Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Polls and prophecies

It's looking like very good news indeed for the Conservatives at the moment. Whether you listen to the poll that puts them 16 points ahead, or the poll that puts them 13 points ahead, or the poll that puts Boris 12 points ahead in London, it's all pretty optimistic. But there's something funny about opinion polls - there's a question as to how much they are a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a poll shows a large Tory lead, the perception that the Tories are ahead seeps into every analysis - Labour become more defensive, the Tories become more confident, the media start to assume that the Tories will win the next election. This coverage makes the Conservatives look and sound like the party in the ascendancy - which is reflected by the next set of polls.
On a slightly different scale, and using a different medium, this is how Chris Huhne got so close to defeating Ming Campbell. By manipulating the betting markets, which were small enough for one determined punter to distort, someone who had an interest in Huhne doing well appeared to have effectively rigged the 'favourite' tag. Once it was reported that Huhne was 'the bookies' favourite' that tag gave his campaign more credence - and his eventual margin of defeat was vanishingly small for someone who had only entered parliament the year before.
The upshot of this meandering is that, for the Conservatives, a run of good polls has the capacity to be the beginning of a virtuous circle, where one of the principal reasons for their popularity is, in fact, their popularity. Similarly, for the Government, it is much harder to reverse a run of defeats than it is to maintain winning ways. Perhaps a tipping point has been reached...

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