Don’t expect Liberal Democrat poll ratings to go up during the election just because they always have

1992graph

The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

As David Boyle wrote in a recent post, anticipating that this will also be the case in 2015. (It’s not like David’s the first person to say that, and he likely won’t be the last, but he happened to say it on the day I felt like writing about the subject.)

It’s become a truism, often spoken by worried Liberal Democrat activists as a morale-booster to lift the hopes and the spirits as they see another set of polls recording the party in single figures and duelling for fourth place with the Greens. The election campaign will be starting soon, they eagerly say, and our poll rating always improves during the election campaign.

Unlike most political truisms, this one actually happens to be broadly true. If you look at the records of polling from 1970 onwards that are kept on UK Polling Report, there’s an uptick in Liberal/Alliance/Liberal Democrat voting intention in the last part of every graph, so it is true that Liberal Democrats have generally done better than the pre-election campaign polls suggest they would. And yes, I’m being careful to use the past tense there.

Two things worth remembering here:

  • Past trends do not indicate future performance
  • Trends in politics and other fields always continue applying right up until they don’t
  • At this point, I don’t know if the campaign will see a rise in Liberal Democrat support as happened in other general election campaigns, but given that there’s one major difference between this and those other campaigns, I think it’s misguided to just assume it will happen regardless.

    (I did have a look to see if I could find any academic studies on this, but couldn’t find any – please point me in the direction of any you know of)

    They key difference, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats have been in government for the last five years, something that wasn’t true at the time of any of the previous surges. Leaving aside issues of ‘party of protest’ votes, what this means is that the Liberal Democrats have been much more prominent in the media over the last five years than they have during previous Parliaments. Liberal Democrat members of the Cabinet and ministers are regularly in the news, and the party as a whole is getting much more coverage outside of election time than it ever has before. In short, voters are much more likely now to have much more information about the Liberal Democrats than they ever had before.

    One of these days I’m going to do a longer post explaining Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, but for now it’s important just to note that one of the important determinants of how people vote is the amount of information they have about a party. In previous elections, most voters came into the election campaign knowing relatively little about the Liberal Democrats because the party’s dearth of mainstream media coverage didn’t give them the opportunity to receive much information about the party. So, when election time came around and the media started featuring Liberal Democrats more at a time when people’s awareness of political issues was heightened, it understandably affected their voting behaviour. Coupled with an ability to run a strong campaign (one of the few campaigns where this effect didn’t seem to happen was 1987, when the Alliance campaign was a mess), this meant that when voters made their decision, they had a number of positive thoughts about the Liberal Democrats.

    The situation this year is completely different as time in government means the Liberal Democrats are no longer an unknown and fresh party to voters. While the party will obviously get good amounts of coverage in the election campaign, this will not be received by voters in the same way it was before as they now already have a bank of opinions about the party to weigh any new considerations against. People seeing Nick Clegg aren’t seeing the effectively new person voters saw in 2010, they’re seeing the man who’s been Deputy Prime Minister and regularly on the news for the last five years with all the connotations that brings. In previous elections, voters were open to receiving campaign messages from the Liberal Democrats because they didn’t have many pre-existing views about the party, but now they do, and we don’t know how those will affect voters’ decisions.

    The idea that voters in 2015 are going to react the same way to exposure to Liberal Democrats that voters in previous elections did completely misses out that the party is in a fundamentally different position going in to this election than it was in any of the previous ones where the ‘Liberal surge’ occurred. Expecting things to happen just as they did before when fundamental conditions have changed is nothing more than wishful thinking.