Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Missing, presumed red? The 2010 Lib Dems

I have repeatedly turned to the question of the Lib Dems' impending fate.  It is one of the central questions of the next election: how far will the Lib Dems fall from the 23% they recorded in 2010 and where will those losses be felt most?  Where will their erstwhile voters put their cross if they do desert the Lib Dems?  The next election will be decided in large part by the answers to those questions.

Many electrons have been spilt over these questions, but we are not much closer to an answer, except chronologically.  Perhaps we can refine some of the questions a little further.In this post, I intend to look at the following:

1. What are the Lib Dems currently polling nationally?
2. Can that be reconciled with the constituency polls that Lord Ashcroft has been conducting?
3. If not, what might be causing the discrepancy?

What are the Lib Dems polling nationally?

I like questions of fact.  We need to take this pollster by pollster, so that we don't get confused by differing methodologies.

Populus - the Lib Dems are scoring between 8 and 10%.  They last went outside that range (on the low side) in mid-November.
ICM - the Lib Dems are recording between 10 and 12%.  They recorded 14% in December, but otherwise have stayed in that range since last May.
YouGov - rather more grimly for the Lib Dems, YouGov very consistently find their support in the 6-8% band.  They last went outside this narrow band in October, which considering YouGov poll five times a week represents astonishing consistency.
Survation - Survation have a much wider scatter.  In the last few months they have found the Lib Dems at 6%, 11% and all points in between.  Tentatively I'd suggest the range is 6-9%.
Ipsos-MORI - belying its reputation as being very swingy, Ipsos-MORI also has the Lib Dems in a narrow band, consistently finding that they poll between 7 and 9%.  The last time they went outside this range was in March.
ComRes - Aside from one poll in December, you have to go back to 2013 to find an occasion when ComRes found the Lib Dems polling outside a 7-10% range.
Lord Ashcroft - Since July, the Lib Dems have polled between 7 and 9% with Lord Ashcroft in all bar two polls (one with them at 10%, one at 6%).
Opinium - until this week, the Lib Dems recorded between 6 and 9% since July (this week's poll had them at 5%).
TNS-BRMB - the Lib Dems have recorded in a wider range with TNS-BRMB, with scores between 5 and 9% in the last year.

So if we look at the position on a pollster by pollster basis, it seems fairly clear that the Lib Dems are becalmed in the polls.  If you believe ICM, they are in low double digits.  Otherwise, the consensus has them in high single figures, with an average somewhere around 8% for almost all pollsters other than ICM, with no meaningful variation over the last few months.

Isn't it nice when a factual question has a fairly clear answer?

Can that be reconciled with the constituency polls that Lord Ashcroft has been conducting?

Gratifyingly, Lord Ashcroft's estimation of the Lib Dems' national polling is very mainstream at a stable 8%, which means that his constituency polls don't need calibration for changing national vote shares and can be read across without too much being required in the use of cold towels.

Lord Ashcroft, reasonably enough, has so far largely confined his constituency polling to marginals.  As a result, we have a skewed set of seats, and we'll have to fill in some blanks.
The constituency polling conducted so far falls into the following categories: Lib Dem/Conservative battlegrounds; Lib Dem/Labour battlegrounds; Conservative/Labour battlegrounds; Labour/UKIP battlegrounds; and Brighton Pavilion.  But that may be over-precise - a simple division between seats where the Lib Dems are in contention and the rest may suffice for now.  Obviously, the Lib Dems want to find as many Lib Dem voters as possible in the first set of seats, and if they have to shed any, they would much prefer to shed them in the second set of seats.

And they do seem be shedding votes in the second group of seats.  Across the 89 constituency polls (some are repeats in the same constituency) in such seats, the Lib Dems are averaging between 6 and 7% (closer to 7%, in fact).  This conceals substantial variations: the Lib Dems would lose their deposit in 23 of these polls and they are recorded at as low as 2% in North Warwickshire and Thurrock. 
They are also shedding votes in their own battlegrounds, but still averaging over 30% across the 57 opinion polls conducted in constituencies where they are in contention (again, there are some repeats).

All well and good, but does this add up?  To which the answer is, mostly.  If we reckon that there are say 70 seats where the Lib Dems would see themselves as in serious contention and use an average of 30%, and use 6.5% as an average for the other 561 mainland seats, we get a Lib Dem overall poll rating of just over 9% - a full percentage point ahead of the centre point of their national polling. 

So the constituency polling is in the same ballpark as the national polling.  It's broadly plausible.  But there is a bit of a difference, and the constituency polling suggests that the Lib Dems are doing a bit better than you'd expect from the national polls.

It may not sound like a big discrepancy, but in the context of such low national poll ratings, 1% is significant, given the sheer volume of national and constituency polls that we have had and their consistency.  It could make the difference of quite a lot of seats, depending on how the two are reconciled.  It needs explanation, or an acceptance that national polling and constituency polling are telling us slightly different things.

Why are the Lib Dems apparently overperforming a bit in the constituencies?

There are a range of possible explanations, not all of which exclude each other.  Here are the possibilities that spring to my mind.

1. Labour safe seats and Conservative safe seats may behave differently from marginals

It is theoretically possible that the Lib Dems will do worst in Labour and Tory safe seats. That doesn't sound desperately plausible to me. No one else will be squeezing their vote.

I suppose that the Lib Dems might be doing particularly badly in safe Labour and Conservative seats where UKIP are pressing.  I can't say that I'm overwhelmed with confidence in that theory.
2. The Lib Dems may be losing more support in their safest seats

Same theoretical possibility. Still less plausible: the Lib Dems will be squeezing out the last ounce in such seats. 

3. The Lib Dems may be losing more support in areas where Lord Ashcroft has not so far conducted much polling (Scotland especially, but perhaps Wales and north east England also)

There may be something in this.  The Lib Dems do seem to be doing particularly poorly in Scotland, if the Scottish only polls are to be believed.  However, these seats make up a relatively small proportion of the total, so the underperformance would need to be severe indeed to make the sums add up.

Lord Ashcroft is releasing some Scottish constituency polls tomorrow.  We shall see more then, I guess.

4. The Lib Dems will in fact do less well in one or both of these sets of constituencies 

This has to be a possibility.  The Lib Dems are going to make no effort in seats where they are not in contention, and Lord Ashcroft's polling is based on respondents being prompted to think about who to vote for in their own constituency.  Lib Dem supporters will need to be very committed (or very strongly believe in their civic duty) to turn out in practice.  I expect that some of those who would say that they are going to vote Lib Dem when prompted will be seduced by another party or will stay at home.

What of seats where the Lib Dems are in contention?  Lord Ashcroft derives his headline poll numbers from the second of his two part question, where voters have concentrated on who is standing in their constituency.  That relies on voters going through the same two stage process.  If the Lib Dems' electoral machine is running smoothly, that may be safe.  In seats where the Lib Dems are not so fluent, perhaps it isn't.

5. The national polling understates how well the Lib Dems will do in practice 

This also has to be a possibility.  It may be that voters will turn their minds to their own constituency and decide that the Lib Dems after all should be favoured with their cross.  It is noteworthy that ICM, the one pollster that gets respondents at a national level to think about their constituency, is the one pollster that finds the Lib Dems with a higher level of support.

The Lib Dems may in practice overperform in seats where they have the organisation to get out the vote.  Past performance is not always a guide to the future, but it is at least a guide to where the Lib Dems have the organisational skills.


The Lib Dems have been remarkably steady (or flat, to use a less friendly word) in the national polls.  There is no immediately obvious reason why they should start putting on support in the run-up to the election nationally, though they may do so in their local constituencies if their local MP has a particularly strong profile.

So the key question remains where they will get that support.  We can now expect a lot of lost deposits for the Lib Dems.  As noted above, I expect the Lib Dems to do best where they are organisationally strongest and that the identity of the local MP will be vital to their chances of survival.  For the Lib Dems, everything is local.  There is nothing in the offing that suggests that the Lib Dems are going either to suffer annihilation or to avoid substantial losses.   But the detail remains uncertain, and will depend in large part on which pollster's methods is closest to the mark.

I appreciate that none of this is particularly ground-breaking but sometimes important conclusions aren't. 

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