Is Danny Finkelstein right about televised party leader debates?

Over at The Times, Danny Finkelstein has cast doubt on the possible impact of the televised party leader debates at our next general election:

By the time of the campaign proper they are probably too late. We should be having these debates now if we want them to be influential.

In his piece, Danny draws on the evidence from the US (only – not from other Parliamentary democracies with TV debates, tsk tsk). However, there is some very relevant evidence from the UK. It’s from the polling carried out by The Times’s own pollster, Populus, at the time of the last general election into when people made up their minds how to vote:

34% – in 2004 or earlier
15% – in 2005, but before election was called
(49% in total before election campaign)*
16% – 3-4 weeks before polling day
9% – week before election
2% – last weekend
22% – last couple of days
(49% during the campaign)

This polling is consistent with other evidence, such as surveys that reinterview people during election campaigns and track fluctuating views, canvass figures during campaigns and the changing patterns in postal votes which are posted on different days during a campaign.

The presence of TV debates may well delay people’s decision making, but even if it doesn’t that would leave on similar trends around a third deciding after the last debate. That is a very large number, particularly given that a difference over only a few percentage points separates triumph from disaster for any of the main three parties.

* For Liberal Democrat voters this figures was even lower – 20%.

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4 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 23rd Dec '09 - 3:47am

    May have a point, but then again, ambiguous influences like most debates (where there is no clear winner) merely tend to reinforce existing beliefs; people remember the parts which are consistent with what they expected to see, and forget the rest. So I’m not sure if it makes that much difference.

  • Mr Finkelstein is probably right and wrong. No big shifts in voting but even a few % points could change the outcome of the election.

    Given even the most popular programmes struggle to get 6 million viewers, and many tuning in will already have made their minds up, then not much change is an easy prediction. Oh the BNP supporters who really thought question time would lead to a surge in support for the BNP.

    One prediction now – all the Tory papers will say Cameron came off best – whatever the debate !

    In understanding these polls, a degree of caution is needed. We know for example that according to polls, 50% of people always vote in local elections, despite the 30% turnouts. We know that people don’t state accurately or can’t recall how they vote din the last general election. We know people will be more or less likely to vote for party X if they offer a referendum or change leader or policy Y, even though the more or less bit is usually a fraction of a % point. if it exists at all.

  • Andrew Tennant 23rd Dec '09 - 12:34pm

    It’s surely no surprise that some people are entrenched and consistent in their voting intentions and that they are not swayed by short term superficial electioneering in a campaign?

    These figures suggest one of two possibilities:
    – Either voters are well informed and take an interest in the personalities and policies of parties before and outside of the short formal election campaigns period
    – Or alternatively, some voters are so disinterested or disengaged that they are no more informed about the parties when the campaign period has finished than they were when they started.

    Given the complete garbage our competitors put out and still pick up votes, regrettably I think it’s the second.

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