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Who Will Vote?

 

One of the features of the Scottish referendum that has elicited considerable comment was the level of turnout. At 84.6%, the turnout figure was 20.8% higher than in the 2010 general election, and a full 34.6% above that recorded in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. While this was, in the end, no great shock – reflecting the extraordinary levels of public engagement and participation generated by the referendum campaign – it was still something that in a broader context should be seen as quite remarkable. On no previous occasion in the democratic era had such a high percentage of the Scottish electorate participated in a ballot.

As the attention of the psephological community returns to the rather more mundane matters of mere general elections and the like, the issue of voter turnout will remain important. This is not because anyone – at least, certainly no-one with whom I am familiar – is expecting voter turnout at the next general election to reach 85%. I would be fairly confident that participation levels will be substantially lower, probably somewhere in the 60s%. But lower (and even low) turnout can be every bit as important and interesting as high turnout. Most obviously, it opens up substantial scope for differential turnout among the potential supporters of the various parties. As both scholars and most party activists have long understood, success in elections is not just about persuading people to support your party. At least as important is mobilising your existing support – making sure that those sympathetic to you actually do go out and vote.

With that in mind, the Welsh Political Barometer polls have begun including a ‘likelihood to vote’ question relating to general election turnout. We will, I very much hope, include this question in all our polls up to next May’s general election. Before discussing the detailed figures, though, a cautionary note is in order. As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog [http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/electionsinwales/2014/05/29/so-how-did-we-do/], all polls that attempt to estimate voter turnout seem to over-estimate it. This is true not only of those conducted before elections, but even of those done afterwards, and it appears to be particularly the case for on-line polls. There are various reasons for this. One is that some people do seem to lie – giving what they may perceive as a more ‘socially acceptable’ answer to the pollsters by saying that they voted even when they didn’t. A bigger problem, though, seems to be that the sorts of people who don’t vote are, disproportionately, the sorts of people who also don’t answer opinion polls!

 

How do we address this problem? One method, often used these days in post-election surveys, is to offer respondents a question phrased in such a way as to make non-voting seem a wholly respectable behaviour. Thus, in the post-election wave of the 2011 Welsh Election Study, we asked the following to respondents: “Many people have told us that they didn’t manage to vote in the election for the National Assembly for Wales. How about you – did you manage to vote in the election?” This may address at least some of the ‘social acceptability’ issue.

For pre-election surveys, a method now used by several pollsters is to offer respondents a 0-10 scale (where 0 means ‘not vote’ and 10 means ‘definitely would vote), asking them how likely they are to vote in the election. Such scales are not flawless – our final Barometer poll before the European Parliament election in May saw 55% of respondents say that they were 10/10 certain to vote. What may be most useful are not the absolute levels of turnout that such questions ‘predict’, but the relative positions of supporters of the different parties. That is, the polls probably can’t tell us to the second decimal place what the overall percentage turnout will be next May. But they plausibly can give us a good indication of which party’s supporters are currently most motivated to go out and vote in the general election.

Our latest Barometer poll used the 0-10 scale question, linking it specifically to “the UK General Election next May”. So what did we find? In the table below, I offer two summary measures for each of the five main parties. This shows the percentage choosing the 10/10 ‘definitely will vote’ option, and the average score out of 10, for those who indicated that they would vote for this party in the next general election.

 

Party

% 10/10

Average /10

Labour

74

9.28

Conservative

77

9.52

LibDems

59

8.84

Plaid

78

9.26

UKIP

83

9.47

So what do these figures tell us? Perhaps the clearest message relates to the Liberal Democrats. Not only was their level of support in this poll low – only 6% of respondents offering a voting intention indicated that they would support the party in the general election. But even among those few supporters the party has retained levels of certainty to vote are relatively low: their voters are the least certain to vote of all the main parties. This is truly a grim position for the Lib-Dems to find themselves in.

Among the other parties there are relatively minor differences. On one measure – the percentage of 10/10 responses – UKIP seems to have the strongest degree of support; on the other, the Conservatives are slightly ahead. Labour and Plaid are slightly behind, but not by much. Still, these figures may be a bit concerning for Labour: in a potentially very close election where every vote could count, even modest differences in likelihood to vote could really matter. But maybe the most important thing that these results point to is that much of UKIP support looks pretty motivated! This does not look just like a spasm of protest that is destined to melt away, or armchair grumbling that won’t manifest itself on polling day. For UKIP this is clearly good news; for the opponents not so much.

 

ADDITION: I had just finished drafting this post when I was sent the details of the BBC Wales-ICM poll. Interestingly, that too includes a 0-10 certainty to vote question. Even more interestingly, it offers a rather different picture to that presented by YouGov in the Barometer poll. Here are ICM’s figures:

 

Party

% 10/10

Average /10

Labour

71

9.03

Conservative

72

9.06

LibDems

56

8.73

Plaid

59

8.32

UKIP

63%

8.74

The news here continues to be grim for the Liberal Democrats, with relatively low levels of certainty to vote even among their much-reduced support base. The main difference between the two polls is that Plaid Cymru’s position on certainty to vote looks much weaker with ICM than it does with YouGov. Given that ICM seem to show higher levels of voting support for Plaid, perhaps these two factors balance out. But UKIP’s position also looks rather weaker with ICM, who at the same time are showing them on a slightly lower level of voting support than are YouGov.

 

Why should these two, highly-esteemed, survey agencies come to rather different pictures on certainty to vote? To be frank, I’m unsure. I suspect that it may well be related to the very different methodologies used by the two companies (YouGov use internet polling, ICM’s poll used telephone sampling). But I’m not clear as to why these two methods should produce results that differ in this way. I’m also unsure as to which set of results I find the most believable. What I think these two sets of figures do reinforce is the importance of continuing to keep an eye, over the next few months, on likelihood to vote. In a general election that nearly everyone expects to be very close, voter turnout could make all the difference.

 

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