Conservative Diary

The Shakespeare Report

5 May 2010 07:10:39

What the polls are saying about the parties issue by issue

Stephan Shakespeare The Shakespeare Report

As we approach the big day, the pollsters are nearly as nervous as the politicians. Will our final predictions be right? My particular worries concern the effect of voter turn-out and tactical voting, which seem likely to have a bigger effect than usual. Pollsters this time have one consolation: with eight of us adding to the pile, and most days being within margin-of-error of each other, it looks as if we’ll all be more-or-less right or more-or-less wrong.

Before it all becomes irrelevant, here are some interesting further details from polling to be found on

  • Cameron leads Brown as ‘best Prime Minister’ by 32% to 25%, with Clegg on 22%. However, Clegg has the best ratings for how well he’s doing as party leader, with Cameron second and Brown third.
  • On taxation, the Tory lead over Labour is 7% and over the Lib Dems it’s 8%.
  • On ‘best party for the economy’, as well as education and employment, Conservatives and Labour are neck-and-neck with 1% or less between them, and the Lib Dems somewhat behind.
  • On the NHS, Labour lead Tories by 5% with Lib Dems – surprisingly perhaps – trailing by a further 13%.
  • On immigration, Conservatives lead on 38% with Lib Dems a distant second at 19%.
  • On Law and Order, Conservatives are on 39% to Labour’s 24%.

That’s enough numbers. It adds up to a confused picture in an often confusing campaign.

The debates propelled Nick Clegg into the centre of our living rooms as an attractive anti ‘old politics’ figure, but perhaps he will regret not making more of the moment to push distinctive and forceful policy ideas. If he fails to make the big breakthrough (and that remains a big ‘if’), it will be because the electorate did after all worry about the bigger picture, the future direction of the country and all those old familiar themes.

Stephan Shakespeare, Founder and CEO, YouGov

3 May 2010 08:48:48

Stephan Shakespeare: It's the geeks who actually fix things

Stephan Shakespeare The Shakespeare Report

With a few days to go, the situation remains impossible to predict. My theory of froth, made before the first debate, may well be vindicated: much of the polling bounce achieved after high-publicity events can be attributed to those least interested in politics being most influenced by the buzz - and they are the same people as are least likely to vote.

It's a function of being disengaged in something that you are likely to overrate the few events that do break into your attention. So while Nick Clegg has clearly had a good campaign, the effect on actual votes may well be a little exaggerated. He has found it hard to build significantly on his first big TV moment.

That should not allow anyone to dismiss the importance of what Clegg has achieved in these last few weeks: whatever one thinks of the policies, he has clearly found huge resonance among the population for his 'change-the-system' message, and the next parliament should respond strongly and intelligently to this evidence of continued public antipathy. It's not healthy that the campaign inspires widespread negativity: it should be a moment when the electorate positively embraces an agenda. That's not impossible, it does happen occasionally, as in America '08.

Continue reading "Stephan Shakespeare: It's the geeks who actually fix things" »

30 Apr 2010 10:36:41

Will voters turn away from Labour to the ‘untrustworthy’ Conservative Party or the ‘inexperienced’ Lib Dems?

Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, on his polling company's Post-Debate Focus Groups.

It is extraordinary how this election has been so dominated by the debate performances.The only question in anyone’s mind last night was whether Clegg could fire another booster-rocket, or whether the sparks had dimmed. As it turned out, the post-debate polls all showed Cameron staying ahead. (Note to the British Polling Council: we should probably all agree in the future on the same sample frame and question for these – YouGov and ICM weight to the debate audience, ComRes to the electorate, both reasonable preferences but producing different results, a matter I discussed in my previous post.)

In addition to the post-debate polling, YouGov also conducted four online focus groups. The first brief report on these was sent to our email list within two hours. It tells us rather more than the straight “who won?” number, so in case you missed it, I reproduce here:


YouGov conducted four online focus groups immediately following the last of the three televised leaders’ debates with members of the public who had been watching. The purpose of these groups was to provide additional colour and understanding to our instant quantitative polling conducted post-debate.

Each group consisted of between 6 and 8 voters who broadly identified themselves as either Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour voters and one group with people who were completely undecided. Everyone who took part had said that they were open to change their mind on who to vote for at some point between now and the election on May 6th. The moderated discussions took place between 10pm and 10.30pm on Thursday April 29th.

Continue reading "Will voters turn away from Labour to the ‘untrustworthy’ Conservative Party or the ‘inexperienced’ Lib Dems?" »

29 Apr 2010 07:52:36

How should tonight's debate be measured?

Stephan Shakespeare The Shakespeare Report

There has been great interest not only in the election debates, but in the polling of who ‘won’ or ‘lost’. At first sight it may seem obvious how pollsters should measure that, but on a closer look, it isn’t obvious at all.

For voting intention, we have well-established methods that all the companies accept, about the nature of the sample and the actual question used. But we’ve actually had very little discussion about how we should all approach the new issue of debate polling. There are three issues that I hope we’ll have resolved by the time of the next election:

The ‘debate question’
What should we actually be asking?  We could ask which contender the respondent was most convinced by, or impressed with. Should we prompt for quality of performance or content (in debating contests, for example, one judges debates on a number of separate criteria). We could just ask in the most simple form, “Who do you think won?”

Many viewers will have firm loyalties to one party or another, and one might want to prompt them to open-mindedness by saying “Leaving aside your own previous loyalties…” Or maybe we shouldn’t do that. It’s unsettled.

The sample
For voting intention, that’s straightforward: you try to make the sample as much as possible representative of the whole electorate. We have established techniques for doing that. Pollsters vary among themselves about which aspects of known qualities of the electorate they weight to, but the general principle is not disputed as any citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote, so the baseline is well understood.

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28 Apr 2010 08:34:53

The voting system is now going to be part of how people think about 'change'

Stephan Shakespeare The Shakespeare Report

Before the first leaders' debate, I wrote:

“I think it's unlikely the debates will have much effect on the Conservative-Labour swing, as I've argued here, but it might just help the Lib Dems a bit and who knows how that could tweak the calculations”.

I could claim to have been technically right. But of course what really matters is what I missed: the election stopped being about Cameron v Brown, and became all about Clegg. Even now, and probably till voting day itself, Clegg is at the centre of the stage. Clegg is what this election is all about.

That’s a huge shift. Who would have imagined that a single debate could make such a huge difference. How could it happen? Are we really so easily affected by a strong one-hour TV performance?

It makes more sense to me that it wasn’t the debate that shifted mountains, that it was simply the trigger which released an avalanche of pre-existing voter frustration. Had the audience not been already so sceptical of all politicians, it could not have turned so easily.

What happens if the structure of our voting system means we end up with the Lib Dems getting the second-largest pile of votes, but winning far fewer seats than third-placed Labour? If people vote for change, and get the same result as usual, the call for reform of the voting system will be hard to resist. What worries me most is not so much the prospect of reform, but the likelihood of a poorly considered compromise cobbled together in the confused grab for power.

I heard IDS on the Today Programme on Monday wanting to rule out any thought of PR, but I only half-agree with him: I'm sceptical too, but one way or another, the voting system is going to be part of how people think about 'change' from here on. There should be one or two people at CCHQ taking time off campaigning and thinking deeply about all this. 

Stephan Shakespeare

26 Apr 2010 22:25:14

Are Liberal Democrats the ‘Condorcet Party’?

The Shakespeare Report.

This is an unusually difficult election for pollsters to feel confident about, because the strength of the LibDems changes the very nature of the polling question. We ask people who they will vote for. Well, that’s unambiguous question, you might think, but the reality of voting in a marginal seat creates a genuine ambiguity. Imagine you are a Labour supporter in a LibDem-Conservative marginal, and you know you will vote LibDem, tactically, to stop the Tories in that seat. What should you answer? “LibDem” would be factually correct. But you actually want Labour to win. You don’t want to ‘vote’ for LibDem in a poll, you want to indicate the real nature of your support, which is for Labour. There isn’t a simple ‘honest’ answer.

This can play havoc with the voting intention figures, once more and more seats are perceived as marginal, and the Liberal Democrats become the 'Condorcet Party'.

The conventional model of voter choice imagines, for each issue, individuals placing their preference along a line running from one extreme to another. For example, one line may run from complete pacifism to neo-Con interventionism. The views of the public are spread along this line, with a peak somewhere near the middle. Imagine a multi-dimensional area defined around these peaks, each weighted according to the relative importance of the issue to the voters, and you have the ‘centre ground’. Parties generally try to place themselves very close to that centre ground in order to give themselves the best chance of winning.

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23 Apr 2010 15:14:43

What does it mean to 'win' a debate?

The Shakespeare Report.

What does it mean to ‘win’ a TV debate? A plain numerical winner, which the polls attempt to get, will be highly affected by who is the most popular candidate beforehand. The 'score' reflects not only the performance but the bias of the committed supporters. Another way of looking at it is how each leader performs relative to expectations of their performance. Even better, we might judge the winner as the leader who convinces the most people to change their opinion.

Another question pollsters face is to what concept they should weight their sample; are we trying to represent the TV audience, or the whole nation? The nation may seem more relevant, but the whole nation did not watch the debate, so could not have been affected in the same way as those who did. YouGov and ICM both weighted their respondents to reflect the debate audience (the makeup of which we derived from other polls beforehand), whereas ComRes weighted their responses to reflect the general public. There is no ‘correct’ approach for this. One might even have recruited a panel of non-partisan ‘citizen debate judges’, for example.

Overall, the second Leaders’ Debate provided a fascinating evening. YouGov were first out with our results, and incurred the usual flood of complaints and conspiracy theories. Along with our unparalleled record of accuracy, we also have the impressive accolade of being accused of bias, deception, and duplicity by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters within a short space of time. LibDem supporters accusing us now of fixing our results are the same LibDem supporters that were quoting our polls when they showed their surge in support in the previous week. And this morning, even as the attacks on one poll mounted, the Liberal Democrat high command was on the the BBC Today programme extolling the virtues of our other poll showing 49% of voters would vote Lib Dem if they thought they had a “significant chance of winning the election”.

It is probably worth clearing up a number of issues that have emerged from the more enthusiastic conspiracy-theory seekers. In the interests of full disclosure (and for those who are interested in such things), our political polling is run by long-standing and publicly committed Labour supporter Peter Kellner, while his team includes a member of the Liberal Democrats, a Conservative Councillor, and a Young Fabian. Nadhim Zahawi, currently the Conservative PPC for Stratford-upon-Avon, was YouGov CEO until February 22nd of this year. He remains a non-executive director until May 6th. I myself ran as a Conservative PPC in 1997. Of course we all love politics. To say that pollsters should have no political interests – as one commentator did – is strange. To suggest those interests would make us distort our results and hurt our company (for which political polling is less than 2% of our revenue) is plain barmy.

We are aware that the coverage polling receives during an election campaign can excite the passions of those who do not like it when the results are not going their way. We have tried to be as transparent as possible about our polling activities: last week we explained how political message-testing works, and we always publish the full results of our media partner’s questions on our voting intention surveys, regardless of whether our media partners choose to publish them themselves.

Stephan Shakespeare is CEO of YouGov.

21 Apr 2010 07:10:56

Canvassers are least likely to meet Nick Clegg's young voters (and they're also the least likely to vote)

The Shakespeare Report.

Ben Brogan, blogging for The Telegraph, wrote yesterday that "the pollsters are all wrong" - on the doorstep, he says, there's no evidence of a LibDem surge.

I spoke yesterday to a Conservative MP, who had been cavassing in a LibDem/Conservative marginal, and whose veracity I also trust, who said the same thing: he'd met almost no-one who said they had switched their vote to Nick Clegg.

And yet all five pollsters, two online and three telephone, have measured the surge, all within the margin-of-error of each other. My own view: pollsters and canvassers can both be right.

Our own figures show the surge as disproportionately among the young, the 18 to 30 year olds. And this is the demographic you're least likely to encounter on the doorstep.

It's also the age group least likely to vote. Will the surge go all the way to the ballot box?

No idea. I've no way of knowing. This could be a form of the froth I've alluded to before. Clegg's mission will be to invigorate the hard-to-get-out-vote. Cameron might have the advantage of a more reliable segment of the population.

Stephan Shakespeare is CEO of YouGov.

19 Apr 2010 20:15:50

The Shakespeare Report: Message Testing v Push Polling

Stephan Shakespeare Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, on opinion polling.

In swift succession, YouGov has been accused of being anti-Labour, anti-Conservative, and (today), anti-LibDem. Apparently, at various stages, we have had Labour / Conservatives / LibDems too low, and this is because we’re unrepresentative / skewing the weights / push-polling. I think we’ve dealt with the first two, but now we have to deal with the third – which is easy to do, since it just requires a simple explanation of the difference between push polling and message testing.

Most professionally-run campaigns will at some time want to test public reaction to a variety of messages, to see if its communication strategy is likely to work. This applies to companies and brands, and of course political parties. Typically, they will want to test both positive and negative messages, either to promote those messages or find out which they most need to defend themselves against. Market researchers will run those tests to specifically or randomly selected respondents. Typically some respondents will see one set of questions, others will see another set. When you see these questions, you can’t be sure who the client is, or what the reason for the test is.

Voting intention questions intended for publication must always come at the start of a poll, so that respondents cannot be affected by anything else that might be in the poll. In fact all questions asked in research that is for publication is carefully ordered so as to minimise the effect of any question on the questions that follow.

Push-polling is a very different beast. Push-polling is unethical. Push-polling is conducting a poll to influence a respondent for some particular purpose. Mainly it is when people are pretending to conduct a poll, but actually they are contacting hundreds of thousands of people to repeat attack lines – it’s campaigning masquerading as polling, and in New Hampshire it’s even illegal (and quite right too).

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17 Apr 2010 08:59:54

I don't believe that the Liberal Democrat surge will last (but here are three reasons why it might)

The Shakespeare Report.

Well, I said 'be ready for froth' but I didn't expect quite such large dollops.

First we had some unnecessary confusion as ComRes ran (and published) a voting intention question to a sample that had all watched the debate, and then came back trying to sell us a 'remodelled, extrapolated' version, as if there could be any possibility of this being valid (you cannot possibly 'extrapolate' the opinions of non-viewers from viewers). Dismiss all that.

Up8 But then came the bombshell of our normal poll for The Sun showing the LibDems running a strong second, pushing back Labour to third. A real shocker, even allowing for margin-of-error. Is it really possible?

I stick to my froth theory for some of the observed effect, but maybe not for all. Consider this:

a) Experimental polls that ask people to imagine a genuine three-way race, with Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems all equal, and then ask respondents to place their votes, show a strong tendency for the main party vote to collapse to the LibDems. The fact is people do quite like the LibDems, they just think they can't win, and don't want to waste their vote.

2) Those experiments are sometimes supported by reality in the form of by-elections. When the LibDems manage to convince people they can really win, they often do, upsetting huge majorities. These new debates present the three leaders on equal terms, creating a little of that by-election effect.

3) Loyalty to the main political parties has sharply declined, especially after the expenses scandal, of which the LibDems were regarded (by the public) as relatively innocent. Many voters would love to give the main parties a bloody nose. The narrative is exciting, and creates its own momentum.

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