The morning after the night before saw a lot of red faced polling experts holding their hands up and wondering how they got things so wrong. As much as it would be nice to see Paddy Ashdown eating his hat on live TV, it was an embarrassing night of compounded errors made over the last 6 weeks.
Or was it?
Can industry experts really be so wrong – after all nearly every poll in the run up to the actual Poll of Polls, the voting itself, were consistently saying the same thing? Many were in the same margin of error territory as each other and as numerous previous polls had been during the campaign itself.
The last time this sort of thing happened led to a wide scale review of the approaches taken to polling and Friday morning saw the same calls being made. For those of us who earn our living in the non-political world of market research and specifically those of us in the soft and fluffy land of qualitative research where we get to spend time with people and get to know them, the concern is about getting tarred with a very broad brush.
So allow us some leeway at this highly topical and deeply relevant time to offer an alternative hypothesis.
At The Buzzz we do a great deal of ‘traditional’ consumer and social research. We see our remit as tapping into the buzz around subjects of interest to our clients and by understanding and interpreting the whys behind the chatter we can provide some guidance around the risky business of communication and product development. We now hear with increasing volume .. but how can you trust what people tell you – people say one thing and do another – just look what happened at the General Election.
So here is an interpretation of what happened on Thursday 7th May 2015. An interpretation which builds on our body of work and understanding of how decisions are not only influenced by emotions but in cases like this guided or dictated by them.
We understood that around 10 million voters remained undecided on Election Day – and that is based on the proportions who admitted to being undecided at the last moment. I have put this to the test today by asking everyone I have come across whether they knew who they were going to vote for before they set out to the polling station. I found that 13 people out of 70 I spoke to about this fell into this camp. OK, not a huge sample but it reflected different ages, geographies and political awareness. So lets say that around 16-18% were undecided up to the last minute.
The reason many of us were undecided or floating between one or two options is varied but for everyone the campaign over the previous 5-6 weeks had been noisy. We heard lots of promises and manifesto pledges, red lines and argument and counter argument. When detail was put forward there was usually someone on hand from the Institute of Fiscal Studies or IMF to shoot it down in flames. Talk about £30 billion is mind boggling to most of us – we have little concept of what it means other than it sounds a lot. When it is immediately challenged by an opposing viewpoint or inadequately explained we lose sight of it, it disappears as a relevant part of helping us make up our minds about who to vote for. Over 6 weeks of debate where few effective answers were given this blanket of noise becomes so hard to penetrate and break down that most people give up trying to understand it and we lurch back to consider the personalities of the leaders as potential Prime Ministers – how subjective a base is that? No wonder Jeremy Clarkson was so often touted as a populist PM, before his disgraceful outburst.
The Law of Heuristics would state that when choice becomes so complicated that it is difficult to compute, the brain comes to the rescue by giving us a shortcut. We also know that as human beings our world is most often constructed around ourselves, our immediate loved ones and family and then our surroundings – our street, neighbourhood, town or region. Emotional influences like this override any of the rational arguments; political perspectives or manifesto promises. We think simply about what would impact my world, what has my world been like recently, is it getting better or worse? In such a context and with an undecided voter we believe that many people simply thought things have been getting better finally for me and mine. On the basis that I have little trust in any of the politicians, who do I have any trust in, who has anything to provide as evidence about what they can do. In this context we believe many of those undecided voters, the 16-18% chose to vote for the devils they know, rather than the unfathomable promises of people with no experience of government. Finally buoyed by the starting point the Conservatives used of ‘you can trust us with the economy’ and underlined by the spectre of Labour and the SNP together they painted in the final 2 weeks of campaigning, the combination compelled more ‘undecided’ to vote Conservative than Labour or UKIP.
Polls focus on stated behaviour and algorithms based on historic data collected over many years. Lets not forget that the final poll was more accurate in its forecasts but still shy by a significant number. However none of the polls take into account the dominance of emotions when political standpoints are less distinct compared to Old Labour and Old Conservatism, where there are at least 4 or 5 more choices on the ballot paper and where policy and projections of what life will be like or so similar and so uncertain.
So maybe 2015 is the gut feel election. The election where frustration with the campaigning meant that a significant minority were left undecided, unpersuaded and ultimately left with no other choice but to protect whatever they see they have started to gain with an upturn in the economy, however short term that may be.
Are there lessons to be learned? Clearly there are and a new generation of party leadership is required who will provide a more open and transparent way of helping people to decide who has a manifesto they can back, because it is what they also FEEL is right for the country. When campaigns engage with the public fully and well in advance of the election itself that becomes the driving emotion that leads to engagement and support. Emotions are left outside the polling booth because the decision on how to vote has already been made. That is when the polls record intention accurately.
For us here at The Buzzz we have seen the way emotional decision making plays out over the last few days. It is encouraging that we have approaches that understand the hows and whys of emotions on the way we make decisions. However it is also clear that when emotions work at this level they can literally change history. Politicians need to learn how to become more emotionally intelligent, how to engage and communicate more effectively with the whole of the electorate – then we might have a democratic process that works and is again something to be proud of.