Tuesday, April 27, 2010

UK: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Nick Clegg makes the Liberal Democrats' Leader...Image via Wikipedia
Well, the current polls are showing the Lib Dems back in the basement - or at least far away from the lead (The Mirror has them down by 5%, the Telegraph by 4%, News of the World unbelievably 13% below the Conservatives).

They talked about a 'Lib Dem bubble' and about whether or not it would burst. Well, if these polls are to be believed, it certainly has. The question then is, 'why?' I've seen a few places online suggest that it has to do with Lib Dem foreign policies, as revealed during the second debate. Maybe. But then again, there's that same old bugaboo, what you might call 'electability'.

The poll that really matters, then, is the one released by YouGov, showing that 49% of voters would vote Lib Dem if they thought they had a reasonable chance of forming the government.

That's an amazing stat, one that bears consideration. 49% - half the electorate. You have to go back to the 1950s to see a single party capturing shares of the electorate that high. And furthermore, the 49% comes from all across the political map: not just undecideds and decided Lib Dems, but decided Labour supporters and decided Tory supporters too.

What does this mean? Well, though it's not quite worded as one, it's the closest you'll get to a true 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. A 'self-fulfilling prophecy' is what happens when belief in a certain outcome causes that outcome to happen. A classic example is the collapse of a smaller bank: if a rumour can be started that a certain bank is having economic problems, a worried populace will withdraw their savings from that bank, in effect causing the economic probilems, and ultimate failure, that they had feared would happen (and that would not have happened had they not done so). In effect, the rumour itself causes the effects it describes to happen.

Online vote predictors are, of course, far from 100% accurate. But putting the numbers from the YouGov poll (in full: Lib Dem: 49%, Tories 25%, Labour 19%) into any of them produces a solid, in fact ridiculously so, majority for the Lib Dems. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/swing-calculator gives the following result: 548 seats for the Lib Dems, compared to 41 for Labour and 28 for the Conservatives. 15 for other parties and 18 Northern Irish seats fail to make this potential scenario anything but a landslide.

So here's the crux: if everyone who would vote Lib Dem if they had a chance of forming the government did vote Lib Dem, they would have a chance of forming the government. More than a chance, in fact, a virtual certainty.

So why isn't Nick Clegg riding a tsunami into Number 10, then? Why do his current polls differ from this theoretical-situation poll so drastically?

Well, on the one hand it's an obvious referendum on the people's faith in the current British electoral system: it shows a good deal of people making voting decisions based on the concept of a skewed outcome. But additionally it's another example of the politics of animosity in the UK political scene: that essentially you don't have people voting for Labour or the Tories so much as against them. One main reason why the historically centrist Lib Dems have so much theoretical support is that anti-Tories prefer them to the Tories, and anti-Labour voters prefer them to Labour. When people vote either to keep Brown out of office or to keep Cameron out, Clegg is appealing to either side, at least in part.

What this fails to see, however, is that there is genuine respect and admiration for Nick Clegg and his party - large amounts of it. Even people with no intention of voting for him still see Clegg as more honest and having more vision than the two 'main' candidates. While some Lib Dem policies regarding immigration, defence and Europe might genuinely raise eyebrows, the fact is that much of the Lib Dem platform is appealing to the British voter.

And if everyone in the UK woke up on the morning of 6 May saying, 'this is a genuine three-way race; I'm voting with my conscience', who knows what would come to pass?

But that would never happen.
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Thursday, April 22, 2010

UK: Shy Tories and Bold LibDems

Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-51Image via Wikipedia
Apparently, there exists a phenomenon called the 'Shy Tory Factor', wherein, in the UK, pre-election polls tended at one time to downplay Conservative support. The result is that, on election day, you suddenly find the Conservatives garnering significantly more support than the polls had previously suggested - in the 1992 election, to the extent of an 8.5% difference. Why is this? Well, the theory posits that Conservative voters tended to hide their actual voting intentions while talking to pollsters, either by calling themselves 'undecided' or by listing another party as its preference.

I get this info from the Wikipedia page on the topic, so I'm certainly no expert. The logic behind it kind of suggests that perhaps there's a stigma against voting Tory that people sought to overcome, or rather that people shrunk from while talking to surveyors. I think there might be an aspect of truth to that, and the more paranoid of Conservative supporters might have felt that there was a large aspect of truth to it (perhaps moreso in 1997, seemingly less so today). I do wonder, though, if it's not a variation on a trend that pollsters have certainly observed in Canada, and perhaps in other countries too: that people tend to be more 'experimental' when talking theoretically before the day than they are when actually ticking boxes on the day. In Canada, this manifests itself in the tendency for polling companies to overstate voting intentions for the New Democratic Party - and more recently the Green Party.

In Canada, it works like this: there is a certain percentage of the populace who, before election day, will claim an intent to vote NDP but who, on the day itself, suddenly 'choke' and vote Liberal (it could be other parties, but primarily Liberal) for two different reasons: (1) a gut feeling that the untested NDP would be too inexperienced to runn a good government in comparison to the extrememly-experienced Liberal Party, and (2) the old yarn that the NDP have no chance of forming a government anyway, so voting for them is a waste of a vote. This is made explicit when you consider tactical voting, which in Canada is generally used against Conservatives as opposed to against any other party. So it's the opposite of the Shy Tory Factor. Call it a Bold NDP Factor.

Which brings us to the current Liberal Democrat 'bubble' that is making such headlines in the UK - the fact that, in the week since the first televised debate, pollsters are consistently showing the LibDems well ahead of Labour and neck-in-neck with the Conservatives. Leaving aside for the moment the huge gap between expected voter intention and the expected parliament balance it will return, it raises a question: if we head into election day with comparable polling numbers, will we find either of these phenomena arising? To word it differently:
  • Could the current Conservative numbers (that show the party vying for first place as opposed to the comfortable first-place they've been enjoying for years now) actually be lower than reality, and on election day will we find an unexpected surge in Tory numbers?
  • Alternately, given the fact that the Wikipedia article discusses ways that pollsters have attempted to account for the Shy Tory Factor, is it possible now that the Shy Tory Factor no longer exists (the anger against the Labour government has caused Tory voters to set their qualms aside), leaving us with artificially inflated Tory numbers at the moment?
  • Could there be a 'bold LibDem' factor? Namely, could a certain percentage of the electorate presently claiming an intention to vote LibDem suddenly get cold feet on election day, concerned about their ability to govern or their ability to form a government, and transfer their vote to the Conservatives or Labour (both of which seem like possibilities)?
The first and the third of these concerns would both wind up being good news for the Tories, were they to come to pass. If nothing else, though, the existence of these concerns, and others, underlines what I think is a major trend this election cycle: the honest truth that we have no real idea what's going to happen on 6 May.
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It's the end of April 2010. The UK's in the middle of what might either be the most eventful election in over a decade or just business as usual. The Americans will, at the end of summer, issue their first major electoral 'report card' on the Obama administration. Canada, the country I live in, is in a constant state of nail-biting, hand-wringing angst brought on by its dysfunctional parliament. In short, electoral politics are on the minds of many in English-speaking countries, and the pollsters, who regularly find different ways to quantify and interpret all this, are busy little beavers, releasing new polls on a regular basis.

This blog is an ongoing effort to discuss some of the results of polls, some of the implications of polls, and some of the downsides of polls. And, of course, not just the polls but ultimately the elections themselves they are supposed to predict.