Sunday, February 28, 2010

Marking the polling card

Much as I'm delighted to see the Conservatives just 2 points ahead in the polls, this is the time when I add my own caveats.

Firstly, there is the standard outliers warning - this YouGov poll is ahead of any other, so I'd like some confirmation before I start breaking out the sparkling water.

Then there is the standard Liberal Democrat factor, which I have noted before - they are consistently underestimated in national polls outside election time, usually by three points or so, because they do not get the same coverage as the two main parties and can't afford the advertising presence.

Added to that standard comment are two specific 2010 Liberal Democrat polling elements which could have opposite effects on their showing.

For the first time since 1992 - which was in itself the first occasion since 1979 - this election is going to be a real contest about who governs Britain and unless something spectacular happens in the next few weeks, that means a choice between one of two parties. In that kind of election, conventional wisdom expects a higher turnout and a squeeze on the other parties, who are typically recipients of the protest vote for disaffected supporters of either the Conservatives or Labour.

The counter to that is that this time, Nick Clegg - Cameron-lite - will be participating as an equal in the leaders' debates in the run up to the election. His performance could significantly affect the out turn for the Liberal Democrats in bringing any undecided voters on board. In the actual poll, the Liberal Democrats will also benefit from tactical voting, as voters back them as the best chance of keeping either the Tories or Labour from holding a seat. Expect that to be a big issue in Solihull, as I suspect Labour voters are tacitly encouraged to back Lorely Burt in the hope of keeping her in place.

A bigger issue for me is the effect of voting in the marginals and how the uniform national swing indicated in the polls is not relevant. This election is not going to be decided in Sutton Coldfield or Ladywood, where the vote for the Conservatives and Labour can be safely weighed. It will be fought on the ground in a relative handful of seats, many of which have 'benefitted' from the Ashcroft largesse over the past few years, as the Conservative party has become a partly-owned subsidiary of the Ashcroft brand. There could be a disproportionate swing in safe seats for either party that will affect the national figures, but the real interest is in these marginals. I suspect that there will be an additional 3-5% swing to the Conservatives ahead of the national trend in the marginal seats and that this could make the difference.

So, while these national, headline polls are interesting, they may not be representative of the final outcome, which I suspect will be largely about turnout.

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