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By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 23.57.13With two days to go, the
Liberal Democrats have the edge in the Eastleigh by-election. My latest poll
finds a 5-point lead for Mike Thornton over Conservative candidate Maria
Hutchings. Labour’s share has been squeezed since the start of the campaign,
with John O’Farrell in fourth place behind UKIP’s Diane James, who has
progressed to 21%.

This is the first poll whose
fieldwork took place after news broke of two big political stories – the
accusations against Lord Rennard, and the loss of Britain’s AAA credit rating.
Neither seems to have made a difference: views of the Lib Dems as a party have
held up, presumably because politicians behaving badly is hardly news, and
Cameron and Osborne remain well ahead of Miliband and Balls when it comes to
trust on the economy – indeed an identical proportion of Eastleigh voters (57%) said they most trusted Cameron and
Osborne as in my previous poll at the beginning of February.

Two thirds of voters in the
constituency – including two thirds of Lib Dems – are either satisfied with
Cameron’s performance as Prime Minister or would prefer him to Miliband. The
Tories also remain ahead overall on being the best party to get the economy
growing and create jobs – though the Lib Dems have taken the lead on this
measure among their own voters.

Crucially, the Lib Dems are
well ahead on “understanding the Eastleigh constituency and representing local
people in parliament”. Four in ten of all voters in the seat think this, as do
90% of those who intend to vote for Mr Thornton. Nearly half of voters
generally, and two thirds of Lib Dems, say getting the best local MP will be
the most important factor in their voting decision.


The campaign on the ground
has reached saturation point. Though the Thornton campaign has a slight lead on
door-knocking and direct mail, overall 90% of voters say they have been
contacted by the Tories and 92% by the Liberal Democrats.

Accordingly, the proportion of
people naming a party who say they may yet change their mind has dwindled
markedly since the start of the campaign. Expectations, too, have hardened,
with 55% expecting a Lib Dem victory (including 88% of Lib Dem voters).
Conservative voters continue to consider a Lib Dem victory more likely than a
Tory one – perhaps heightening the attraction of a nothing-to-lose vote for
UKIP.

There is an intriguing methodological footnote
to this series of by-election polls. The headline voting intention figures here,
as with my previous poll, are based on the assumption that 30% of those who
voted Lib Dem in 2010 but now say they don’t know how they will vote, or refuse
to say, will vote for the party again on Thursday, compared with 50% of don’t
knows and refusers who voted Labour or Conservative at the last general
election. This has been a standard assumption in my polls, and is based on
reliable national data. However, it is debatable whether this holds true in a
Lib Dem stronghold like Eastleigh, where the party’s support is so entrenched
that it ought perhaps to be treated on the same basis as that of Labour and the
Conservatives. On this assumption, the Lib Dem share increases to 34%, a
6-point lead over the Tories.

Even if it is true that half
of guarded or supposedly undecided voters will vote for the same party as last
time, a total of 27% of Eastleigh voters remain impossible to allocate – not
least because nearly half of them
refuse even to say how they voted in 2010. These people could yet produce a
surprise.

1,002 adults in the Eastleigh
constituency were interviewed by telephone between 22 and 24
February 2013. Visit lordashcroftpolls.com for full details of the poll and to
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