Monday, May 11, 2015

Triumph of the Shy

“The Liberal Democrats will add a heart to a Conservative government, and a brain to a Labour one!”
 —Soon-to-resign Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose party wound up out of government

For us news consumers, there are three stages to an election.

There is the campaign, the election itself and, finally, the spinning of the results.

In other words, one phase consists of politicians angling for power (four weeks in the British Isles, two years or more in the United States), another consists of a brief moment of the people actually expressing their will, and the third consists of years of politicians telling us what the people actually meant. The interminable spin phase begins as soon as the first election day exit polls are released.

The recent election in the United Kingdom had an interesting beginning to the spin cycle. As the exit polls came in, journalists, commentators, analysts, pundits and spokespersons had to quickly adjust to the fact that pre-election polls had seriously understated the support for the Conservatives. No one had time to get comfortable with that adjustment before actual vote tallies started coming in—only to reveal that even the exit polls had underestimated Conservative support. In the end, the foregone and unquestioned expectation that Parliament would be hung and that weeks of negotiation would be required to cobble together the shakiest of coalitions gave way to the reality that the Conservatives had enough MPs to govern on their own and could jettison all that heart added by the hapless Lib Dems, who found themselves severely punished for occupying the mushy middle of British politics.

Everyone immediately began to spin the new reality to suit their own narratives. Needless to say, conservatives all over the world had the easiest job. They simply portrayed it as a vindication of conservative policies. Everyone else pointed out the complexities of the Tory victory, i.e. it was largely owed to a split among left-of-center voters. In Scotland, Labour had been abandoned in favor of the Scottish National Party. It wasn’t so much a shift rightward as a fracturing of the left/center-left. Still, the combined totals of Labour and the SNP fell short of what the Tories amassed, thereby avoiding the sticky question of that particular potential left-wing coalition, so the Conservatives came by their bragging rights honestly.

The interesting question is, why did the polls so consistently and universally underestimate Conservative strength? If it was just one polling outfit, you could blame shoddy samples and biased questions. But everybody had it wrong and over a sustained period of time. That suggests either that 1) polling industry’s standard sampling practices are flawed or 2) a lot of people are simply not answering polling questions honestly. The latter is actually already a well-documented phenomenon. The “shy Tory factor” is something that has been recognized since the 1990s. In a nutshell, British polling often tends to underestimate support for the Conservative Party.

Why is that? Maybe fewer Tory voters have landlines (traditionally, the standard way of contacting polling subjects)? Maybe Tory voters tend to be less truthful? Or maybe, when contacted by someone representing the journalistic/political establishment, Tory voters have been conditioned to be seen as “uncool” or heterochthonous to the mainstream as it tends to be presented by the BBC? After all, every cool celebrity near a microphone was expressing, if not his or her unadulterated support for Labour, then at least a disdain of Conservatives.

In the end, those sorts of recommendations did not seem to carry as much weight as the fact that Britain, while maybe not exactly flourishing under a Conservative-led government for the past five years, was at least faring better economically than most of the rest of Europe. This is a fact probably better appreciated by the average voter than by the (generally more affluent) celebrities pimping for left-of-center parties.

Is there an equivalent of the shy Tory factor in the United States? The science of polling has gotten pretty good over the years, but there is still the occasional surprise where Republicans do better than they are supposed to. In fact, there are currently historic majorities of the GOP running the two houses of Congress to testify to this.

The Conservative victory in the UK is no doubt giving much encouragement to the sprawling crop of Republican presidential candidates, one of whom will eventually face the poll-leading Hillary Clinton. But there is no particular reason to think that an election held last weeks holds much relevance for one to be held 3,600 miles and 547 days away.

On the other hand, the UK election reminds all pols (including Mrs. Clinton) that they can never rest comfortably on a lead in the polls.

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