A good-but-not-great election for Labour

A good-but-not-great election for Labour

GQR Vice President Peter McLeod wrote a weekly column on the UK general election for politics.co.uk, where this article first appeared. GQR was pollster to Labour at the 2015 UK general election but does not work with the current leadership.

 

The fallout from the UK’s (first?) general election of 2017 will go on for months. Theresa May has gone from commanding to crumpled, and the Conservative Party’s reaction to the loss of their Parliamentary majority will be fascinating if uncomfortable to watch – and worrying for the process of Brexit. In the meantime Jeremy Corbyn, his team and the wider Labour party exceeded expectations. When the election was called perfectly reasonable people believed that Labour could poll below 25%; they hit 40. That’s remarkable.

Nonetheless, Theresa May swiftly announced the formation of her new minority government backed by the DUP. Of course she was perfectly within her rights as a May government, with those 10 DUP MPs voting with them, commands a working majority the same as they had before Parliament was dissolved. Labour excitement at a huge gain in vote share and modest gain in seats is justified; Labour satisfaction with a result 64 seats short of a majority is not.

While there will be a tremendous amount more to learn from this campaign, it’s worth taking a moment to, as the Bayesians say, update our priors. The following now seem like more solid truths than they were before:

·         Snap elections are inherently risky. The two elections of 1974 could both be considered “snap,” and resulted in a loss for the incumbent followed by an extremely narrow win for the new incumbent. Gordon Brown’s decision not to go for an election in Autumn 2007 looks a lot more solid now than it did then.

·         It’s difficult to win with a bad economy. Governments don’t tend to do well when they go to the polls amid falling real wages. The polls told the Tories they could buck that trend, but reality has caught up with them.

·         Moreover, it’s a bad time globally for incumbents. Following losses for the US Democrats and French Socialists, the Conservatives are another party diminished by voters’ frustration with the establishment over weak economic growth, migration and terror.

·         Parties need to make clear offers to the electorate that tell them a story about how they will make the country better. Labour did this and gained votes and seats. The Tories offered vague, empty slogans accompanied by a palpable distaste for the entire process of getting themselves re-elected, and went backwards.

By contrast, the following are shakier propositions:

·         Young people and former non-voters don’t turn out. We need more data on who really showed up to the polls before we can say this conclusively, but it’s difficult to see how Labour got the numbers it did without a big increase at least in youth turnout. It’s another question still whether future party leaders can rely on this: Corbyn seems to have a certain magic with this demographic and you can see them slipping away from Labour again without another very inspiring campaign.

·         Campaigns don’t matter. This is a fairly fashionable view and as discussed above, the economic background to the election can’t be ignored. Perhaps it’s usually true because most campaigns are roughly equal in competence. But we learned on 8th June that when there’s a dramatic difference in message, narrative, execution and enthusiasm, campaigns can make huge impacts. Don’t forget that at the local elections Labour had a projected national share of 27%.

There are also some major questions that remain unresolved:

·         UKIP as a “gateway drug.” One of the more obvious stories of the election was the collapse in UKIP’s vote share. This was expected to benefit the Tories, with even former Labour voters who had gone to UKIP in 2015 potentially drifting onward to Theresa May’s party. This clearly did not happen to the extent the Conservatives needed it to – if it happened at all.

·         Can Labour win from the left? The question of how Labour kicks on from here is consuming. The party is 64 seats short of a majority. Even if it won back the rest of Scotland from the SNP, it would still be behind. Tacking to the centre risks losing the young people’s votes that helped so much. But those hoping to restore the party to government need some strategy to win back English seats from the Tories. They will need to work out whether they have hit the ceiling of what a left wing proposition can deliver, or whether there’s more still to come.

I wrote on the eve of the election that Labour had not solved its problems around trust on public spending and leadership, while immigration could return as an issue depending on how Brexit goes. An election loss means these are all still real issues. Labour was right to be prepared for an election this year and it should remain in a state of readiness as goodness knows what lies round the corner.

Finally, a note on the pollsters: YouGov and Survation emerge with the most credit. The former built a seat and vote share prediction model based on huge quantities of fieldwork (7000 interviews per week) plus the now-famous Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification (or MRP) that converted that data into seat-by-seat estimates. As the results came in, it was quickly apparent that the model was picking seat outcomes with uncanny accuracy, especially in England and Wales. MRP clearly has a future, although don’t expect to see the standard newspaper voting intention poll using a sample of 7000 any time soon. Meanwhile Survation stuck to its guns on a final poll showing a 1-point Tory win in terms of vote share compared to the 2.4-point actual margin. It was the only pollster to pick Labour’s share of 40% and it missed the Tories’ by only a point. The next-best final poll with a standard methodology was YouGov’s giving the Tories a 7-point win. The problem for the other pollsters seems to be that they were correcting for the errors of 2015 rather than measuring the race as it stood at the time. The challenge next time around will be not to replicate Survation and YouGov’s methods, but to pick up on the most decisive factors for the next election. This is of course far from trivial.

Time to think about what happens next

Time to think about what happens next

GQR Vice President Peter McLeod has been writing a weekly column on the U.K. General Election. In this final piece he predicts the most likely outcome and looks back on what went right and wrong for the Labour Party over the campaign. 

 

What has in many ways been a remarkable campaign looks set to end quite unremarkably. Despite Labour's poll surge the Tories should win on Thursday with an increased majority, most likely in the 80-100 range. An unelected Prime Minister who enjoyed a huge polling lead converting that lead into her own electoral mandate will be the big non-story of 2017. The real news will come in the second half of the year as Brexit starts in earnest. The most historic aspect of the election itself may simply be Labour losing among its C2DE working class base for the first time. The party should start thinking about how to win it back. 

This column covered the reasons I think the Conservatives will win comfortably at some length already, but this week we have new data to back that up. The key poll of the past week was not from any of the usual media pollsters, but from NatCen (the National Centre for Social Research), which doesn’t generally get involved in election polling. NatCen has a robust panel built through face-to-face recruitment off the back of the massive British Social Attitudes Survey. It spent a month on the fieldwork to make sure it got every demographic properly represented, so in theory the data is not subject to differential response bias, wherein supporters of a party become more enthusiastic about taking surveys when their candidate’s campaign appears to be going well.

NatCen’s survey did not measure voting intention but it measured likelihood to vote and found that under-30s will not turn out in significantly greater numbers than in 2015. If this turns out to be true, those pollsters like ICM and ComRes that weighted their results to reflect turnout in past elections will be the ones that get closest to the final result. Beyond the polls, canvassing returns from Labour foretell real trouble, even a possible wipeout outside the big cities, reflecting both the effectiveness of the Tory campaign at targeting swing seats and the limitations of a Labour strategy that focused on young people who cluster in big cities.

While the new government sets about its daunting agenda, Labour will need to reflect on a mixed campaign in which it has made a lot of the running without ever really looking like winning. The campaign operation itself was a success, coming up with a series of strong, memorable retail offers and making the most of Corbyn’s ability to draw big crowds for impressive-looking events. The leader’s image problem was addressed in two ways: his team got him to put on a smart suit every day, and he came across as natural, passionate and charismatic on the campaign trail and in the media. It helped that the election meant the media focusing on policy not management, but it also helped that Labour had policies out there; for too much of the past two years it had too little to talk about. The party was also sharp in reacting to campaign events like the Tories’ manifesto u-turn disaster, picking up and running with the diabolically effective “dementia tax” label for May’s social care plans. Labour also found a smart way to counter the inevitable attacks on Corbyn’s record in the wake of the two awful terrorist atrocities, tying police numbers into their wider narrative about Tory cuts.

So besides the misguided focus on young and non-voters, what held Labour back? Listening to voters before and during the 2015 campaign it was clear there were three big problems: the perceived weakness of Labour’s leadership, lack of trust on public spending and immigration. These plagued the 2015 campaign and it’s fair to say the party never found a way around them. And looking at Labour now, it feels like it has gone backward on two challenges while the third has been neutralised through no especial effort of their own.

In 2015 those Tory posters showing Ed Miliband as Alec Salmond's puppet were as much about leadership as about the concept of a coalition. They simply crystallised the way people already felt about Miliband. Now, the party has stalled on leadership. Despite the improved appearance and effective performances, people do not forget that Corbyn and members of his core team have failed to answer basic questions about their policies in live interviews. People also know that he has an at-best equivocal attitude to some of the basics of defending the country and maintaining people’s physical security; and they know that most of his colleagues in Parliament did not want him as leader. These weaknesses overwhelm the positives of Corbyn’s performance over the past 6 weeks and explain why - despite Theresa May’s utterly lacklustre campaign - he is still miles behind in perceptions of who would be best Prime Minister.

In 2015, it felt like the rest of the nation was getting to experience a little bit of my job when this voter (at 1:10) on the BBC’s Question Time special tore into Ed over Labour spending. Focus group after focus group we had heard that Labour were the ones responsible for the state of the economy because they had spent too much money. The issue was not that people thought Labour had bad spending priorities: generally, people know they are for the NHS and helping the least fortunate people. It’s more that Labour is seen as the party that increases spending as the solution to whatever problem is put in front of it. This time around, Labour put a lot of effort into reassurance on spending, producing a supplement to the manifesto showing how they would raise all the money it promises to spend. This shows that they understood there was a problem, but they came up with the wrong cure. People don’t doubt that it would be possible for the government to raise more money through taxation: they doubt that Labour should be spending it.

The issue that did not hobble Labour in 2017 was immigration. Two years ago immigration was seen as a root cause of every problem from schools to hospitals to housing – and Labour as the lot who "opened the doors in the first place." We didn’t guess that just over a year later Britain would vote to leave the EU. Brexit has remade the immigration debate: when challenged on it, Corbyn can now simply say that when we leave the EU, free movement will end. He had a wobble against Paxman where he couldn’t promise lower immigration under Labour, but it felt far from a defining moment and there was no repeat in the subsequent TV setpieces on the BBC. In this respect, backing Article 50 and accepting our departure from the single market was smart, especially given that Corbyn only ever gave the EU a 7/10 anyway. The challenge in the coming years will be whether the party is prepared to seriously oppose the Tories’ economically ruinous immigration cap.

So without addressing fundamentals around trust in leadership and spending – and pending a resolution of the immigration question – it’s difficult to see how Labour can be elected anytime soon. The positives of this campaign and Corbyn’s performance must not be ignored, but it does not feel like more of the same message is what’s needed to be truly competitive again. It’s also hard to imagine the Tories running as bad a campaign next time around.

GQR Names Lindsey Reynolds Chief Operating Officer

GQR Names Lindsey Reynolds Chief Operating Officer

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner is pleased to announce the newest member of its senior leadership team, its new Chief Operating Officer Lindsey Reynolds. 

Reynolds joins GQR this month after 10 years with the Democratic National Committee, where she served as both Chief Operating Officer and Director of the Office of the Secretary. As the DNC’s COO, Reynolds worked with the Party’s Chair and CEO to manage over 150 staff, open scores of offices nationwide during the 2016 campaign, and manage the logistics of the Party’s 2016 convention and its participation in the televised debates. Earlier with the DNC, Reynolds served as Executive Director of Democrats Abroad.

Before working in Washington, DC, Reynolds served as Executive Director for the Democratic Party of Virginia, and as an independent consultant offering campaign strategy and fundraising expertise to a diverse group of clients in Virginia, DC and Maryland. Earlier, she served as Director of Finance for the Virginia Joint Democratic Caucus and was legislative aide and Deputy Campaign Manager to Virginia’s Democratic State Senator Stanley Walker for his 1999 reelection campaign.

GQR is excited about the high-level political and management experience that Reynolds brings to the firm, her lifetime commitment to progressive politics, and her extensive networks among top Democratic leaders across the country and around the world. 

GQR is a world-leader in public opinion research and strategic advice for progressive campaigns, governments, businesses, and organizations. Founded in 1980 by Stanley Greenberg, the firm has advised the campaigns and governments of world leaders including President Nelson Mandela, President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and US Senator Maggie Hassan – one of only two Democrats to beat a Republican incumbent in 2016. 

The polls may be all over the place, but expect a week of Brexit followed by a Tory win

The polls may be all over the place, but expect a week of Brexit followed by a Tory win

GQR Vice President Peter McLeod is writing a weekly column on the UK general election for politics.co.uk, where this article first appeared. GQR was pollster to Labour at the 2015 UK general election but does not work with the current leadership.

Yes, the polls are going haywire. At the same time as YouGov and Survation put the race back to the 2015 result of a 5-7 point Tory win (disastrous for Theresa May, as I wrote a few weeks ago), ICM, ComRes and Panelbase have the Tories cruising to the 100-or-so seat majority that would make this election a success for the Prime Minister. Now YouGov, based on a complex multi-level regression model using constituency-level polling data, predicts a hung Parliament – despite the fact that their own poll of 50 marginal Labour-held seats taken in early May would have seen the Tories win every single one of them on a uniform swing. Poll watchers casual and professional alike are increasingly baffled. Meanwhile all the pollsters who have numbers out there will be increasingly nervous.

In defence of the pollsters, they are firing at a moving target at the same time as they try to correct for what happened in 2015. This is a genuinely unusual campaign featuring a shocking amount of movement: Sir David Butler, who has been covering election polling since 1945, says the polls have changed more over the course of this campaign than in any he recalls. Although the pollsters differ in the particulars, all of them show Labour gaining significant vote share while the Tories’ share deflates after an initial jump. Beside what appear to be real shifts in opinion over time, the different approaches the pollsters have taken to adjust their turnout models since 2015 are driving the huge variation in what they're currently reporting. Essentially what they disagree about is whether we should believe young people when they say they are going to vote: if we do, Labour polls fairly well; if we don’t (and history tells us we shouldn’t), Labour polls badly.

Personally I’m encouraged by the variation across polls: it shows innovation is happening. A variety of new ideas should produce a variety of different outcomes: if everyone was still producing the same results, you'd worry about herding and intellectual stagnation. The variation means several firms will inevitably miss the final outcome, but those that call it right will give everyone an idea of the best way forward next time. This is natural selection in action and the whole pollster population should get healthier for it.

Methodological drama aside, we’ve witnessed a strange May. Back at the beginning of the month I pointed out four campaign unknowns that should have been keeping the PM up at night: the pollsters overcorrecting their models in favour of the Tories; the CPS charging Conservatives over their 2015 election accounting, throwing the Tory narrative out the window; the Lib Dems bouncing back; and Labour coming up with a surprisingly good campaign.

It's fair to say that the Lib Dem bounceback hasn’t materialised. But the pollsters are no longer providing the assurance they were a few weeks ago and, while the CPS didn't charge anyone, Theresa May wilfully tossed away her control of the narrative with her U-turn on the social care manifesto commitment.

It's difficult to overstate how much of a misstep that was: not only did it undermine the Conservatives' story about strength and stability, it clobbered the most reliable and enthusiastic part of their coalition, the over-65s. It had a real impact too: ICM's poll of 12-14 May gave May a 29%-28% lead over Corbyn as the leader most trusted on "Protecting the interests of pensioners;" in a poll that ran 24-26 May, Corbyn led 41%-24% on being trusted to "Look after the future of our pensioners." Among voters over 65, May went from a 43%-21% lead to a 30%-39% deficit (yes, the questions are worded differently – presumably because the two polls were done for different clients – but I don't believe for a second that that difference is enough to cause a change of this magnitude).

And Labour have indeed surprised with their campaign, underpinned by a manifesto promising enormous, universal giveaways like free university tuition. In that early May column I noted that Corbyn was back in his natural environment and this was clear in this week’s two TV set pieces. Especially on Monday night's May vs. Corbyn programme on Channel 4 and Sky News, Corbyn proved not just to be a more confident and fluent speaker than May; where he was really effective was in pivoting back consistently to his core message without sounding like a robot. When a small business owner challenged him on tax-and-spend, he talked about building a country where all kids can get a good education; when Paxman said he was weak because he couldn't get all his core beliefs into the Labour manifesto he affirmed his commitments to democracy and fighting for social justice. These play enormously well with Corbyn’s base and, although he has done the opposite of creating the reassurance on fiscal responsibility that Labour needs in order to win the centre, appear to be enough to bring 30%+ of the electorate with him.

Hammering home a prepared message while sounding like it's just occurred to you is one of the difficult, counter-intuitive skills that politicians have to master, and Corbyn's decades of vigorous campaigning have prepared him well. The relative success of Monday night cleared the path for him to appear on the BBC leaders' debate last night.

So a large part of the Tory campaign nightmare seems to have come true. Does that mean a hung Parliament – or even a Labour win? No. May’s non-appearance on the BBC and a series of awkward campaign encounters like the instantly-notorious non-interview with the Plymouth Herald have undermined her for sure. But it's difficult to envisage these setbacks amounting to the sort of disaster that would close the remaining gap between the two main parties.

Instead, take Amber Rudd’s approach last night as a template for the rest of the week: a concerted attack on Labour’s credentials on the basics of leadership, fiscal responsibility and Brexit. That ICM polling I mentioned showed that the three issues the electorate cares most about are the NHS, the economy, and Brexit. On the latter two, May has a 17 to 26 point lead over Corbyn even after the tribulations of the past few weeks. The Conservative hope will be to nail the final week and that, like with most stories, the audience will only really recall the beginning and the end of this campaign. That should lead to an increased Tory majority – but most likely not the blowout we expected a month ago.

Labour's poll bounce is too little too late. It needs to catch up to a changed country

Labour's poll bounce is too little too late. It needs to catch up to a changed country

GQR Vice President Peter McLeod is writing a weekly column on the UK general election for politics.co.uk, where this article first appeared. GQR was pollster to Labour at the 2015 UK general election but does not work with the current leadership.

In the context of this election's polling, YouGov's latest for the Sunday Times was an earthquake. At 44-35 to the Tories is was the first poll of the campaign to show a lead of less than 10 points, and had Labour a full 5 points up on its 2015 result. But don't be moved by it. There's the usual caveat that any surprising poll is more likely to be a statistical outlier than herald of an undiscovered truth, but more to the point, this is a 9-point lead less than three weeks before an election. You don't blow these.

The same basic facts that applied at the beginning of the campaign apply now: UKIP's vote has collapsed and gone to the Tories; Theresa May's personal rating (a good indicator of how undecideds will break) is above the Tories' vote share while Jeremy Corbyn's is below Labour's share; Labour is relying on younger voters who are less likely to turn out; and Labour's vote is softer than the Tories' (i.e. they are more likely – by their own admission – to change their minds).

Amidst all the national polling you might also have noticed that a week ago YouGov did a poll of Labour marginals. The parties themselves will be spending more on this sort of targeted polling than on national surveys because of course the marginals is where the election is decided. And that poll found a bigger swing to the Tories than you see at the national level, pointing to an even bigger victory. Incidentally this aligns with stories that Labour's private polling and on-the-ground operations put the party on as little as 140 seats.

In other words, it remains extremely safe to say that the General Election will return a Conservative government. And a third election defeat in a row ought to prompt deep thinking for Labour on what it's for and who it represents, because the stories underlying this election are of realignments in how the country as a whole votes.

Back in 2005 when I was an intern at an outfit called Populus I was asked to find some statistics on the share of the population occupying the ABC1 social grades – broadly speaking, the middle class. These had formed the backbone of the Tory vote for decades, but someone had a hunch this was no longer the case, and it turned out to be true. As the number of people classified ABC1 had grown over the couple of decades prior, so the Conservative share of the vote in that group had fallen. They won ABC1s by 39 points in 1983, 32 points in 1992 and only 6 points in 2005. The early part of David Cameron's leadership of the Tories – exemplified by his abrupt embrace of green issues – was all about trying to win back those ABC1 voters. To an extent he succeeded, growing the Tory lead among ABC1s to 12 points in both 2010 and 2015.

At the same time, Labour was losing its core voters. At Blair's first landslide victory in 1997, Labour won the C2, D and E social grades by 31 points. By 2005, that margin had fallen to 15 points, and in 2010 Labour barely scraped a win among C2DEs. There was a basically negligible improvement in 2015, with Labour winning C2DEs by a point and a half. The current election looks significantly worse. Averaging across four polls from last week (YouGov, Panelbase, GfK and ICM), the Tories were beating Labour among C2DEs by 12 points. For reference, Thatcher's best result among this group was a tie, in 1983.

Labour's loss of working class votes has to be seen in the context of the Tories' struggles with the middle classes, because while Theresa May looks set to improve on Cameron's performance among ABC1s, she will still be far from achieving the 30+ point margins of the eighties. The real story is that class is a much weaker determinant of everyone's voting behaviour than it used to be. As the nature of work in Britain has changed – a focus group respondent pointed out to us last year that whereas a working class job used to be down a mine it's now in a call centre – so has the political identity tied up with it. In fact, in 2017 you will be much more likely to guess someone's vote by checking their age than the type of work they do. The Tories are 40 points up among the over-55s, but Labour is winning the under 35s by 18. You have to go back to 1974 to find an election where the social classes were as polarised as these age groups are now.

The relative lack of class polarisation in the electorate is reflected to an extent in what the parties are offering. The Tories have made an effort to burnish their credentials on workers' rights – taking on Ed Miliband policies like representation for workers on corporate boards – and pledged to intervene in energy markets to keep bills down. Meanwhile Labour has steered away from pitching policies directly to lower-income groups, opting not to reverse the freeze on benefits but instead offer universal free school meals and an end to university tuition fees. You can see how these might appeal to the 18-35 year olds – many of them middle class – who now form the party's most enthusiastic vote. The question is whether these voters will show up on polling day and, in the likely event their party is blown away, stick with it through the tough times to come.

Is Labour’s strategy working? Possibly. Is it winning? No.

Is Labour’s strategy working? Possibly. Is it winning? No.

GQR Vice President Peter McLeod is writing a weekly column on the UK general election for politics.co.uk, where this article first appeared. GQR was pollster to Labour at the 2015 UK general election but does not work with the current leadership.

 

There’s a meme that seems to go round after every election, noisily touted by disgruntled backers of the losing side. You’ll see a pie chart with colourful chunks for each of the main parties (or sides, in the case of a referendum), but also a great expanse of white or grey: the non-voters. This grey mass squeezes all other contestants, diminishing the differences between them and making the victor look puny. The chart is held aloft as proof that the winners didn’t really win, because in fact the majority of the country didn’t vote for them.

Like all the best deceptions, this is built on truths. It’s trivial to show that in a referendum won, say, 52-48 on a turnout of 72%, only 37% of eligible voters picked the winning side. The message writes itself: how can there be a mandate for something that 63% didn’t vote for? It’s easy to leap from here to an even wronger conclusion - that all you need to do to reverse the decision is mobilise the non-voters.

In the summer of 2015, this idea seemed to provoke a certain giddiness on the left. The Tories had managed to squeak a majority in parliament with 37% of a 66% turnout (only 24% of eligible voters!) and tens, then hundreds of thousands of people were inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign to join the Labour party. If Corbyn could engage so many people, didn’t that mean there was demand out there among the non-voters for a Labour party that looked leftward?

The evidence is taking shape before our eyes. The average at Electoral Calculus has the Tories on 49 and Labour on 27; at Britain Elects it’s 47 to 29. As a reminder, that puts the Tories 10 to 12 points up on their 2015 result and Labour down by between 1 and 3. While it’s true that Labour has gained a few points since hitting a low on 21st April (a few days after the election was called), the Tories have gained the same amount since then.

What’s going on then? There are two problems with a non-voter strategy. The first is with our assumptions about what non-voters are like. The second is about what we can do about them.

First, what they’re like. The fact that a non-voter did not vote for your opponent is the weakest possible evidence that what they really want to do is vote for you. Your opponent can make a mirror-image of that argument with equal justification. A more reasonable a priori assumption is that non-voters are actually a bit like the people who did vote, just less motivated. So if they had to vote they would end up doing so in the same proportions as the voters, which gets you nowhere. A more detailed approximation might use non-voters’ demographics: do they look like the voters of one party or another? People on the left would note that non-voters tend to be younger and less well-off than voters, so there may be more potential Labour voters among them than Tory voters. Beyond this, research among potential voters can give you more. When we poll people and they tell us they don’t know who they’d vote for, or wouldn’t vote, we can use other questions to allocate them to one side or another: how they feel about the direction of the country, their basic sentiment toward the parties and leaders, any past voting behavior. Our experience is that low-propensity voters are usually minded to break against incumbents. But that’s the thing: even if the non-voting population is somewhat tilted in your favour, it still takes a lot of work to get them to the polls. Is it effort well spent?

This brings us to the second issue: how do we attract the non-voters? We need to come up with a message powerful enough to get them to break their non-voting habit and turn out for us. Not easy, as this requires overcoming two biases: toward default behaviours, and against doing anything when given the option to do nothing. But still: let’s imagine we have such a message. What will be the impact of this message on other potential targets? By choosing to target non-voters we’ve turned our backs on, for example, voters who could be open to switching to us from our opponents. We’ve also decided to ignore any of our own past voters who are vulnerable to being captured by the opposition. Let’s not forget that, if they’re smart, our opponents are actively trying to get our voters to switch to them. What if our powerful non-voter message turns some of our own supporters away? This is deadly: if every time we gain a supporter from the non-voter pool we lose one to our opponents, we’re going backwards. We have to win two non-voters for every voter we lose to the opposition just to break even. It’s incredibly hard going.

While this election is most certainly more complicated than the simple model described above, what’s actually happening is pretty consistent with it. I pulled data from the seven most recent polls by different polling houses listed on Britain Elects (YouGov, Panelbase, Kantar/TNS, Survation, ICM, ORB, Opinium), to look at how people have changed their votes since 2015. While all the pollsters include data broken out by 2015 vote, only three of them (Survation, ORB and Opinium) show data for the 2015 non-voters. We need to take the numbers with a pinch of salt because the samples are small. Nonetheless, the 223 past non-voters in those three polls who said they will vote in the next election break 46% Labour, 32% for the Tories, 8% Lib Dem and 5% UKIP. A good sign?

Let’s look at the people who did vote in 2015. The Tories have retained 90% of their 2015 voters, while winning 11% of Labour’s voters, 21% of the Lib Dems’ and 48% of UKIP’s. Labour has retained just 77% of its 2015 voters, gaining only 4% of Tory voters, 16% of the Lib Dems and 8% of UKIP’s vote.

So if Labour really has chosen to pursue non-voters, the strategy is working. The party is winning more of them than the Tories. The trouble is, those gains are dwarfed by those of its opponent, who has chosen to go after the votes of people who - you know - vote.

The only way to make sense of Theresa May’s attack on Europe

The only way to make sense of Theresa May’s attack on Europe

GQR Vice President Peter McLeod is writing a weekly column on the UK general election for politics.co.uk, where this article first appeared. GQR was pollster to Labour at the 2015 UK general election but does not work with the current leadership.
 

On Wednesday afternoon the Prime Minister stood on the spot where she had announced the General Election two weeks previously and launched a paranoid, bitter assault on the EU. Her claims that her government’s negotiating position on Brexit was being misrepresented, that the Commission had hardened its own stance and that threats had been issued against Britain were mere buildup to her most extraordinary accusation: “All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on 8 June.”

There are a number of problems with this statement. First, its obvious falseness. It would be reckless for Brussels officials to try to influence a member country’s election – imagine the scandal if details of their plotting got out. More to the point, if the EU institutions have any interest at all in our election it is for it to result in (yes, sorry) a strong, stable government led by the same people it’s been dealing with for the past 9 months. Pause just a moment here. Imagine that the EU wants to have to negotiate with Jeremy Corbyn. It’s a stretch, right?

Second, these claims can only be counterproductive for the negotiations themselves.  Trust is reciprocal: now that May has declared that she believes the EU is plotting against her, it is much harder for her counterparts to take anything she says to them at face value.

Third, May has shown herself to have such a thin skin you’d have thought she got some coaching from Donald Trump during her visit back in January. Openly accusing an ostensible ally of plotting against you is hardly Prime Ministerial behavior. From that narrow perspective, the statement makes her look worse.

Why do it, then? The only angle from which this makes sense is the internal politics of the Tory party. She surprised most of her colleagues when she called this election. Her reputation is one of extreme caution. The polls look magnificent for the Tories, but they have created outsized expectations. A big election win is now priced into her colleagues’ perceptions of Mrs. May. Her authority will be diminished if she fails to get a significantly bigger majority than she has now. If she doesn’t she will be vulnerable both to her hard Brexit wing and any lurking soft Brexiters or closet Remainers. Commentators arguing that her statement was reckless when she’s bound to win anyway seem to miss this point. Yes, everyone’s central assumption has to be a Tory win with a big majority, but Theresa May is the one who now has to deliver on that. This is an election that she has to absolutely nail. She needs the best Conservative result since 1987.

And despite the state of the polls, that thumping win can’t be taken as read. While last night’s local election results should bolster Tory confidence that their poll leads convert to the hard currency of votes, there is still plenty of room for things to go wrong. There are several questions that should be occupying Theresa May and likely led to her big announcement this week.

First, have the pollsters overcorrected? All the major polling houses updated their methodology after 2015, with the goal of better modelling who would actually turn out in a future election. Because of the result in 2015, changes to the pollsters’ models can only have led to them reporting higher Tory numbers, even if the underlying reality is unchanged. But the new models haven’t been tested against a real election yet. While it’s unlikely that there have been no real shifts at all since 2015, those double-digit Tory leads could be offering false hope.

Second, will the CPS charge over 30 Conservatives including MPs and senior officials with offences relating to the 2015 campaign? Any charges would have to land before the election. May could lose control of the narrative right at the time when the country’s full attention will be on the campaign and undecided voters are finally breaking one way or the other. It happened to Hillary Clinton; it could happen here.

Third, how much will the Lib Dems bounce back? They went from 57 seats to 8 at the last election, with 27 of the losses to the Tories. The Lib Dems are up a couple of points over 2015 in the polling averages, but historically they outperform national polls by focusing hard on local campaigns. It would be astonishing for the Tories to hold on to all of their 2015 Lib Dem gains, making their task in Labour marginals that much harder.

Fourth, what if Labour’s plan works? The past few weeks have seen the party start do something on policy: universal free school meals for primary pupils, a rise in the minimum wage to £10 and support for small businesses plagued by late payments from bigger clients all went down well. Corbyn is back to campaigning, clearly a far happier habitat for him than management. He is finally guaranteed press coverage of what he wants to do in power, rather than internal dramas. Voters could warm to his style. He could have a brilliant policy up his sleeve. Labour polled 30.4% in 2015. You might have seen some big headlines about Labour vote shares of 24 and 25. But the current average at Britain Elects has Labour on 27.6 and at Polling Observatory they’re on 27.8. He only has to do as well as Ed Miliband to put May in an uncomfortable position.

None of this is a serious case for the Tories actually losing the election. But for Theresa May, defeat isn’t just not losing: it’s ending up as a David Cameron mark II, beholden to the many people in her party willing to cause her trouble. Her latest intervention gave her another news cycle dominated by Brexit; splashes across the press of her looking tough; more adulation from the Daily Mail; other parties gasping for oxygen. Control of the narrative. Ultimately, she hopes, control of her party.

There will be plenty of time to sit down and make friends with the EU after the election – and if she has another 100 MPs at her back the frosty reception she gets will seem well worth it.

Targeting the Message: How Parties Use Polls in a Campaign

Targeting the Message: How Parties Use Polls in a Campaign

GQR Vice President Peter McLeod is writing a weekly column on the UK general election for politics.co.uk, where this article first appeared. GQR was pollster to Labour at the 2015 UK general election but does not work with the current leadership.
 

 “You all got it wrong, didn’t you?” This, and less polite variations on it, is the kind of thing people say to me when I tell them I’m a pollster[1]. It’s been a rich couple of years for conversations like that, what with GE 2015, Brexit, and Trump. Despite the fact that the final average of polls in each of those elections was within margin-of-error of the result, plenty of people have decided they’ve had enough of the polls; if you’re one of them, I doubt I’m going to persuade you otherwise.

On the other hand if you do believe the polls, and you’re reading this website, you probably already know that Labour appears on course for an historic defeat. You’ve seen that the Conservatives could win the most seats in Wales for the first time since the 1850s; that Labour is doing even worse in its own seats than the national polls show; that it looks like it will be the Tories, not Labour, who finally peg the SNP back; that for the past 6 elections the polls 50 days out overestimated the Labour share of the vote; and that Theresa May has the highest rating as most capable Prime Minister recorded by Ipsos MORI in the 38 years they’ve been asking the question. You know all this.

So instead, I want to talk about how campaigns use polls. While media coverage is getting a lot more sophisticated, it still tends to fixate on the horse race. Of course, parties pay attention to this and it can make a real difference to how they behave. Throughout the 2010-15 Parliament, publicly available polls gave Labour substantial leads over the Tories, enough to convince a lot of people in the party that it was doing and saying the right things. But, as my old GQR colleague has written, our private polling was always more pessimistic than what appeared in the papers. We thought the party needed to shift its position on spending and immigration if it wanted to win a majority, but our bad-news polls could always be set against a weight of public polling that said everything was fine. We all winced when the audience on Question Time a week before the election hammered Ed on Labour’s spending record. Any chance to neutralise it had gone years before.

But again, the horse race is only the beginning of what a campaign uses polling for. More than anything, politics is a persuasion business. This goes for the activist knocking on doors as much as for the leader standing at the despatch box, in a private meeting with their Parliamentary party or going on Marr. And to persuade people, you need a message. This isn’t a line or a paragraph or an essay, it is a story: about how the world is today, what needs to change and why you – not any of the other candidates – are the one to achieve this. Campaign research, then, is all about identifying, testing and honing these messages. Doing it right takes a lot of things, but four are chief among them.

First, targeting. You need to know who you’re trying to persuade. Some people will love a particular message, but would never vote for you anyway. You want swing voters, and for that you need a poll with a big enough sample to delve into each party’s voters and pick out those who a) aren’t convinced about their current choice, and b) haven’t ruled out voting for another party. Depending on the circumstances, you might be more interested in your opponent’s weak voters who would potentially vote for you, or your own voters at risk of being wrested away by your opponent. But once you’ve isolated your targets, start filtering out what the rest think. Right now, Theresa May rightly thinks that she should be targeting huge chunks of Labour’s vote. That’s one reason her attack is so narrowly on Corbyn: she would risk alienating some of her targets if she attacked Labour and its values more broadly. That narrowness is a signal of her ambition.

Second, your subject. You have to find out what your targets care about: you might have a brilliant message on class sizes in primary schools but if the people you want to win are more anxious about the NHS, find something on that instead. The Tories have decided that their winnable voters care about leadership and Brexit. There’s no doubt their research is telling them this. So even when they talk about other things, they will still be talking about leadership and Brexit.

Third, what options do you have for what you will actually say? Write it all down and test it. Your tests can range from the macro (do we advocate a second referendum? Quitting the European Court of Justice?) to the really quite micro (does “strength and stability” or “capability and competence” work better?). It all gets put through the wringer – in focus groups, in polls, in A/B testing on social media.

Fourth, how do we do against the other side? Messages must be tested against what other parties and candidates say: if your target likes what you say but likes what others say even more, you better change what you’re saying. Another trap is to find a message that works wonderfully just so long as no one challenges it. Fail to stress test your message, and this can happen.

By now, most of the heavy lifting should have been done: the parties know who they’re trying to reach, which of their buttons to push, how to package their offer and how to fend off attacks. They’ll track how they’re doing, especially in marginal seats, run quick tests on how to respond to ups and downs in the campaign, and look to tweak their messages for a last late push. But the core message is already brightly polished and ready to spring to life.

Finally: I might have given the impression that campaigns and the research that goes into them are a cynical exercise, all about politicians telling voters what they want to hear. I know plenty of people think that – they say so in focus groups. The reality is that our role is not to tell candidates what to say to make people like them; instead, it’s to show how they can talk about their own ambitions for the country in a way that people understand and relate to. We like to think that this contributes to the democratic process.

 

[1] There’s also a weird variation sometimes when people think I’ve said “upholsterer,” but that’s another column.

These recent elections show that polling isn’t, and never was, broken

These recent elections show that polling isn’t, and never was, broken

By Anna Greenberg and Jeremy D. Rosner

 

This article appeared in the Washington Post Outlook section May 7th, 2017. See it here. 

 

Global financial markets and European Union leaders heaved a sigh of relief after the first round of the French presidential election last month. And so did the polling profession. It turns out the polls were not broken in France, as they were said to have been in the American presidential election and the British Brexit vote.

But in truth, France wasn’t a departure. The polls in the United States and Britain generally worked well. As a new report this past week from the American Association for Public Opinion Research pointed out , national surveys in the U.S. election “were generally correct and accurate by historical standards.” Although polling faces real challenges, nobody has repealed the laws of statistics: When polling is done well, it continues to produce reliable results.

Here, nationwide polls accurately predicted Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in the popular vote. She won by 2.1 percentage points, while the average polling margin on Election Day was Clinton by 3.2 points. In Britain, our poll for a think tank showed a narrow initial preference to “remain” in the European Union across likely voters but an advantage for “leave” — the winning result — after voters listened to arguments on both sides.

Yes, polling in recent years has had to grapple with major challenges, from low response rates to non-response bias , in which some groups choose not to participate (there is evidence of this to some extent among Trump voters). But none of these problems means that the basic science behind survey research has failed or that we can no longer produce high-quality, accurate data. The problem is that too many people are misusing and abusing polls — in three ways in particular.

First, many people treat polls as predictions instead of snapshots in time based on a set of assumptions about who will turn out to vote. Ron Fournier, the publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business, for instance, has argued that Nate Silver got the election wrong because he awarded Trump only a 34 percent chance of winning. Pollsters make judgments about the composition of the electorate based on historical experience and levels of interest in the current election in order to pull a list of voters to interview. But if those assumptions are wrong, then the polls will be wrong on Election Day. The polls in the Midwest that predicted a Clinton victory generally did not anticipate that, in key industrial states, more rural and exurban white working-class voters would turn out to vote than in past presidential contests.

The tendency of elites to underestimate working-class anger is a real and global problem. The United States and most other major democracies are grappling with intense and historic levels of public grievance related to slow growth; income inequality; and resentments over trade, technology and immigration. That has made voter turnout among specific blocs less predictable worldwide. But that’s not a problem with survey research methodology. Rather, it puts a bigger premium on listening to voters and picking up on who is particularly angry or energized.

Second, the rising cost of collecting high-quality data — because of declining response rates and the increased use of cellphones — has led many researchers to cut corners. Rather than spend more to address such problems, some organizations skimp on practices such as call-backs (to people who didn’t answer) or cluster sampling (to make sure small geographic areas are represented proportionately). They may also use cheap but sometimes unreliable data collection methods such as opt-in online panels or push-button polling (interactive voice recognition) that systematically exclude respondents who primarily use mobile devices.

Indeed, according to “Shattered,” the new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, the Clinton campaign relied heavily on “analytics” surveys rather than “old school polling” to track the candidate’s standing because the former were cheaper. Analytics surveys are used to gather data for building voter targeting models. They tend to have large sample sizes but skimp on common practices that make traditional polls more accurate. The book quotes a Clinton pollster acknowledging as much on election night: “Our analytics models were just really off. Time to go back to traditional polling.”

Third, good polling requires good listening. Powerful new techniques in big data modeling make it possible to segment and target voters in ways that were undreamed-of a decade ago. Yet voting is an inherently human activity that defies being completely reduced to formulas. The best polling has always been accompanied by directly listening to people, face to face, in their own words.

Many campaigns and media organizations miss opportunities or succumb to polling errors because they do not invest in simply listening to voters. Focus groups are invaluable, as are other ways of listening, such as conducting in-depth interviews, reading online discussion boards or even systematically monitoring conversations on social media.

Open-ended listening can reveal the need to reword survey questions; for example, our recent focus groups suggest that “globalization” is all but meaningless to many voters. Open listening can cast doubt on things that may have become conventional wisdom in a campaign; for instance, we have worked in many races where the “front-runner” was actually quite weak, but that was more evident in focus groups than in standard survey measures of favorability or job performance. Direct listening can also show that all polling numbers are not created equal: While we did not poll for last year’s Clinton campaign, we conducted many focus groups across the country in which it was clear that voters were willing to overlook or tolerate concerns about Trump, while they could not do the same with Clinton (e.g., “I just don’t trust her”). Direct listening revealed that low favorability ratings meant different things for the two candidates. These are qualitative tactics that many media polls and campaigns skip or skimp on, partly because of the cost.

Polling had a good day in France two weeks ago, and with sound practices it could have another good day this weekend. Whether it has more good days, or instead becomes an increasing target of skepticism, will depend less on math and more on old-fashioned matters of hard listening, wise budgeting and human judgment.

 

Three Keys to Stemming the World’s Downward Democratic Spiral

Three Keys to Stemming the World’s Downward Democratic Spiral

By Jeremy D. Rosner

Liberal democracy is facing severe challenges worldwide. The signs are well known: the success of Donald Trump’s nationalist/populist campaign; the Brexit vote; the emergence of illiberal governments in other EU states such as Hungary and Poland; President Erdogan’s power grab in Turkey; the surging assertiveness of authoritarian regimes in Russia and China; the popularity of leaders, from the Philippines to Kenya, who flout human rights norms; and more. 

All these raise the question of whether the world’s “third wave” of liberal democratic expansion, which began in the 1970s, has now reversed into a downward democratic spiral, and whether we are witnessing a mounting rejection of the ideas that made it possible for liberal democracies to thrive, including economic globalization, norms of protection for those fleeing oppression, an internationalist stance by the US and of its community of allies, and a widespread preference for systems of popular rule with strong protections for procedural and minority rights.

Many respected experts seem to have decided liberal democracy’s best days are over. The US National Intelligence Council’s influential quadrennial Global Trends report, published in January, struck a decidedly gloomy tone for the liberal democratic order. It suggested the next decades will feature “an inward-looking West and erosion of norms for conflict prevention and human rights,” slow economic growth, rising tensions among countries, and increased “populism…on the right and left, threatening liberalism.”

Similarly, the American geo-strategist Robert Kagan has suggested we are in “the twilight of the liberal world order.” In a recent Foreign Policy article, he argues that, akin to the West’s disastrous retreat into isolationism in the 1920s, the world may have already missed its chance to defend the ideas that made it possible for liberal democracy to thrive in the post-WWII era, such as democratic norms, respect for borders, economic integration, and human rights:

The weakness at the core of the democratic world and the shedding by the United States of global responsibilities have already encouraged a more aggressive revisionism by the dissatisfied powers [principally China and Russia]. That, in turn, has further sapped the democratic world’s confidence and willingness to resist. History suggests that this is a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover, absent a rather dramatic shift of course by the United States.

There are plenty of recent data points to suggest the world’s liberal democratic order is struggling, and much reason to worry about the Trump administration’s retreat from America’s traditional global advocacy for democracy, human rights, open trade, and strong alliances. It is very possible that the liberal democratic fabric, particularly in the West, will continue to unravel. The upcoming elections in France, Germany, and Sweden will be important indicators.

Yet there is reason to question whether liberal democracy is doomed to keep waning. In many cases, the skeptics’ observations, while well rooted in geopolitics, overlook some dynamics of domestic politics that could alter the picture. Indeed, there are at least three major reasons, linked to internal political dynamics, which suggest how progressive leaders and states can still pull the world out of the downward democratic spiral we observe today.

1. With better campaigns, closely divided electorates could send a different message. While there is no mistaking the populist/nationalist trend in key recent elections, many of those victories were quite narrow. Kagan, in an earlier article, argues that, “With the election of Donald Trump, a majority of Americans have signaled their unwillingness to continue upholding the world order.” Even leaving aside that Trump failed to win a plurality, much less a majority of the vote, this draws too definitive a conclusion – especially given that American voters mostly made their choice in 2016 based on domestic issues, and also given that the result was so mixed.

After all, Hillary Clinton – a strong internationalist – actually won the popular vote. And if just 40,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had been cast for her rather than Donald Trump, the narrative would now be more about the US bucking – or even blocking – the global trend away from the liberal democratic order. Similarly, a shift of just 650,000 votes in Britain toward “remain” – out of more than 33 million votes cast – would have left people concluding that the EU was simply on notice, rather than on life support. 

In both the US and UK, better campaigns could well have reversed the results. In too many democracies, the established progressive parties have become complacent and insular. Many are run by long-time staff who keep their jobs whether their leaders win or lose, which gives them little incentive to listen hard to their electorates or risk new strategies. Those who fail to explore new approaches for communicating with voters are not likely to fare well.

But the closely divided nature of the electorates in many countries means that even marginally better campaigns can create very different results. Indeed, just this year, there have been some notable changes, such as the weak vote for hatemonger Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and a minor but notable Swiss referendum in favor of liberalized migration. The scattering of encouraging results does not mean the illiberal danger is past – only that it is not too late for smart progressive leaders and parties to raise their game and shift the apparent trend.

2. “The Trump Factor” and the rise of “antibodies.” Just as illnesses trigger antibodies, the ills plaguing liberal democracy may be starting to trigger popular and institutional checks and balances. Progressives who were apathetic enough to permit Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November are now full of passion, protesting by the millions, shouting down Republican members of Congress at town meetings, and contributing massively to liberal advocacy groups.

This energy helped fuel the defeat of Trump’s central promise to repeal Obamacare. Trump’s attacks on federal judges may have played a role in the federal judiciary repeatedly blocking his Muslim-hostile travel bans. His attacks on the media have helped spur some of the best US investigative reporting since Watergate. And just in the past weeks, Trump has been forced by his own advisers and the stubbornness of reality to reverse previously held positions, including his campaign pledge to “rip up” NAFTA, his earlier charge that NATO is “obsolete,” and the green light his team initially gave Bashar al-Assad to remain in power.

Of course, not all political immune systems have the same vigor. In Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Venezuela, and many other states, illiberal rulers have succeeded in eviscerating some combination of their countries’ legislatures, judiciaries, media, and civil societies. In the Philippines, President Duterte’s strong approval ratings have cowed the legislature, courts, and even parts of the media from criticizing the thousands of extrajudicial killings he has blessed.

Yet even when liberal institutions have been all but gutted, there can still be push-back; witness the strong (if unsuccessful) campaign against the Turkish referendum to concentrate power under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or the recent protests in Hungary against the government’s assault on Central European University. A great deal comes down to the creativity of those who seek to defend democracy. As nationalists rise, democratic leaders will have new opportunities to tap the resentment of progressive voters and activists – and if more of them succeed, the trends for democracy could be somewhat better than they now appear.

3. It is one thing to “throw the bums out”; it is much harder to outperform them. “Isms” are relatively easy to start; they are not so easy to sustain. When electorates are angry – especially after an economic slump like the one the world entered in 2008 – the ground becomes fertile for all manner of charismatic leaders, left and right, to claim they have found a better way.

But an electoral rejection of the old model doesn’t ensure success of the new one. Across Latin America, for example, a series of left-leaning populist leaders and parties now face protests and violence from dissatisfied publics. Hugo Chavez touted his “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela, for example, but once oil prices collapsed, so did his economic theories.

As many have noted, the reaction against liberal democracy is largely a backlash against the very openness that fuels its vitality – particularly against liberal conceptions of trade, migration, racial and gender equality, and sexual orientation. But no system has yet emerged that closes borders or restricts individual liberties without sacrificing competing goals, like economic growth, technological innovation, social peace, and political accountability. One opportunity for progressive parties and leaders will be to focus voters on the inability of nationalist/populist leaders, once elected, to deliver real improvements in living conditions, transparency, and justice.

None of this is cause for complacency. Liberal democracy really is under siege – in many cases, deservedly so. Mainstream progressive parties in the US and many other countries have offered only thin gruel policies in the face of widespread hunger for greater equality of income, wealth, and opportunity. Publics nearly everywhere are furious about rampant corruption – and their glimpses behind the golden curtain, as with the Panama Papers, confirm their worst suspicions. Progressive leaders have often failed to take seriously the dislocations working class voters feel due to accelerating flows of goods, ideas, and people (a problem in both the Brexit and Clinton campaigns). Many Western leaders – including both Presidents Obama and Trump – have done too little to challenge Russia’s and China’s ambitions to upend the liberal democratic order.

But liberal democracy has overcome such challenges in the past, and has resilience that is easy to underestimate. As the Economist noted a few years ago: 

Democracy has been on the back foot before. In the 1920s and 1930s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in 1931, Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. In the mid-1970s Willy Brandt, a former German chancellor, pronounced that “western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship.” 

Those pronouncements of democracy’s weakness proved to be overstated. If progressive leaders and parties are able to rise to the challenge of populist nationalism, experiment with new strategies, run more creative campaigns, and mount stronger defenses of the virtues of liberal democracy, today’s gloomy assessments could prove to be overstated as well.

Dr. Rosner is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, in Washington, DC, where he manages the firm’s international campaign and corporate work. During the 1990s, he served as Special Assistant to President Clinton on the staff of the National Security Council, and as Senior Adviser to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright on the enlargement of NATO.

Selling flexible immigration to a sceptical country

Selling flexible immigration to a sceptical country

It’s hard, but harder for the Tories than Labour

Brexit, so we were told, is about taking back control. The restoration of sovereignty; the repatriation of powers. Parliament will be in charge once again. Of course most MPs from all parties didn’t actually want these powers to come back to Britain, they were quite happy with the old arrangement. One reason for this is that possessing certain powers means people expect you to wield them.

The newly-acquired power to cut immigration is surely the most testing such case. Expectations for reduced immigration post-Brexit are enormous, yet without migrants British industry would face serious problems. The British car industry’s representative body the SMMT says the sector is currently trying to fill 5,000 open positions. Perhaps in an ideal world there would be enough Brits with the necessary skills to fill those jobs; we don’t live in that world. The SMMT is adamant that free movement between Britain and the EU must continue.

The government has to choose between what’s good for our economy and what people want it to do, because among the British public the idea of cutting immigration is remarkably uncontroversial. When we ask if people agree or disagree with the statement “It is essential for the immigration system to reduce the number of migrants coming to Britain,” 58% agree and only 18% disagree. It’s not just Brexiteers either: there is net agreement with this principle among both Remain and Leave voters. Also Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters; men and women; the 18-34s, the 35-54s and the 55 pluses; all the social grades from A to E; white people and ethnic minorities; the people of Scotland, Wales, the North, Midlands and South; Londoners, for goodness’ sake.

And yet politicians seem to be edging toward a position where migration will not be cut. On 27 March, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time, David Davis said "I cannot imagine that the [immigration] policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest. Which means that from time to time we will need more, from time to time we will need less.” This is a strong message to industry that their interests will be protected, but risks disappointing voters. Over the next couple of years Davis and his colleagues will have to find a way to sell continued high migration to a country that thought it had voted to get rid of it. For the Conservatives in particular this is a liability. It might be an opportunity for Labour, if the party is prepared to take it.

Years’ worth of focus groups and polling for the Labour party and others showed us how hard it is to shift British people’s certainty about cutting migration. In our latest poll we wanted to find out whether there were any circumstances under which people would accept immigration going up as well as down. We designed it to take account of the pushback we’ve heard so many times when testing immigration policy ideas: “sure, sounds good, but let’s get the numbers down too!” So for each of five possible controls on migration we asked people to choose between two statements: “As long as [we implement this policy], the overall number of immigrants should be able to go up or down as needed,” OR “[We should implement this policy], but the overall number of immigrants should also come down.”

We tested five different ideas like this, and the short answer is: the government faces serious trouble. For all five, more people thought we should still cut migrant numbers than felt comfortable with numbers going up as well as down:

But the political breakdowns tell another story. On “make sure that people who come here have a job and skills that we need,” Labour voters picked flexible migration over cutting the numbers by a 51-38 margin. On “As long as employers are not allowed to use migrant workers to undercut British workers' wages,” they picked flexibility over cutting numbers 53-34. These are solid margins. Conservative voters by contrast prefer to cut migrant numbers in either case (by 55-41 in the case of the jobs/skills policy and by 59-34 for undercutting). But Conservative voters who would consider Labour (they do exist, believe it or not) are in favour of flexible migration under the jobs/skills scenario.

All this means that Labour could have a more economically and electorally viable immigration policy than the Conservatives. This of course assumes that Labour is interested in things that are both economically and electorally viable; on that, the evidence isn’t clear.

Politico has covered these results here.


Peter McLeod is a Vice President with GQR and runs the firm’s London office. GQR worked for Labour from the mid ‘90s until May 2015. We have no relationship with the party’s current leadership and are not seeking one.

The survey described in this article is a nationally representative online survey of Great Britain conducted from 8 to 10 March 2017. Results are weighted to be representative of the total population by age, gender, region, socioeconomic grade, ethnicity and past voting behaviour.

Download data tables showing the results here.

For more information contact info@gqrr.com or tweet Peter McLeod (@mcleodp).

GQRR Polling for the New Economics Foundation: Brexit can’t cure Britain’s crisis of control

GQRR Polling for the New Economics Foundation: Brexit can’t cure Britain’s crisis of control

A new poll, conducted by GQR for the New Economics Foundation, shows that the British public overwhelmingly lacks a sense of control over key institutions in their communities and country – and with Article 50 set to be triggered, those who feel least in control of their lives are more worried than hopeful about Britain’s reality outside the European Union.

Vast majorities of British voters report that they have little or no control over crucial organizations and areas of their lives, ranging from companies that provide them essential services (70% feel they have little or no control), to the Westminster government (81%), and aspects of their community including their local council (79%), public services in their area (79%), and neighbourhood (75%).

Moreover, people lacking control over their lives do not feel confident about Brexit: 48% report that they feel more worried than hopeful about how Britain will be after leaving the EU compared to 42% feeling more hopeful. This is in stark contrast to those who do feel in control over their lives – 58% are more hopeful than worried about the country post-Brexit, only 38% worried.

Further analysis of the results by the New Economics Foundation can be found here.

Notes
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR) surveyed 1,994 people in Great Britain online between 8 and 10 March. Results are weighted to be representative of the total population by age, gender, region, socioeconomic grade, ethnicity and past voting behaviour.

Download data tables showing the results here.

 For more information contact info@gqrr.com or tweet Peter McLeod (@mcleodp).

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Names Kristi Lowe and Elizabeth Sena as Partners

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Names Kristi Lowe and Elizabeth Sena as Partners

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner is pleased to announce that it has today promoted GQR Vice Presidents Kristi Lowe and Elizabeth Sena to become partners in the firm. 

UK Poll Shows Public Rejects Hard Brexit

UK Poll Shows Public Rejects Hard Brexit

New polling data released by GQR today shows that Britain wants a “soft” Brexit. Voters would be happier with a Brexit deal that left Britain inside the single market and with continued free movement of people than with a deal that took the country out of the single market and gave it full control of the borders. But our analysis of the poll shows that if Theresa May focuses on key threats to the Conservative vote ahead of the next general election, she may take Britain out of the single market all the same.

As Peter McLeod, Vice President at GQR and head of the firm’s London office, writes at politics.co.uk today:

The struggle provoking this predicament has been going on in the background for decades: Conservatives are split on Europe. David Cameron tried to resolve it by holding the Brexit referendum, and in the wake of that failure Theresa May faces a new version of the dilemma. Unlike the country as a whole, Conservative voters are evenly split on what would be the better Brexit. Soft Brexit would leave 48% of them happy, 42% unhappy; hard Brexit would leave 48% happy, 41% unhappy. So May is bound to leave a significant chunk of Conservative voters feeling betrayed. The challenge for her and her team is to assess the risk each scenario poses at the next general election. Our poll suggests it’s a knife-edge decision: Tory voters who would be unhappy with a soft Brexit are about as likely to turn to UKIP as those who would be unhappy with hard Brexit to jump ship to Labour or the Lib Dems.

Read the full article here

Notes
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR) surveyed 1,994 people in Great Britain online between 8 and 10 March. Results are weighted to be representative of the total population by age, gender, region, socioeconomic grade, ethnicity and past voting behaviour.

Download data tables showing the results here.

For more information contact info@gqrr.com or tweet Peter McLeod (@mcleodp).

Voters Oppose GOP Maneuvering to Push through Trump's Ultraconservative Supreme Court Nominee

Voters Oppose GOP Maneuvering to Push through Trump's Ultraconservative Supreme Court Nominee

The following data is from a national telephone survey of 601 likely November 2018 voters. The survey was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research from January 27 - 31, 2017, and has a margin of error of +/-4.0 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Fifty percent of respondents were reached on a cell phone.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, a new national poll1 shows that voters believe that the nomination has real consequences for the direction of the country. Voters strongly oppose efforts by the Republicans to change the rules in order to push through Trump’s ultraconservative nominee.

Americans see this as a fight that matters to them. When presented with potential consequences and rulings that could result from Gorsuch’s confirmation, including overturning Roe v. Wade and leaving the flow of special interest money in politics unchecked, large majorities of voters say they are more likely to oppose the nominee.

Key findings from the poll, conducted January 27-31, 2017 on behalf of NARAL Pro Choice America Foundation, Every Voice, and End Citizens United, include:

  • Voters overwhelmingly believe that Trump’s nomination will have a real impact on the country’s future. Fully 72 percent of voters think the nomination will have a big difference on the direction of the country. Voters across the political spectrum agree on the importance of this nomination for the country, with 76 percent of Democrats saying it will make a big difference, along with 75 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Independents.
  • Americans strongly object to any GOP attempts to use political tactics to strongarm Trump’s nominee through the confirmation process. After hearing balanced messaging, seven in 10 voters (69 percent) oppose Republicans changing the rules to prevent a filibuster and allow the U.S. Senate to confirm a nominee with just a simple majority instead of the required 60 votes, with 54 percent strongly opposing this proposal. In fact, even 4-out-of-10 Trump voters (39 percent) oppose Republicans trying to change filibuster rules. 
  • Highlighting potential actions and rulings that could result from confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominee makes voters much more likely to oppose him. Large majorities of voters say they are more likely to oppose Trump’s nominee when they hear a diverse set of issues that could be impacted by a nominee like Gorsuch. Actions that create strong opposition include:
    • Upholding the Citizens United decision to allow corporations, unions, and wealthy donors to spend more money on elections.  
    • Overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal.  
    • Eliminating or weakening environmental regulations that protect air, water, and land from pollution.  
    • Refusing to uphold or eliminating rights and protections for LGBT individuals.  
    • Failing to protect voting rights and make it more difficult for Americans, particularly the poor and people of color, to vote.  
    • Weakening the ability of labor unions to organize workers to negotiate for better wages and working conditions.
  • Voters strongly support legal abortion and oppose a Trump nominee they believe could put that right at risk. Seven out of 10 voters (69 percent) support a woman’s right to choose, and they recognize that Trump’s Supreme Court nominee jeopardizes the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal. More than half of voters (52 percent) think it is very or somewhat likely that Roe v. Wade will be overturned if Trump’s nominee is confirmed. This possibility raises strong opposition for voters, with 61 percent who say they are more likely to oppose a nominee who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade.
  • Voters have strong negative reactions to a Supreme Court nominee who will continue to allow corporations and special interests to use money to gain influence and drown out the voice of individuals in politics. Opposition to a nominee who wants no spending limits for corporations and wealthy individuals in elections is both broad and deep. Overall, 78 percent are more likely to oppose the nominee (56 percent much more likely to oppose), including 92 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of Independents, and 59 percent of Republicans. Three quarters of voters express a desire for their Senators to oppose a Supreme Court nominee who has ruled in favor of allowing campaign contributors to spend more money in elections.

Voters recognize this Supreme Court nomination is crucial to the direction of the country, and they strongly oppose any efforts by the Republicans to skirt the rules and push through Trump’s ultraconservative nominee. 

Was Barack Obama Bad for Democrats?

Was Barack Obama Bad for Democrats?

Stan Greenberg and Anna Greenberg provide a provocative analysis in their new op-ed for The New York Times. Full article here

President Obama will be remembered as a thoughtful and dignified president who led a scrupulously honest administration that achieved major changes.

People argue over whether his impatience with politicians and Republican intransigence denied him bigger accomplishments, but that argument is beside the point: He rescued an economy in crisis and passed the recovery program, pulled America back from its military overreach, passed the Affordable Care Act and committed the nation to addressing climate change. To be truly transformative in the way he wanted, however, his success had to translate into electoral gains for those who shared his vision and wanted to reform government. On that count, Mr. Obama failed.

His legacy regrettably includes the more than 1,000 Democrats who lost their elections during his two terms. Republicans now have total control in half of America’s states.

Why such political carnage?

Faced with the economy’s potential collapse as he took office, Mr. Obama devoted his presidency to the economic recovery, starting with restoring the financial sector. But he never made wage stagnation and growing inequality central to his economic mission, even though most Americans struggled financially for the whole of his term.

At the same time, Mr. Obama declined to really spend time and capital explaining his initiatives in an effective way. He believed that positive changes on the ground, especially from economic policies and the Affordable Care Act, would succeed, vindicating his judgment and marginalizing his opponents.

Absent a president educating the public about his plans, for voters, the economic recovery effort morphed into bailouts — bank bailouts, auto bailouts, insurance bailouts. By his second year in office, he spotlighted the creation of new jobs and urged Democrats to defend our “progress.”

When President Obama began focusing on those “left behind” by the recovery, he called for building “ladders of opportunity.” That communicated that the president believed the country’s main challenges were unrealized opportunity for a newly ascendant, multicultural America, rather than the continuing economic struggle experienced by a majority of Americans.

Mr. Obama also offered only tepid support to the most important political actor in progressive and Democratic politics: the labor movement. In the absence of progressive funders in the mode of the conservative Koch brothers, unions are the most important actors at the state legislative level. Yet when the 2010 election ushered in a spate of anti-union governors, who eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees and passed “right to work” laws, Mr. Obama never really joined this fight. In fact, he spent the last couple of years of his presidency pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a free trade law vociferously opposed by the labor movement. Under President Obama, union membership has declined to 11.1 percent from 12.3 percent.

While the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were models of innovation in online organizing and microtargeting, they did not translate into success in the midterm elections or in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Democratic turnout dropped in 2010, 2012 and significantly in 2014. Models, it appears, do not substitute for the hard work of organizing and engaging voters in nonpresidential years; models that apparently drove nearly every decision made by the Clinton campaign are no substitute for listening to voters.

Finally, just as he governed, the campaign messages from the president in the midterms and in 2016 were focused on progress and growth.

On the eve of the 2016 election, the president used the refrain: “We’ve seen America turn recession into recovery” and 15.5 million new jobs. Pointedly, he said, “Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling.”

The public’s reaction was stark from the beginning. People did not believe his view on the economy, and his approval ratings fell in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2010 and in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2014 — the states that led the working-class move away from the Democrats.

Just as important, however, was the discontent brewing with the Democrats’ own base. Combined, the approximately 40 percent of minority, unmarried female and millennial voters disapproved of how President Obama was handling his job in 2010 and 2014, and many stayed home during the off-year elections. Mitt Romney carried white millennials by 7 percentage points in 2012.

Mr. Obama did win re-election that year, though only after embracing Teddy Roosevelt’s populist spirit and criticizing the “breathtaking greed of a few.” He declared it a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.” This posture did not animate his governing message or the 2016 presidential election. The president will leave office with a rising approval rating near the same league of Ronald Reagan, an economy nearing full employment and real wages tipping up. Yet a majority of voters in the last election said the economy was the top issue in their vote.

We think voters were sending a clear message: They want more than a recovery. They want an economy and government that works for them, and that task is unfinished.

November 2016: Election Results & Congratulations!

November 2016: Election Results & Congratulations!

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner would like to extend congratulations to a number of our clients. 


United States Senate

  • GQR congratulates Senator-elect Maggie Hassan and her team on a hard-fought victory in the election for Senate in New Hampshire, one of two Democratic pickups in the Senate. Hassan defeated incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte in one of the nation's most high profile Senate contests, winning by a margin of 1,019 votes out of nearly 740,000 votes cast. Hassan now joins New Hampshire’s Senior Senator Jeanne Shaheen as the only two women in American history to be elected both governor and senator.  She will also serve as part of New Hampshire’s first all-female Democratic congressional delegation. GQR is proud to have been part of the Hassan team, and our work was led by Al Quinlan, Missy Egelsky, and Ben Winston.

  • GQR also congratulates Senator Richard Blumenthal on a resounding victory in the election for Senate in Connecticut. Blumenthal defeated Dan Carter, securing 63 percent of the vote. This project was led by Al Quinlan and Mallory Newall. 

  • GQR was also proud to assist independent expenditure groups working on behalf of Senator-elect Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada.



United States Congress

GQR congratulates our numerous victorious congressional clients, including Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-01), Congressman John Sarbanes (MD-03), Congressman Donald Norcross (NJ-01), Congressman Jim McGovern (MA-02), and Congressman Mark Pocan (WI-02).

 GQR was proud to work alongside the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC in support of a number of congressional campaigns, including Congresswoman-elect Carol Shea-Porter (NH-01) and Congressman-elect Brad Schneider (IL-10).



Other Elections

  • GQR congratulates South Dakotans for Integrity for the passage of Initiated Measure 22, the South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act, a thrilling victory for campaign finance reform. Despite significant paid opposition from Koch brother funded groups, IM-22 won with 52 percent of the vote statewide. IM-22 introduces a set of reforms to crack down on corruption, make campaigns more transparent, and end the practice of lobbyists giving unlimited secret gifts to politicians in South Dakota. It also includes the nation’s first system of Democracy credits.
  •  GQR congratulates the Alliance for Gun Responsibility for the successful passage of Initiative 1491 in Washington, which allows family members and law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence that the person poses a serious threat to themselves or others.
     
  •  GQR was proud to conduct research on behalf of the Wayne County (MI) Regional Education Service Agency and the John Ball Zoo/Grand Rapids Public Museum (Kent County, MI). The successful passage of these initiatives will ensure additional funding for 33 school districts and thousands of students across Wayne County and, in Kent County, create a dedicated source of funding to expand educational programs and care for thousands of animals and unique artifacts. 
     
  • GQR also congratulates Oakland County, Michigan, Treasurer Andy Meisner and Ingham County, Michigan, Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth on their victories. 

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Promotes Brian Paler and Peter McLeod as new Vice Presidents

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Promotes Brian Paler and Peter McLeod as new Vice Presidents

We are pleased to announce the promotions of Brian Paler and Peter McLeod to Vice President. 

The 2016 US Election - Some Implications

The 2016 US Election - Some Implications

Jeremy Rosner, GQR Executive Vice President and Principal, expands on his earlier article: "The 2016 US Election - Explaining the Results". 


Our earlier note laid out 5 key explanations for the historic result of the November 8 US election:
 

  1. A strong, angry backlash from lower-educated, non-urban white voters overwhelmed the weakly-motivated “cosmopolitan” electorate that twice elected Barack Obama and supported Hillary Clinton.
  2. Clinton mostly ran a “continuity” election in a year when 62% wanted change, and did not give sufficient voice to the need for economic change that most voters wanted. 
  3. FBI director James Comey’s unethical intervention on October 28 arrested Clinton’s momentum and depressed her vote enough to account for the outcome. 
  4. Attacks on Donald Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency were broadly credible, but not a sufficient reason for many voters to support Clinton. 
  5. The polls got some things right – including the prediction Clinton would win more votes – but missed a lot of the story, due to factors like bad expectations on who would vote.

 
5 Implications
 
This note lays out some implications, which are becoming clearer day by day. The consequences of this historic election will reverberate across America and the world for years and decades to come, but five implications already loom large:
 
1. The decline of major American institutions. Donald Trump is without question the most unqualified person to win the presidency in modern American history. That is not simply a partisan view; it is something many Republican as well as Democratic voices note. He has never run for public office. He has no real grounding in major policy issues. The fact that he is about to occupy the Oval Office raises major questions about the strength and soundness of major American institutions.
 
It represents, in the first instance, a failure of the Republican Party, which largely acquiesced to Trump’s populist-fueled rise. While some important Republican voices stepped forward to denounce him, most did not, and the party is now largely rallying behind him after his victory. The first responsibility for his rise, election, and presidency lies with his Party, and its long history of flirting with the populist rage that fueled his vote.
 
But theirs is not the only institutional failure. As noted, the FBI and its director defied long-standing policies to intervene in the election during the last weeks of the campaign, in a manner that predictably had a huge impact, and arguably determined the outcome.
 
And there is an institutional failure of sorts among the Democrats as well. The bulk of the party paid too little attention to the frustrations of working class voters, and underestimated their rage. Clinton offered many serious economic proposals, and many were laudable; but they mostly were relatively modest in scope and did not add up to a prescription for the kind of changes that might transform those lacking opportunities and mobility in America’s Rust Belt, inner cities, and hard-pressed rural communities.
 
The world is rightly impressed with the fact that, despite this contentious campaign and unexpected outcome, America is now proceeding with a peaceful and orderly transfer of power. The sturdiness of that American institution remains remarkable. But with the presidency and both branches of Congress now moving into Republican hands, and with Trump certain to install a Republican-appointed majority onto the Supreme Court, there is real reason to worry that we have only begun to see the erosion of key American institutions.
 
2. Polarization heading toward a new extreme. America has been becoming more politically polarized for decades, with each party’s members in Congress moving further apart, and with voters increasingly segregating themselves into more politically homogeneous physical and media communities. But the 2016 election took American politics to new and toxic lows, and threatens to usher in new kinds of polarization that are potentially very dangerous.
 
Particularly worrisome is the sense that it is acceptable for political partisans to prosecute and even physically attack political opponents. The Trump campaign seemed to legitimate threats of violence against its critics, and egged on chants of “lock her up” against Clinton. Threats by leading Republicans to continue investigations of Clinton even after the election outcome raise the specter of a new political culture in which the state becomes a permanent institution of political vendettas.
 
In many other countries, the result of that approach is a culture of “rule or ruin” – in which electoral losers must flee the country to protect themselves – and which in turn leads rulers to cling to power at all costs, through any means, to protect themselves. This political culture is common in various developing countries, but it is horrific to think we could be seeing it take hold in the United States.
 
3. Worrisome implications for national security. Even with the White House, the Senate, the House, and potentially the Supreme Court in Republican hands, the United States generally still retains institutional checks and balances on what any president can do. But that is far less true in the realm of national security, and that is cause for great concern.
 
It may be that Mr. Trump will surround himself by seasoned national security hands, listen to their counsel, and show subtlety and skill in the exercise of American power. But there is little in his record to support that, and the initial steps by Trump's transition team to purge many moderate national security advisers are deeply troubling. The affinity that Trump and some on his team have shown for Vladimir Putin and other global authoritarians, and the active support the Kremlin provided for the Trump campaign, raise questions of the highest order about American sovereignty and security – and about the long-term safety of our allies in Europe and other countries around Russia’s perimeter. 
 
4. A big boost for the “Populist International.” The Trump victory is our “Amer-exit” – the US equivalent of the UK’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. It is part of the rise across the West of populist, nationalist, usually authoritarian leaders, parties, and regimes. This includes the Britain’s UK Independence Party, Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands; Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France; Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary; and many others.
 
Trump’s win provides a big boost of validation and momentum for all these movements. Like Trump, most of them draw their energy from outrage against globalization, migration, ethnic mixing, and tolerance on issues of gender, sexual identity, and religion. Like Trump, many of them have received open support from Vladimir Putin and his regime.
 
The columnist Anne Applebaum has aptly dubbed this movement “the Populist International.” Donald Trump now becomes its unofficial global leader.
 
Until now, the United States has been the voice for the opposing view, “liberal democracy”: belief in limited government, universal human rights, protection of the rights of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, and a rational, fact-based, scientifically-grounded deliberation of policy. The fight between liberal democracy and “the Populist International” is the most important fight of this generation.  There is no clear leader for the liberal democracy side of the fight. One will emerge, but for the first time, it will not be America’s president.
 
5. The retreat of objective news. Finally, Trump’s victory has worrying implications for the future of the media, how people get their news, and the quality of America’s political debates. Trump partly won because he emerged as the master of a new media technology. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded partly because of his intuitive mastery of the new media of radio. John Kennedy succeeded partly because of his intuitive mastery of the new media of television. Donald Trump has succeeded partly because of his intuitive mastery of the new media of reality TV and social media. As one writer put it, Trump was the “comments section” running for president.
 
But there are real reasons to worry about the impact of a political culture built around reality TV and social media. This election saw the ascendancy of fake news sites and fake news feeds, which helped give cover for Trump’s many blatantly false assertions (e.g., that he opposed the Iraq war). The decline of mainstream, curated, edited media has made it harder to define a body of accepted facts. The result is a Gresham’s Law of political discourse, with false and flimsy information crowding out the verified and validated.  This week’s steps by Facebook and Google to restrict fake news sites are encouraging, but do not go nearly far enough.
 
With the majority of younger voters getting most of their news from social media, and with more Americans tuning in to news sources that align with their own ideological views, there is a real danger that the political debate becomes stuck in two parallel universes, each with their own insistent impression of reality. All this seems to favor the “Populist International,” which relies on the dominance of rage over reasoned discourse. One of the great challenges surfaced by the Trump victory will be to find ways to make this new media environment hospitable for liberal democracy.

 

Why did pollsters like me fail to predict Trump’s victory?

Why did pollsters like me fail to predict Trump’s victory?

By Stanley Greenberg
Appeared in The Guardian on November 15, 2016.

America is being shaped irreversibly by a growing new majority of millennials, racial minorities, immigrants and secular people. So how did the presidential election produce such a reactionary result, surprising all the pollsters, including me? “Shy” Tories and Brexiters apparently upended Britain. Did “shy” Trump voters upend America?

To understand what happened, you have to start with the demand for “change”.

The elites, academics, pundits and even President Barack Obama look at the US and see a dynamic country that is economically and culturally ascendant. But America is also a country of deepening inequality and growing political corruption. Most people struggle with declining or stagnant incomes, while CEOs and billionaires have taken most of the gains in income and wealth. More than anything, people are angry that the game appears to be rigged by corporate special interests.

Donald Trump managed to become the Republicans’ candidate of change by attacking crony capitalism, trade deals favoured by big business, the billionaire SuperPacs that fund the candidates and Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street. That allowed him to ride the support of the Tea Party and white people without a four-year college degree all the way to the nomination.

But the cry for change coming from the new liberal American majority was just as intense. Bernie Sanders’ call for a “revolution” produced landslide victories with millennials and white Democrats without a four-year degree. This progress nearly allowed him to contest the convention. No less than Trump, Sanders attacked Clinton for her Wall Street speeches and SuperPacs.

Clinton achieved her most impressive leads in the polls when she, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren embraced after the primaries and after her convention speech that demanded an economy that worked for all, not just the well connected. She emerged with her biggest lead when she closed the debates with a “mission” to “grow an economy, to make it fairer, to make it work for everyone”, and “stand up for families against special interests, against corporations”.

That led many more voters to see Clinton as standing for the American middle class, which most working people aspire to, and being better on the economy, truthful and willing to stand up to special interests.

Working as a pollster for Bill Clinton in 1992 and Al Gore in 2000, I watched voters settle into their decisions immediately after the debates. Trump and Hillary Clinton were both talking about change, and Clinton was winning.

But then the campaign’s close was disrupted by a flood of hacked emails, whose release was linked to Russia, intended to show that friends of Bill Clinton were using the Clinton Foundation to enrich the former president, and then by FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress announcing the reopening of his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

This allowed Trump to close his campaign with a call to “drain the swamp” and reject “the Clintons’ big business trade deals that decimated so many communities”.

The Clinton campaign fought back. It attacked Comey for his unprecedented intervention and then used its advertising muscle to shift the spotlight from Clinton to Trump. Its ads running right through the very last weekend showed Trump at his worst. By then, nobody could remember that Hillary Clinton was a candidate with bold economic plans who demanded that government should work for working people and the middle class, not corporations. She was no longer a candidate of change.

As President Obama campaigned for her at the end, Clinton urged voters to “build on the progress”. She closed her campaign with a call for continuity and incrementalism. That turn is why the polls turned out to be so wrong.

This was a “change election” for the new American majority too, and that late turn by Clinton produced disappointing turnout among Hispanics, African Americans, single women and millennials. The African Americans’ greatly diminished turnout in Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee likely gave the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to Trump.

Clinton’s total vote fell well below Obama’s in 2008 and 2012.

The new American majority really did make up the majority of voters for the first time, and they helped Clinton win the popular vote. But their late pull back upended the pollsters’ key assumptions about turnout.

The other change voters, the white men without a four-year college degree, did their part too. They were never shy about their support for Trump, but concentrated in rural and smaller towns in the rust belt, they became even more consolidated in their support for him, put out lawn signs and turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers. Our polls showed him with a 36-point lead before the conventions. But further consolidation and higher-than-expected turnout gave Trump an unimaginable 49-point lead and 72% of the vote among this group. The Trump vote was never shy, just not fully consolidated.

And don’t forget the non-college-educated white women who, after all, are a majority of the white working class. Through most of the campaign, Trump’s disrespect of women and Clinton’s plans for change allowed her to compete with him for their support. She trailed by just nine points after the debates. But with Clinton mostly attacking Trump and no longer talking about change, the women shifted, almost unnoticed but dramatically, to Trump. He won them by 27 points, a nine-point bigger margin than that achieved by Romney in 2012.

These late turns allowed Trump to win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a percentage point.

America has changed, but this change election produced a reactionary result.