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Back in September, the Ashcroft National Poll asked people about the concerns most likely to stop them voting Conservative. Top of the list was “they might go too far with austerity and cuts in public spending and services in the future.” At the bottom of the list was “I am worried their promise of an EU referendum means Britain could end up leaving the EU.”

The remarkable thing about the 50% of respondents who said yes to this last one was that they included 33 per cent of UKIP voters. This has been the cause of much derision, with the poll taken as proof that one-in-three Kippers haven’t realised that quitting the EU is UKIP’s central goal. How unsophisticated of them!

In fact, if anyone betrayed a lack of sophistication, it was those poking fun at the Kippers. Wanting to stay in the EU but voting for UKIP is perfectly consistent if other issues like immigration are your priority or you just want to register a protest vote. Indeed, some of this group of voters may have been expressing a general distrust of the Government instead of the specific concern mentioned in the question.

When the polls show people holding strange and contradictory opinions, it’s always worth trying to fathom out their underlying motivations.

Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box is a new book out from Philip Cowley and Robert Ford that aims to do just that. In an article for Total Politics, the authors share a few examples.

For instance, why do so many people (about one in seven) give a wrong answer when asked whether or not they voted in an election? Is it because they can’t remember? Probably not:

“Importantly, they are about six times more likely to report a false positive than a false negative, to claim they voted when they didn’t rather than the other way round. This is partly because voting is still (widely, though not universally) seen as a social norm, but as Paul Whiteley… points out, plenty of people are willing to disregard that social norm: around one in five happily and correctly admit they didn’t vote. Those who think voting is unimportant don’t tend to lie about whether they did it or not. The problem comes with those who think voting is important.”

This raises a further question. In claiming that they did vote, are these concerned non-voters motivated by embarrassment or is it more a case of answering the question to make a statement that voting is the right thing to do? Or to put it another way, are people being influenced by the polling process or are they using the polling process to influence other people?

Note that by “polling process” I’m not referring to the actual procedures of the polling organisation, but the subjective experience of those being polled. For instance, some respondents might perceive the process as a mild form of inquisition in which their opinions are being scrutinised, while others view it as a platform for getting their views across.

Here’s another example of apparently odd voter behaviour:

“In a study conducted by Pat Sturgis… 15% of the British public either supported or opposed the non-existent ‘monetary control bill’, while 11% expressed a position on the equally fictitious ‘agricultural trade bill’.

“People who are very interested in politics are twice as likely to have an opinion on fictitious policies than those who aren’t interested. And men are 50% more likely to express an opinion than women, one reason why men seem to have higher levels of political knowledge than women: they’re less willing to admit their ignorance.”

Again we have to ask whether embarrassment (or pride) is necessarily the motivating factor. Some respondents may be using these fictitious bills to express opinions about real issues. For instance, in opposing the ‘agricultural trade bill’ a respondent may, in his or her mind, be expressing an opinion about the Common Agricultural Policy. Also, because the legislative process is largely controlled by the executive, a question about a bill – real or imagined – might be interpreted as a chance to express generalised sympathy or antipathy to the government of the day.

In summary, political smart-arses should stop taking ordinary voters (and non-voters) for fools. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the public is getting savvy about the role that polling plays in setting the political agenda – and the interpretation of polling results should take this into account.

This doesn’t mean that opinion polling isn’t a useful tool – but don’t forget to ask who for.

13 comments for: Perhaps the voters aren’t so stupid after all

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