Campaigns, ideologies, and strategic voting: what the polls tell us now
Joe Greenwood writes about polling landscape, and focuses on three key connected issues for the coming weeks of political toing and froing: campaign effects, issues and ideologies, and strategic voting.
With four weeks to go until polling day, the general election horserace has officially begun and the Conservatives have a notable lead. Whether it is big enough to deliver a majority in the House of Commons depends in part on which polling results you look at. Further, as Harold Wilson’s famous phrase goes, a week is a long time in politics, and this applies more so during a general election. Not because the public are tired of politics, and there is evidence that they are supportive of having a general election now, but because the news agenda will be filled with politics as parties and candidate jostle to get their messages across. Before getting too submerged in that, it is helpful to remind ourselves of three of the key factors that will be at play in the coming weeks, and what polling can tell us about them.
Four voting intention polls in the Sunday papers 10/11/19.
YouGov/Sunday Times – CON 39%(+3), LAB 26%(+1), LDEM 17%(nc), BREX 10%(-1) (tabs)
Deltapoll/Mail on Sunday – CON 41%(+1), LAB 29%(+1), LDEM 16%(+2), BREX 6%(-5) (tabs)
Opinium/Observer – CON 41%(-1), LAB 29%(+3), LDEM 15%(-1), BREX 6%(-3) (tabs)
Panelbase – CON 40%(nc), LAB 30%(+1), LDEM 15%(+1), BREX 8%(-1) (tabs)
Good pollsters point out that their polls only give us a snapshot of public opinion at the time they are conducted. This means that their predictive power is limited. Things can change, and the public can update their views and intentions in response to events and political developments. So, the campaigns might have an effect, be it by convincing people to switch their votes or, more likely, through voters returning to parties from a position of uncertainty.
An often overlooked figure in voting intention polls is the number who answer ‘Don’t know,’ many of whom may be waiting until later in the campaign to decide who to vote for and may be apt to stump for the party that they’ve usually voted for. I’m inclined to believe that this group constitutes more like the 14%-18% of the electorate identified by ICM, YouGov, and Opinium, than the 3%-6% identified by ComRes and Ipsos MORI, and if this is the case then it is important to see where they end up placing their crosses.
If the campaigns do have an effect, there is one person in particular who stands to benefit: Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader’s current ratings are poor and a recent Deltapoll results show that only 25% of the public think he is doing a good job whilst 68% think he is doing a bad job. This is not the end of the matter though; eight weeks before the 2017 general election, only 14% of YouGov respondents thought that Corbyn would make a better Prime Minister than Theresa May. Two days after the general election, by contrast, the figure stood at 39%. Of course, 2019 is not 2017; there is less time before polling day and, despite his aptitude for gaffes, Boris Johnson looks to be a tougher opponent with a better organised campaign. Also, crucially, it may be that a key driver of vote choice is voters’ underlying ideological positions, which implies the possibility of less movement.
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Issues and ideologies
If campaign effects tend to return people to the party (or parties) that they usually vote for, this may be a reflection of the power of their underlying ideological dispositions. Work has been done showing that the realignment of the electorate between 2015 and 2017 was largely along Brexit lines and only latterly towards Labour, from a range of groups but especially undecided voters and prospective Labour defectors. The authoritarian populist ideologies associated with support for Brexit were strong predictors of vote in 2017, and those ideologies are unlikely to have gone anywhere. Boris Johnson has already significantly solidified the Brexit-supporting vote around the Conservatives, and I suspect that he will continue to take votes from the Brexit Party if he bangs that drum. However, given that both Labour and the Conservatives have announced significant spending and are talking about the ‘end of austerity’, it seems that they are also addressing voters who are thinking more in terms of left and right. To the extent that this is true, it is likely to be a benefit to Jeremy Corbyn, given that he is more at home on that territory.
As for the public, it is clear that they still rate Brexit as the most important issue facing the country, with between 52% and 59% of respondents to recent Deltapoll and YouGov polls selecting it in their top three issues. The closest competitor, on 37% in both cases, is health, which is Labour’s traditional home territory. Meanwhile, it seems that it may not be the economy, stupid, that swings the electorate this time round. Somewhere between 22% and 29% of voters think that it’s one of the most important issues facing the country. The problem for Labour is that, whatever issues become salient, their positions are seen as less clear than those of the Conservatives (with health being the exception, though it’s a close call).
Relatedly, voters currently think that a Conservative government would be better than a Labour government for the economy (by 47% to 28%), for the health service (by 40% to 34%), and on Brexit (by 51% to 26%). This is part of the reason that Labour is so keen to focus on the campaign; it presents an opportunity for them to emphasise the classic left-right ideological dimension on which many of their strongest issues fall, whilst at the same time communicating their positions on those issues to a public that is unclear about where they stand. The extent to which Labour can do these two things will be an important part of their performance.
I have primarily focused on the Conservative and Labour parties above but there are, of course, many other parties at play in this election. The announcement of the pact between the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and Plaid Cymru, in which they will not compete with each other in dozens of seats, demonstrates the capacity for parties to coordinate strategically. However, given the lack of an equivalent pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, there remain many seats where the burden of strategic action falls squarely on voters. Given my assessment that Boris Johnson can solidify the Conservative position against the Brexit Party, the burden of strategic action is more likely to affect Remainers keen to avoid the kind of Brexit associated with a Conservative government.
We know that voters have behaved strategically in key elections in the past and we are starting to see data on how many might do so in this election. At a national level, one poll indicates that 8% of voters will opt for a party other than their first choice to keep a less favoured option out. Although the numbers of respondents are small, these figures rise to 12% in Labour marginals and 11% in Conservative marginals. Of course, those figures do not tell us which way those people plan to vote. It remains to be seen whether enough people will vote strategically, in a coordinated fashion, and in the necessary places, to have a significant impact on the overall election result.
So, more questions than answers to begin the campaign! The polls indicate that the Conservatives have a commanding lead but plenty could change. If and when it does, the answers to the above should become clearer, and I will be sure to cover it subsequently if they do.
Joe Greenwood (@niceonecombo) is a London School of Economics Fellow in the LSE Department of Government, where he teaches on GV101 (Introduction to Political Science). He previously worked at YouGov and, before that, completed his PhD at the University of Essex. His research focuses on political participation, privilege, and perceptions in the British context. This article was published at the LSE Politics and Policy