Over the next few weeks activists, politicians and commentators will argue and fight over campaign strategies to bring down their ideological opponents. Campaigns will issue press releases at a furious rate and triumphantly claim that they are going to “expose” their opponents on particular issues.
And it won’t make much difference at all. Elections are rarely about policies; they are always more about politicians who can capture “the mood” of the electorate. David Cameron thought he had it in the bag until Nick Clegg became the “change candidate”. Now it’s all shot to hell.
The election is generating so much noise that arguments over policy aren’t going to shift anything. People will just tune out. Here are some alternative factors that could influence polls by about 3 per cent to 5 per cent.
The one issue
Want to take out your opponent? Drop the range of topics and fixate on one issue. Keep on hammering at it so the message gets through and raises doubts in the minds of people likely to vote for them.
The noise level makes it impossible for a campaign with mixed and numerous messages to get something across. Ideally that one issue should be about policy, but subconsciously frames your opponent in an emotional way. Attacking the Tories on inheritance tax, for example, also frames them as a party only for the rich. The Tories still have problems convincing voters that they’re not just for the privileged.
Brown has stuck stubbornly to talking about the economy, while Clegg will stick to talking about “a new politics”. Cameron has the problem of mixed messages: “big society” doesn’t resonate; he needs to attack Clegg but can’t afford to sound too negative; Osborne isn’t helping much.
This will affect each party differently, and may even depend on the weather. A low turnout is bad for Labour because it mostly features the committed/angry voters who want to get rid of the incumbent.
Besides, poorer people are less likely to turn out to vote. So, good weather with a close, competitive election could ensure a high turnout — which would be in Labour’s favour. Pollsters agree.
What also matters is where the turnout happens. Both Labour and the Tories have constituencies that are so sewn up that a high turnout there would count for little. They all need a higher turnout in the marginals. However, if it becomes a very close election, then the popular vote may also become psychologically important.
The youth vote
This needs a separate category, for several reasons. The “yoof vote” is the main driver behind Clegg’s recent resurgence and this bodes well for the future of the party. Young people are also better as activists.
Here’s the problem for Clegg: the polls may be overstating and/or understating his popularity. Understating it, because many young people today live in mobile-only households (now 13 per cent of UK households) and are therefore not reached by conventional, phone-based pollsters. So support for the Lib Dem leader may be higher than imagined.
But Clegg’s influence may be overstated if those youths don’t go out and vote, as they are not prone to do.
Which brings me to probably the biggest factor: Get-Out-The-Vote operations will probably affect final counts more than arguments over policy.
A huge part of the Obama campaign was about collecting, harvesting and refining voter data so that on election day the Democrats could locate where his supporters were, knock on their door and harangue them to go out and vote. Everything boiled down to the huge GOTV operation.
In the UK, parties can’t pay to drive the old and the lazy to the polls, so the problem is bigger. But the parties do have electoral register information to locate friendly areas. The big parties have also spent large sums developing sophisticated databases to collate and track voter information. If they don’t use this properly for a GOTV drive on election day, all that discussion about policy will have been for nothing.
Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.