Monday, March 16, 2009

Gallup polls, and other misleading arguments

There’s a superficially convincing argument doing the round, particularly amongst those supporters of the Government that have reached the whole clutching at straws stage, that the Tories are far from nailed-on certainties to win the next election.  The argument stands on the following assumptions:

  1. The polling, though good, is nowhere near where it needs to be.

This argument – evidenced today in the Telegraph – notes that the solid Conservative polling lead of 10-12% is nothing like the 20-30% leads that Labour enjoyed in the run-up to the 1997 election.  As a result, the Tories have failed to insulate themselves from the inevitable ‘swing-back’ to the governing party that always happens before elections.  Rod Crosby is a tireless proponent of this point of view over at political betting.  However, this approach fails to take into account the revolution in polling that has taken place over the last decade – see political betting for Mike Smithson’s repeated postings on this point, or see Anthony Wells.  The only polling company that is remotely comparable is ICM – and in March 1996, the relevant comparative date, ICM were showing polling shares of Con: 31; Lab: 45.  The eventual result?  Con: 31; Labour 43.

Bearing that in mind, it is almost entirely pointless to argue that since the Tories aren’t polling as well as Blair did, they aren’t on course to win the election.

2.  Despite their lead in overall votes, the Tories will get stuffed on tactical voting.
Well, they were in the four elections of 1992-2005 – surely this is a perennial feature of the British electoral landscape?  As Andrew Pierce says:

Labour gets in because the opposition vote is split between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, while the Conservatives normally don't get in because their opponents vote tactically for the party best placed to stop them.

The entire point of the first two years of David Cameron’s leadership was to detoxify the brand.  There do appear to be signs that this working – apart from the increased Tory polling shares.  Mike Smithson highlights the fact here that Lib Dem voters now prefer David Cameron to Gordon Brown.  These suggest that the old “get rid of the Tory” campaigns may be unravelling.  As an illustration of this, lets look at Crewe & Nantwich.  As everyone knows, the Tories took the seat, with a 17.6% swing from Labour.  The Labour vote collapsed, and the switchers were direct from Labour to Tory.  In the old days of unpopular Labour Governments, by-election victories in Dunfermline and Brent East went to the Liberal Democrats, as voters wanted to give the Government a kicking, but didn’t want to hand the vote to the Conservatives.  There’s no hard evidence, and won’t be until the election, but I think that the old anti-Tory vote is unwinding.  More bad news for Labour (and the Lib Dems); more good news for the Tories.

3.  Cameron hasn’t ‘sealed the deal’ with the public, and as a result Tory support is ‘soft’.
Politics Home did a pretty good number on the second half of this – Conservative supporters are the most enthusiastic of all.  And as for those ‘soft’ leads, the Tories have maintained a double digit polling lead since January, and were last, very briefly, behind in January 2008.  Their support hasn’t dipped below 40 this year, and has been overwhelmingly in the 40-44 range since October 2007, with occasional flourishes into the upper 40s.  Despite the constant references to volatile polls, the truth is that these are solid, consistent numbers.

As for Cameron ‘sealing the deal’ with the public, well of course he hasn’t – and can’t unless and until he is elected as Prime Minister.  It’s a daft benchmark to set.  What he has done, however, is attracted and maintained the stated preference of more than 40% of the public in opinion polls, and he’s don it consistently for the last 18 months.  Which, frankly, is as close as you’re going to get to sealing the deal before an election.

Labour and Labour-supporting pundits will continue to push these points as hard as they can – bless them, they need something to keep their spirits up – but I’m far from convinced that there’s much merit in them.

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