The rise of the ‘shy Tory’: why pollsters are missing voters on the right

At 10pm British Daylight Time on May 7th, seconds after the polls closed, the various media outlets covering the UK General Election unveiled the results of the giant exit poll commission by a consortium of British polling companies. Anyone who watched this coverage will never forget the barely suppressed shock that the Conservatives were estimated to win 316 seats some 25 seats more than the most optimistic opinion polls published days before the ballot.  Lord Ashdown (a former Liberal Democrat MP and leader in the Commons) expressed such disbelief at the veracity of the exit poll that he said if he was wrong, he’d eat his hat! Ashdown’s disbelief in the exit poll’s numbers was vindicated but not the way he’d hoped because it too underestimated the scale of the Tories’ success. Cameron was to retain the premiership with an absolute majority and 331 seats actually increasing the Conservatives’ percentage of the vote – a result dramatically different than the one anticipated by virtually all observers of the campaign.

The English media have been awash with hand wringing analyses as to why the polls were so wrong and why Labour lost so badly. Almost all pre-election commentary revolved around likely coalition negotiations with many pundits picking a Labour/SNP/Green coalition. Milliband, on the strength of some one-eyed reports from polling stations, reportedly told his front bench late in the day to be humble in victory when interviewed by the media so convinced was he, despite the predicted Scottish SNP landslide, that Nicola Sturgeon would join him in the governing coalition.

The failure of the mainstream pollsters to pick this win (only an 18,000 strong on-line Spider Monkey survey had picked the eventual 37/31 Conservative/Labour split) has been put down to the behaviour of the  so-called ‘shy Tory’. This term was first coined by John Heyward (now a Conservative MP) when he was John Major’s pollster in the 1992 election to explain why pre-election polls pointing to a Kinnock led Labour victory were wrong. Essentially Tory leaning voters lied to the pollsters.

In recent years, this underestimating of actual voter turnout of centre-right parties by reputable polling companies has become a recent global phenomenon. On top of the UK Election of May 2015 we can add similar polling failures in the:

  • Israel Election March 2015 (Likud got 29 seats versus a predicted 19 enabling Netanyahu to form another Likud-led coalition)
  • US mid-term elections November 2014 (most polls underestimated the size of the GOP gains in the Senate, House, Governor’s Mansions and state legislative races)
  • Scottish Referendum September 2014 (the ‘No’ vote got 55% versus the last polls predicting a narrow ‘Yes’ win)
  • NZ Election September 2014 (almost all polls pointed to NZ First holding the balance of power whereas the Key led Nats managed an election night absolute majority. Even though this was clawed back by special votes and the Northland by-election, Key, like Cameron, managed to increase National’s share of the vote from the previous election)
  • EU Elections May 2014 (polls missed the sizable swing to UKIP in the UK portion of the EU Parliament Elections)

David gave some reasons for these polling failures in his post

Some of the reasons why Tories (or supporters of right leaning parties) have become so shy with indicating their voting intentions to pollsters are:

The Left’s vitriol means conservatives are more likely to stay mum
The left believe they have the moral high ground and to oppose their policies is at best bad and inhumane and at worst, downright evil. More on the left see politics and legislative action as the most important force for good in the world – the power of the state to ensure good outcomes as they see it. More on the right see the state as far from a benign force for good and derive satisfaction outside of politics from family activity, humanitarian efforts in the community and organized religious involvements. This moral superiority the left feel they have infuses their political debating with self-righteous indignation sometimes propelling them to more nasty and personal attacks on their opponents. Opponents are more likely to be labeled with extreme epithets to discount and shut down their views (e.g. homophobe, racist, heartless, greedy, uncaring).

Many on the right quickly tire of these abusive ad hominem attacks. When you add that the left has a core of activists who are driven to the political theatre almost 24/7 and for whom warfare with the right is an article of faith and a rite of passage, it makes for a palpable ‘take no prisoners’ approach to debating their opponents. Ordinary right leaning voters who engage on social media on the issues of the day in the run up to elections are routinely subjected to vitriolic attacks often in an almost coordinated way from a myriad of well-armed and argumentative left leaning activists such that they withdraw from the battlefield and learn to keep their opinions to themselves. Fearing further opprobrium for supporting a right leaning party when asked by a pollster, voters from the right often will either lie as to their party leaning or that they are undecided when they are already a committed Tory voter. The left’s aggressive approach to political debate is one of the biggest reasons for shy Tories.

Labour in the UK claimed to have won the Twitter campaign and the social media battle but ended up losing the war that counts – the actual election not realising that the Twittersphere is not the same as swing voter land. The young are disproportionately represented on Twitter and social media debates and they are more likely to tilt left and be vocal about it BUT less likely to vote. The left have rendered open discussion in favour of a number of contentious issues such as immigration reform or against gay marriage and Islamic extremism as not appropriate opinions for citizens to hold in a modern progressive society. They have effectively driven a significant minority of the electorate out of the public square and off the debating stage. The left’s bullying has a number of perverse effects on approved speech thus silencing public dissent. These attempts don’t sway voter opinion in their favour but merely strengthen the resolve of the un-listened-to voters to get out and vote for the leaders and parties the left so despise.

The notion of what is appropriate discourse even effects the pollsters. One admitted to deciding not to poll on contentious issues of concern to right leaning voters like on excessive Muslim immigration or welfare reform for fear of the public backlash from the vocal left.

Elite opinion makers have become more disconnected from median voters
The chattering classes overwhelmingly tilt to the left. Even right leaning public commentators often hold more socially liberal views than floating voters and can be more sensitive to elite opinion when it turns on them for their more conservative views. Because the commentariat tend to mostly talk to each other, they become cut off from median voter opinion which is more right leaning and conservative. They are then shocked when majority opinion votes the opposite to them. This disconnect is manifest in a number of ways:

* Rise of militant Islam is ignored by the chattering classes but is of more concern to centrist swing voters but is a topic rarely canvassed in media panel discussions or debates for fear of offending Muslims. This sort of political correctness reached absurdity when Milliband proposed to ban Islamophobia. Where are moderate centrist voters to turn if their reasonable concerns are blatantly ignored by a major opposition party seeking power? The rise of UKIP saw the Conservatives trying to engage more on these contentious issues and thus were seen to be more likely to respond to voter concerns.

* Beltway types look past the deficiencies of the left’s standard bearer in their desperate quest to get their man across the line. Milliband was a nerdy policy wonk who came across as awkward and goofy, who decried business, refused to disavow the profligate spending of the Labour government he was a minister in and banked on dissatisfaction with the austerity measures to propel centrist voters to his more leftist vision for Britain in much the same way a more left leaning Cunliffe hoped NZ Labour would get out the so-called missing million.

* Euroscepticism is a subject that brings out the most dismissive and arrogant tut tutting from elites who have frequently disdained the rise of UKIP and the popularity of Nigel Farrage in his call for an EU referendum. Cameron successfully neutralised the electoral fallout for the Conservatives from UKIP by promising the In/Out referendum. Shy Tories who favour Brexit again felt shouted at and ignored by beltway commentators and Labour.

New media allows those on the right to break the MSM’s monopoly on reporting
Whilst Britain has sported an ideologically varied print media for some decades now, the commentariat on TV, radio, the political scientist and the political reporting class reliably tilt to the left. The internet has shattered that monopoly and, along with You Tube and other user driven broadcast sites, enabled the growth of right wing blogs and right wing on line magazines and newspapers. This has enabled shy Tories to read more about politics from a perspective they understand and sympathise with. It reinforces their suspicion of the commenting class and of the mainstream media and journalists and adds to their shyness with pollsters.

Other factors that helped Cameron: Voter preference for stability
Incumbency often provides some advantage to the ruling party. In the UK, voters less familiar with coalition government even after five years of the Lib Dems deal with the Tories, were genuinely spooked by what the polls were pointing to – a Labour Party that would get fewer seats than the Conservatives but be able to govern with the help of the resurgent Scottish National Party. Not only would the harder left SNP tail wag Labour’s dog, the very state of the United Kingdom would be at stake a mere six months after the Scottish voted reasonably decisively to stay with England. However ambivalent voters may have felt about Cameron, they saw a Conservative led government as more stable and more likely to fight for the union.

“It’s the economy stupid”
The left made much of the Tory’s austerity programme fuelled by media stories of those effected. Middle class Brits with jobs saw an improving job market, falling unemployment, rising incomes and property values as helping their own personal financial stability and, like their Kiwi counterparts in 2014, voted for a continuation of the government that was perceived to be fiscally sounder and whose fiscal rectitude through tough times saw better economic times return. Like Cunliffe’s ‘true red Labour’ shift, Milliband was seen as appealing more to the Hampstead Fabian Society by attacking big business and seeking a return to the spendthrift days of other more left leaning Labour governments than the more successful centrist approach adopted by Blair to New Labour’s electoral advantage.

Comments (48)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment