of the Lib Dems gaining from equal broadcast time, and compressed it into the few days after the first debate. Despite the media obsession with process, the debates did seem to pique the interest of voters and will have contributed to what seems likely to be a respectable turnout. The debate polls were an example of how they can be misused, but on a more general level can one trust opinion polls? One of the more foolish objections to opinion polls is that each one only asks about a thousand people for their views. How can that possibly be representative of an electorate of 45 million? The science of statistics has a well established answer. You only need a sample to get the answer right, provided that the sample is representative of the whole. A common analogy is that you can tell how salty a huge vat of soup is by tasting a teaspoonful, provided that the vat has been stirred properly. However, stirring the soup is an increasingly delicate art. It is remarkable to look back to how opinion polling worked back in the...

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Push Me, Pull Me (April 14 2010)

Election polling has evolved since the 1970s and pushes parties towards the centre ground Election campaigns have always been changing and evolving.  The idea of an election campaign as a coherent story, unfolding over time, does not really apply to some contests such as 1950 and 1955, when there was an almost aimless meandering across the policy landscape punctuated by the big speeches by the party leaders and other main figures.   The election campaign took more shape in 1959 – essentially the first television election – and through the 1960s and 1970s. There have been polls since 1945, but the close election of 1964 was arguably the first in which the ‘horse race’ aspect of an election started to dominate in the media with polls providing the evidence for the state of the race every few days.  In 1970, the Conservative campaign deployed the first effective use of modern negative campaigning.  Nine years later, Saatchi & Saatchi famously revolutionised election advertising.  But in between the fall of Edward Heath and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, there was another important development. Perhaps the first poll-driven election campaign was Harold Wilson’s Labour campaign of February 1974, which used MORI to pilot the party to a narrow and somewhat improbable victory. Wilson was brilliantly reactive, responding to campaign events such as bad economic figures and government missteps and changing the terms of debate from the Tories’ ground of ‘Who Governs?’ to Labour’s – the government’s record on prices and industrial relations. Wilson astutely dodged around the contents of Labour’s manifesto, which was a left-wing programme of nationalisation he had no intention of implementing. The purpose of the polls in this election was not to look at headline figures, but at the underlying attitudes and opinions on the issues that were driving political choice. The polls have been used to craft the parties’ narratives during the election ever since. Although focus groups were used in the 1970s, their real heyday has been since 1997 when they have tested party messages and the electorate’s perceptions exhaustively.  The 1990s also saw the rise of the ‘grid’, in which party messages, issues and leading figures are deployed in a rigorously planned fashion. On one level, a modern election campaign is a fierce contest for control of the narrative.  Each party is attempting to tell their story about the state of Britain and what needs to be done, and calculates that if they are able to do so unobstructed then their narrative will convince people to vote for them.  However, it is never possible to get the message across unobstructed.  The parties compete with each other, with the media (now in all its electronic wildness) and with events (both ‘known unknowns’ like announcements of economic statistics,...

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