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Did the Debates Have an Impact on the 2016 Welsh Assembly Election?

Televised leaders’ debates are a relatively new development in UK election campaigns – for general elections, we famously did not have them at all until 2010. There has since been considerable debate, prompted most notably by the failure of ‘Clegg-mania’ to translate into a Liberal Democrat breakthrough in 2010, as to whether such debates can actually have any significant influence on an election result.

As many of you will recall, we had two televised leaders’ debates in Wales in 2016. In the Welsh Election Study (WES) voter surveys, therefore, we asked our respondents about viewing of the debates, and about the performance of the leaders taking part in them. We can combine that information with what people said before the election about how they would vote, and how they ultimately did vote, to see if the debates seem to have any impact on voting choices.

Our first finding is that only a minority of our WES survey respondents indicate that they watched the debates. In terms of our overall WES sample that is actually rather re-assuring. The official BARB viewing figures for both debates, I am informed, put the audiences below 200,000. These were actually very respectable viewing figures, particularly in these multi-channel and multi-platform days. But finding that only a minority of WES respondents watched the debates re-assures us that our WES sample is not dominated by political obsessives.

A second point, leading on from the first, is that those who watched the debates were not a wholly representative sub-sample of the Welsh electorate or population. In the table below, I present three sets of figures. These are the constituency voting intentions in our pre-election WES survey (conducted in March, before the election campaign began) among three groups of people: those who later reported having watched the ITV1 debate; those who reported having viewed the BBC1 debate; and the rest of the WES sample.

 

Pre-Election Wave Constituency Vote Intentions (%):

Party BBC Debate Watchers ITV Debate Watchers Rest of Sample
Labour 26 29 23
Plaid Cymru 22 23 14
Conservatives 19 15 16
UKIP 13 15 12
Lib-Dems 4 3 4
Others 4 3 2
Don’t Know/ Wouldn’t Vote 13 11 28

 

Debate-viewers were not a representative cross-section of Welsh public. It is unsurprising that those not intending to vote were under-represented in the viewing audience. It is probably also somewhat unsurprising that Plaid Cymru supporters were disproportionately likely to view a debate about the Welsh Assembly election. Perhaps slightly more surprising is that UKIP supporters also seem to have been quite likely to engage with the TV debates. Overall, while the viewing audience was not wildly out of line with the population, it was a slightly skewed sub-sample of the Welsh electorate.

And what did this sample make of the debates that they watched? We asked those who indicated that they watched part or all of each debate two simple questions:

  • “Which leader do you think performed the best?”
  • “And which leader do you think performed the worst?”

I’ll list the results for the two debates here in the order in which they occurred – ITV first, then BBC.

 

ITV Leaders’ Debate: Leader Performance Evaluations (%)

Best Worst Net Best – Worst
Carwyn Jones 15 14 1
Leanne Wood 36 5 31
Andrew RT Davies 9 16 -7
Kirsty Williams 9 5 4
Nathan Gill 9 22 -13
Alice Hooker-Stroud 3 17 -14
Don’t Know 19 23

 

BBC Leaders’ Debate: Leader Performance Evaluations (%)

Best Worst Net Best – Worst
Carwyn Jones 16 13 3
Leanne Wood 37 4 33
Andrew RT Davies 8 12 -4
Kirsty Williams 9 4 5
Nathan Gill 7 23 -16
Alice Hooker-Stroud 2 16 -14
Don’t Know 22 28

 

Even making allowances for the slightly skewed nature of the audience for the debates, these findings on performance by the leaders are striking. For both debates, Leanne Wood scores more than twice as highly as the next leader (who in both instances is Carwyn Jones) for performing the best. While some of this differential can be accounted for by the sample of debate-viewers being a little ‘Plaid-heavy’, most of it clearly cannot. Leanne Wood also scores the joint-lowest, in both instances equal with Kirsty Williams, for mentions as the leader who performed the worst. This produces a very positive overall balance of public reactions to the debating performance of the Plaid Cymru leader.

For Carwyn Jones the picture is more mixed. He does quite well on ratings as the best leader, but also attracts quite a lot of mentions as the worst one as well. His overall ‘net score is only slightly positive, and a long way behind Leanne Wood. Kirsty Williams is the only other leader to manage more ‘best’ than ‘worst’ nominations for both debates – reinforcing, I think, that whoever else was to blame for the Lib-Dems’ electoral debacle it wasn’t her.

For the other three leaders who participated in the debates, the public reaction was clearly negative. For Andrew RT Davies the verdict was only modestly negative, although it hardly suggests that his performances were doing his party’s electoral hopes any substantial good. For the other two leaders, Nathan Gill and Alice Hooker-Stroud, the public verdict is unambiguously negative. Few were impressed by either of their performances; plenty of people found lots to dislike in what both of them had to say.

Finally, though – did all of this make any difference at all? Among those who watched the debates, here are the figures on how they actually voted (taken from our post-election survey). Please note that because these figures only include percentage share amongst those who actually voted, there is no Don’t Know/Wouldn’t Vote figure.

 

Post-Election Wave Constituency Vote % (change on pre-election):

 

Party BBC Debate Watchers ITV Debate Watchers Rest of Sample
Labour 31 (+5) 31 (+2) 32 (+9)
Plaid Cymru 28 (+6) 32 (+9) 20 (+6)
Conservatives 17 (-2) 15 (no change) 20 (+4)
UKIP 12 (-1) 13 (-2) 14 (+2)
Lib-Dems 8 (+4) 5 (+2) 8 (+4)
Others 3 (-1) 3 (no change) 4 (+2)

 

 

Of course, we are only talking about a minority of the electorate here. And of course it is also true that other factors during the campaign period could have changed views between the pre-election and post-election surveys. But the evidence here does suggest that the televised leaders’ debates probably helped Plaid Cymru and, to a lesser extent, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The evidence also indicates that the debates did no good at all for the electoral chances of the Conservatives, UKIP and the Greens. Given how close the race for second place was in the Assembly election, the 2016 televised leaders’ debates in Wales may have made the difference between Leanne Wood now being the Leader of the Opposition in the chamber or that position still being occupied by Andrew RT Davies.

Comments

  • Paul

    Out of curiosity, do you have the viewing figures for the debates? Given the widely acknowledged issues of reporting Welsh issues/political developments I’d be intrigued to see the viewing figures and/or % share of those watching TV at the given moment.
    Given that turnout was still below 50% and views have more choice in what they watch (and indeed do with their free time) I remain somewhat sceptical about the final impact – not withstanding reading your excellent blog post of course!

    • Roger Scully

      I believe that the official BARB figures for both debates put them just short of 200,000 viewers. Which is not that bad in the current media context.

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