Archive | Critical Reaction

A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

Posted on 06 May 2010 by admin

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 1960s and 1970s. It was mostly done through face to face interviews, and got the results more or less dead on (with the notable exception of 1970). Despite its unsophisticated methodology, it worked until another surprise election result in 1992 when the polls showed the parties level pegging but the Conservatives were actually clearly ahead when the votes were counted (7.5 per cent). Since then, polling companies have tried ever more sophisticated mechanisms to get representative samples. The obstacles are formidable. Turnout used to be reliably somewhere around 75 per cent, and was also much the same regardless of class or region. Now it varies wildly – 72 per cent in 1997, around 60 per cent in the last couple of elections, and probably higher today. More people vote by post. More people are difficult to reach because they work long hours or live in gated communities. There are more parties in the game. The technology is constantly changing. Pollsters have to re-weight the raw figures to get a representative sample. It is a thing of wonder and beauty that they got it as right as they did in 2005, and that YouGov called the 2008 London election so accurately. But the electorate is a moving target, and at some point the weightings will go wrong. We shall know tomorrow whether the eve-of-election consensus of the polls is right or not.

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Push Me, Pull Me (April 14 2010)

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Push Me, Pull Me (April 14 2010)

Posted on 14 April 2010 by admin

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, and ‘unknown unknowns’ that happen unpredictably) for control over the agenda. Crudely, a party ‘wins’ a day in the campaign if the real events that are prominent in the media conform to what was planned in its grid. As well as all this chaotic competition, there is also feedback – that the profusion of public and private polls is giving everyone nearly instant knowledge of what is going well or badly, and who is ahead and behind. Polls can change a campaign instantly, with a good poll creating confidence or complacency, and bad ones causing lurches into despair. It is not without reason that they are sometimes compared to mood-altering drugs.

The 2010 campaign has more published polls than ever before, with the almost-daily YouGov series for the Sun being a notable innovation. To continue the drug analogy, the political classes are getting habituated through heavy use, and this is perhaps not a bad thing. Every now and then there is a ‘rogue’ poll outside the normal range of sampling error, and these tend to attract the most interest in the media for the standard ‘man bites dog’ reason that the unusual is news. In past elections, rogue polls have sometimes had major influence, famously so in 1987 when one precipitated ‘Wobbly Thursday’ in the Tory campaign. But thanks to the sheer weight of polling, rogues are now likely to be swamped by polls that are closer to the mark. It will take a proper trend, not an outlier, for voting intention polls to change the tone of an election.

It is at a deep level that the parties’ strategies are influenced by the findings from their private polling about what the public wants to hear. One cannot blame the parties for using the best available techniques for crafting and putting out their messages. Nor can one blame the electors for thinking that the parties sound the same, because they are all talking at the same swing voters in marginal seats in the same sort of language. It is a consequence of the electoral system.  And a question, perhaps, for another day.

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