How to get politicians to think experimentally

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Politicians engage in a variety of local campaign strategies that they think will help them get re-elected, but they don’t really know if the money they spend works or not. Peter John explains how experiments conducted by politicians and researchers working in partnership can be a useful way of finding out what actually works in local campaigning.

Experiments are becoming very common these days as public agencies turn to randomised controlled trials to evaluate public policies.  The Behavioural Insights Team, which was in the Cabinet Office, has blazed a trail by using trials to test for a range of innovations, such as getting income tax paid on time, collecting court fines, getting people into work, and improving education attainment, just to name a few of the recent applications. Despite this growing interest, one group of people doesn’t use experiments very much: the politicians, at least those in the UK.

Politicians want to get re-elected and they engage in a variety of local campaign strategies  with the aim of improving their chances of doing so such as leafleting, e-mailing, door knocking, using social media, and buying space in newspapers. But they don’t really know if the money they spend generates votes in the ballot box.  Politicians have been advised that they need to get information on the type of voters who support them so that they can target messages to them, or find their core or loyal voters to ensure that they turn out to vote.  But looking at election results after spending the money does not tell them whether their campaigning worked or whether they would have won anyway. In contrast, experiments use randomisation to provide a fair comparison between doing nothing and carrying out an intervention.

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The campaign and general election in review

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This year’s general election result took almost everyone by surprise, including the pollsters, forecasters and other experts. On 3 June, Joe Twyman, Dr Ben Lauderdale, Dr Rosie Campbell, Professor Justin Fisher and Professor Matt Goodwin took part in a roundtable to discuss where the predictions went wrong and lessons for 2020. David Ireland offers an overview of the event.

The exit poll that came out at 10pm on 7 May took almost everyone by surprise. Over the course of Friday morning, the scale of the Conservative majority revealed itself, showing that even the exit poll had underestimated the Conservative support. What happened? How did the polls get it so wrong and what are the lessons for 2020? This blog highlights the key issues from a recent roundtable on GE2015 hosted by UCL’s Department of Political Science and the Constitution Unit and chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson. 

Joe Twyman, Head of Political and Social Research, YouGov

As one of many pollsters who had long predicted a hung parliament, Joe acknowledged YouGov didn’t get it right this time. He also, rather humorously, showed the range of Twitter abuse directed at him as a result.

Voting intention remained tightly balanced in the months leading up to the election, but YouGov’s polling revealed that the ‘fundamentals’ may not have been given enough weight in predicting vote share.Importantly, no party had ever come from behind on the economy and leadership to won an election before, and this election was not to be the first. The economy remained the single most important issue, and here, the Conservatives were significantly ahead. Similarly, Miliband never got close to Cameron on party leader ratings.  Continue reading

Regulating the permanent campaign

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Barry K Winetrobe suggests that some modern electioneering practices, especially when well before the formal election campaign begins, could confuse and mislead voters and should be regulated.

A few weeks ago, my local paper ran a classified ad for a meeting with ‘your local parliamentary candidate’. The ad had the promoter/printer imprint on it. I was a little surprised by the absence of any political party name, and the subliminal implication that this person was somehow the only candidate for the local constituency in next May’s UK general election. Intrigued by this self-description, I went to his website, helpfully listed in the advert, and there on its content-rich home page was the phrase: ‘PPC for [the constituency]’. Looking further into the website, I finally found a very tangential reference to his political party. He also appears in the party’s website list of PPCs (prospective parliamentary candidates).

Some days later, I received in the post a communication from that person about a major local issue, containing a multiple-choice survey covering not just that specific issue but also questions relating to national politics and the 2015 general election (e.g. ‘To help make the survey results representative, please let us know how you voted in the General Election in May 2010?’ and ‘Thinking ahead to the next General Election, as things stand today, what are the chances of you voting for each of the following parties…?’). Its ‘small print’ seems to contain the only references to the relevant political party, apparently more to fulfil data protection requirements than to inform the reader of which party is involved.

There is also the growth of the term ‘Prospective MP’ by PPCs, parties and by the media. Again this term can impart the not-too-subliminal message that the candidate concerned is not merely fighting as a ‘candidate’ to be elected but is, in some senses, the winner-designate.

All this seems to be part of a growing trend (drawn from the USA?) of stressing the personal aspect of candidates rather than their party affiliation – perhaps especially so in marginal seats (like the one I am in). While this may well be accepted as a fact of electoral life, in an era of public distrust of political parties and politicians, it does seem to add up to a situation which could, whether by accident or design, confuse, influence or mislead the electorate.

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The grass roots are withering and the money is drying up – so what is the future for local parties in general election campaigns?

Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie discuss the evolution constituency campaigning in the UK. Their book Money and electoral politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections was published earlier this month.

With the 2015 general election now less than a year away, political parties will again be focusing on funding of their campaigns. As in previous elections, candidates will need two resources to sustain their general election campaigns – people and money. Each is in increasingly short supply. As a result, the nature of constituency campaigning has changed very substantially in recent decades, and is likely to do so even more in the future.

People are needed to manage the constituency campaign and to promote the candidate’s/party’s cause across the local electorate: as the average constituency has some 70,000 voters, this means reaching a large number of people. In the past, most candidates could rely on activists drawn from their party’s local members, but as their numbers have declined the available pool has been reduced. Some candidates have replaced them by supporters – non-members who are nevertheless willing to promote the party’s cause – and by volunteers from nearby constituencies where there is an excess of supply relative to demand.

Money is needed to sustain the campaign organisation – its office and equipment, plus staffing – but in particular to meet the costs of posters and leaflets. Research has clearly shown that the more intensive the local campaign, as indicated by the amount that the candidate spends on those items, the better the performance: those who spend more tend to get more votes, and their opponents get less.

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