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Opinion Pollster Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Why it's a mistake to target only a small section of voters

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There is a widely-held and wrong assumption that only a small section of the electorate is open to being persuaded from their current political voting intention to a different one. A second, also wrong assumption is that these few voters are located along specific parts of a supposed political spectrum, for example where left and right blur into each other, and that the strategy for winning elections is to understand specific narrow band and target it.

I say confidently that the assumption is wrong because there is experimental evidence against it. I have reported previously on ‘Choice Blindness’ studies; here is another one; I recommend anyone interested in winning elections to read it carefully, but for those willing to make do with the abstract, here it is:

“Political candidates often believe they must focus their campaign efforts on a small number of swing voters open for ideological change. Based on the wisdom of opinion polls, this might seem like a good idea. But do most voters really hold their political attitudes so firmly that they are unreceptive to persuasion? We tested this premise during the most recent general election in Sweden, in which a left- and a right-wing coalition were locked in a close race. We asked our participants to state their voter intention, and presented them with a political survey of wedge issues between the two coalitions. Using a sleight-of-hand we then altered their replies to place them in the opposite political camp, and invited them to reason about their attitudes on the manipulated issues. Finally, we summarized their survey score, and asked for their voter intention again. The results showed that no more than 22% of the manipulated replies were detected, and that a full 92% of the participants accepted and endorsed our altered political survey score. Furthermore, the final voter intention question indicated that as many as 48% (±9.2%) were willing to consider a left-right coalition shift. This can be contrasted with the established polls tracking the Swedish election, which registered maximally 10% voters open for a swing. Our results indicate that political attitudes and partisan divisions can be far more flexible than what is assumed by the polls, and that people can reason about the factual issues of the campaign with considerable openness to change.”

The experiment was conducted by Hall L, Strandberg T, Pärnamets P, Lind A, Tärning B, et al (and reported in ‘How the Polls Can Be Both Spot On and Dead Wrong: Using Choice Blindness to Shift Political Attitudes and Voter Intentions’ (2013). These guys get too little attention for this work, perhaps because it's so extremely discomforting: can our opinions really be so precarious? It seems unlikely but they've demonstrated this choice blindness again and again in very different contexts. Our intuitive sense of our thought processes are probably quite illusory.

So I’m not so sure about the role of ‘reason’ in the last line of the quote; it may be something else. One can speculate: maybe people are more interested in being seen to be consistent with themselves; and the slight-of-hand practised on them in this experiment slipped loose their tribal attachments; and maybe that’s what campaigning should aim for. In any case, there is a right kind of political targeting and a wrong kind.

The right kind I have written about before – it’s about micro-targeting using lots of information, not creating simplistic (that is, false) aggregations using a few columns of an excel sheet polling report. Furthermore, detailed experimentation and analysis would show that votes can be won all over the place, not at some supposed left-right junction. With talk now focusing on strategies for the next election, this new research study reminds us that there are plenty of votes to win for any side, if only one can find the right tools.


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