11 May 2015

The art of political polling

Richard Merrin – Managing Director at Spreckley

OK so I know I have an inherent bias in this posting, having been out on the streets of North London campaigning for the Conservatives over the past few months. But that has given me an invaluable insight into the mindset of the UK voter. I kept looking at the opinion polls and kept asking myself the same question time after time: why are the polls pointing in one direction when I am seeing and feeling something very different on the streets of Hampstead and Kilburn?

The answer appears to lie in two interrelated issues that the pollsters could not see, could not predict and could not address. Let me explain.

Yes, yes, no

The opinion polls had been asking the same question time and time again. Who is the most competent party leader? The answer was always clear – David Cameron. The second question was… has the Coalition Government managed the economy in satisfactory manner? And the answer here always came back as a yes. But when asked if they would then vote Tory – well the answer was a ‘no’.

But for the electorate the illogicality of a ‘yes, yes, no’ position switched in the final week of the election. Why would anyone vote for a party or candidate who did not address the key issue of leadership and economic competence. ‘Yes, yes, no’ soon became a hardened ‘yes, yes, yes’.

Shy Tories

So how did that happen and how did the pollsters miss this? The reason I believe lies in the way the polling is conducted. I know every metric, every demographic trick in the book, every promise that the data is private is deployed by the market research companies. But asking people how they intend to vote – in person or be email – is hugely personal. This is not asking your next door neighbour what their favourite brand of washing powder is. And that is the flaw.

So on the Bank Holiday weekend I was walking up and down an average street in Queens Park talking to people on the doorstep. I was canvassing – yes one of those people who tip up at your door and ask you how you intend voting. But I was wearing a blue rosette. Canvassing is a challenging exercise as you never quite know what is going to hit you once you engage with someone on their doorstep. But there is an art to it, to reading peoples body language, listening to what they are saying, watching their eyes and how they respond to you.

More importantly a Shy Tory will open up – you with your blue rosette are far braver, represent what they are voting for, are not a threat and will confess – often with a hushed voice, a wink, or even a smile – yes I am voting Conservative.

So Mori, YouGov and the rest, stop hiding behind your computer screens, realise you are asking the most personal question imaginable, get out, put a blue rosette on and simply pick a street and talk to people. Yes this is totally unscientific, but by the end of the Bank Holiday I knew we were going to win.

1992 all over again? You bet – and in case you were wondering my one North London street polled Con 38.5%, Labour 29.5%, Lib Dem 10% Green 8% and UKIP 0% undecided 14% – not a bad projection for a guy wearing a blue rosette.