Polling, voting, and Green Party strategy

One reaction I’ve been hearing from Greens in post-election analysis is: “I’d hoped we would have done better – some of the polls had us higher than that”

There are a number of explanations for the (apparent) discrepancy between the polls and the final result, and it is worth looking at them more closely, because they have different implications for Green Party tactics and strategy in future elections.

Optimistic bias: Often the simplest explanation is the best – activists tend to be hopeful for their cause, and optimistic that their actions for the cause can make a difference. So when a range of poll results are available, they tend to remember the most optimistic ones, rather than the average result. Disappointment is almost inevitable.

Flawed polls: Perhaps the polls are flawed and systematically overstate Green Party support? I don’t have a record of historical polling data to prove it, but my observation has been that the Greens consistently do better in some polls than others. If that is true, it is puzzling why the pollsters don’t adjust their polling methodology to do better. Equally, it is puzzling why people who are following the polls don’t discount the consistently optimistic polls – and we are back to Optimistic Bias

Margin of Error: Another point, of course, is that the margin of error is larger for the smaller parties. Because they have less support, their sample size is smaller, and the expected variance between the actual result and the estimated result based on the sample (the poll) is larger. The only problem with this theory is that the variance should work in a positive direction as much as a negative direction.
Failure to get out the vote: Perhaps the explanation is that the Greens have more expressed support than they do reliable voters? The Greens have a higher level of support among younger voters, and younger voters are known to be less reliable (especially first-time voters). If this is the main explanation, then the Greens might want to consider whether it is worth investing more campaign resources into a get out the vote campaign.

Soft Vote: This is the theory that some of the expressed support for the Greens as measured in the polls is ‘soft’: that these people feel comfortable telling a pollster they would vote Green, but when they are in the voting booth for some reason they just can’t bring themselves to do it. This explanation does have intuitive appeal when one considers the widespread social concern about environmental issues versus the rather lower number of people who vote Green.

Indeed, the size of that concern-vote gap is so large that understanding it is a central question for Green (and green) political strategy, regardless of whether it has any significance to the apparent polling-vote gap.

Perhaps part of the political problem for the Greens is salience: that people perceive the Greens as an ‘environmental’ Party, and while many people are concerned about the environment, they’re more concerned about other things: ‘the economy’, the health system, the state of our schools etc? If so, the questions for the Greens are: “Can we find a way to make the environment a salient issue?”, “Can we convince people we convince people we are relevant and credible on the salient issues?”, and, of course “How?”

Or perhaps the problem is not salience at all, but rather credibility & affiliation: perhaps the Greens have a credibility problem: perhaps fairly or not, people are uncertain of the quality of Green candidates, particularly once one gets lower down the the list? Obviously one response is to work on the quality of the candidate pool. But there are further questions here: who & what defines quality? How far would a search for perceived quality lead to a reduction in the diversity of the Green candidate pool, and is this the direction the Party wishes to head?

Credibility is closely linked therefore, to the affiliation question. Perhaps the Greens are now generally identified (branded, if you like) as politically non-normal – an acceptable but minority grouping? If so, is it even possible for the Greens to become ‘mainstream’ by acting more ‘mainstream’? Can Greens really join the in-crowd? Can the 99th monkey (or tipping point) be found, who will set off a perceptual and voting revolution? Or will that path become a selling of the Party’s soul: a loss of the willingness to ask fundamental questions and propose radical solutions, that still fails to shift the ‘brand position’? If so, is the Party better advised to look at different ways to achieve its goals (which are, after all, about social and policy change, and only instrumentally about Parliamentary success and power)? Is the attempt to ‘shift the brand’ putting the cart before the horse? Perhaps the hard work of building wider networks and coalitions of support is needed before or alongside the effort to appear more mainstream?

Enough questions already? Then I offer you one piece of certainty to finish: I’ve never known a question to go away just because it is hard and I ignored it.

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