Friday 23 April 2010

What the snap polls can't tell us

One hypothesis about the always-on, speeded up communications revolution is that we will all increasingly develop the memories of goldfish.

The Tory press must hope so this morning as, as one, they go positive and hail David Cameron. Let's hope that the effect is not undermined by the very same papers having, as one, taken part in the widely mocked 'Kill Klegg' operation yesterday, and William Hague's de facto admission that CCHQ's fingerprints were indeed all over the operation, as reported by BBC political editor Nick Robinson. Tory blogger Tory Bear has a round-up and notes that these are headlines Dave would have wanted (again!).

The Times with 'Cameron nicks it' is excepted on both counts: the paper was neither on the Kill Klegg bandwagon, nor has it gone for a "booster" headline for its report like the Express' "Cameron wins with passion" or The Sun's "The Cam Back Kid"

There were (particularly on twitter) some rather silly attacks on YouGov - of the partisan "I don't believe in polls that don't agree with me variety". There is little sense in that, or reason to doubt the three-way split in the immediate polling, with either Cameron or Clegg slightly ahead in different polls and Brown quite close to both.

The real issues are different: the over-reporting and over-interpretation of some snap polling as if the debate has a football-style "final score", combined with a tendency to neglect the subtler but more important ways in which it could affect how people vote:

Firstly, the audience (especially given this was a news channels debate) is not representative of all voters, and nor then is the poll. This would naturally under-represent Labour support, as I noted before the start.

As YouGov tweeted:

Results weighted to those 'absolutely certain to watch' debate - this is *not* the same as weighting to the general population.

Secondly, the polls were all rather close and the differences between candidates mostly within the margin of error (of +/-3%). Some journalists - like Michael Crick on Newsnight - immediately noted that, but they were the exceptions. By contrast, Sky News seemed to get rather carried away, treating the first snap poll as the "result" of the debate, and being rather slow to report the range of other findings.

Thirdly, and most importantly, questions like "regardless of your party preference, who performed better in the debate" do not reflect the most important ways in which the debate might influence decisions to vote. Nor do worm trackers of sentiment - do I like what you are saying right now? - reflect voting behaviour, such as which issues are most salient, as my colleague Tim Horton noted yesterday.

That can be applied to all three candidates.

So David Cameron's core strategy last night was never to land a "knockout blow" on either Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg. It was to provide undecided voters with reassurance about fears and risks of a Conservative government, particularly that it would be a "same old Tories" government of savage cuts and harsh attitudes. He would sacrifice "winning" the debate with some pyrotechnics if he achieved that strategic objective.

Similarly, Gordon Brown's core aim was to reinforce the sense that the Conservatives are a risk - to the economic recovery and more generally - adding to that an argument about Clegg's relative inexperience and foreign policy positions. So "get real, Nick" may or may not have broken through for some voters, for example. If he came across as most Prime Ministerial on global issues, that might fit such a strategy, though a stolid approach to achieve this may not necessarily gain "won the debate" verdicts. Scoring debating points which reflect that underlying argument is of particular value, but it is not really an issue of debate "performance" as such which counts.

Among Nick Clegg's goals would have been to persuade voters now paying attention to him that he could credibly play a significant role in government. Key issues would include whether he managed to persaude voters that his immigration plan, for example, was a credible and sensible way to deal with a real problem, or whether voters who don't agree with the policy might also think it a reason not to vote for him even if attracted more generally by the candidate and the appeal of something different to "the old parties".

Yes, 'who do you think won the debate' occasionally captures some aspects of this. Media narratives can influence how important the sense of a debate outcome is, as we saw over the following 72 hours last week. With much closer 'exit polls' than last week, the newspapers are trying very hard to do that, and it could well have some impact if it is not seen as primarily partisan in its motivation. Less screeching by the big beasts of the media may be needed if they want to help the cause and candidate they are so strongly behind.

But the debate may well have most impact on many voters in ways that the instant polling could not easily capture.

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