What we don't know about don't knows
Welcome to this week’s edition which as political polling is a little thin in August instead takes the chance to take a look at a more abstract question: which is the big step when you switch from supporting one thing, via don’t know, to supporting something else?
But first, this week’s disappointed ‘tut tut’ is muttered in the direction of Wales Online who polluted a perfectly decent story about a properly conducted opinion poll on speed limits (paragraph 2) with a ‘voodoo’ online vote in which anyone could vote as many times as they wishes (paragraph 5). As the paper says, “the tool is not perfect as people are able to vote more than once”. So perhaps, er…, don’t use that tool?
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What’s the theory of not knowing?
My only appearance of Radio 4’s Today programme came in 2012, courtesy of don’t knows. I had done some exclusive analysis of YouGov data showing that many people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 had switched to ‘don’t know’ rather than to another party. I therefore was able at a horribly early hour to give a plausibly optimistic take on the Lib Dem predicament, pointing out how those Lib Dem defectors hadn’t actually been won over by other parties, and so there were good grounds for the Lib Dems to hope to win them back.
Plausibly optimistic at the time, perhaps. But time since has not been kind to my early morning optimism.
It’s why I’ve always been sceptical when discussion about other parties - and in particular about the Conservatives in this Parliament - has copied what I was saying in 2012. That is, highlighting how many 2019 Conservatives have switched to don’t know, with the implication that this isn’t perhaps so bad for the Conservatives. After all, if Starmer or Davey haven’t actually won these people over, surely they’re there for the winning back by Sunak? The Lib Dem experience of 2015 suggests otherwise, perhaps.
There is a more fundamental question here about how we view ‘don’t knows’. Take someone who voted Conservative in 2019. On a journey from Conservative via don’t know to another party which is the big step that matters? Is it the first one - from Conservative to don’t know - or the second one - from don’t know to Labour/Lib Dem?
Is the decision to leave the big step, or is the big step the decision about where to go next? Rather like, is the decision to leave a job or partner the big step, or the decision about the next job or partner?
Much of the time, as those analogies and (I’d guess) as demonstrated by the personal experience of yourself or those you know well, it’s the first decision that’s the big, hard step - the one that you want to go, even if you don’t know quite where to go to. And that’s therefore also the step that’s the hardest to undo.
If those sort of analogies are right, then losing support to don’t know rather than to a rival party is no real comfort for the party losing support.
Of course, in practice it’s not a simple binary choice as to which sort of political world we’re in. Voters will have all sort of variations as to the balance for them personally of the importance of the first versus the second step.
One way of looking at the difference in methodologies between pollsters is that Opinium and Kantar - both of who have often produced the lower leads for Labour in this Parliament - take the view that switching to don’t know ain’t that big a deal. But other pollsters use methodologies that place more weight on the importance of someone switching to don’t know. Given how many people have switched from Conservative to don’t know that means the other pollsters get larger Labour leads.
Opinium and Kantar both have good records at recent elections - but then, other pollsters have performed well too.
More broadly, the question of whether it’s the first step - leaving - or the second step - choosing a new home - that matters most is an under-research topic in political science and psephology.
Given that previous Today experience, I’m a don’t know sceptic - sceptical that losing support to don’t knows is a relatively easy step to undo. But really, none of us know. We all don’t know about don’t knows.
UPDATE: There’s some new data from Redfield & Wilton which reinforces the above.
Have I missed some key research into this question which makes that last paragraph wrong? Hit reply and put me right if I have.
Know other people interested in political polling?
National voting intention polls
An update on the Michael Foot yardstick: Rishi Sunak is currently 91% Michael Foot, i.e. 91% of the polls in the table below have the Conservatives doing the same or worse than Labour did in their 1983 landslide defeat (28%).
It’s worth noting though that two pollsters have Labour slipping into the low 40s, which is a possible trend to keep an eye out for.
Here are the latest figures from each currently active pollster:
Last week’s edition
Polling on green issues. (See also the first item in the next section for another important angle on this.)
How willing are people to pay for green policies?, and other polling news
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