The Boris bandwagon rolls on, and an ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph tonight apparently has another question trying to measure whether the Conservatives would do better with Boris Johnson as leader. There are two things to consider with hypothetical “who would you vote for if X was leader” questions.
The first is that they need to be exactly comparable. The difference between voting intention with two different people as leader of a party is often only a few points. However, adjustments like weighting by likelihood to vote or reallocating don’t knows can also make a couple of points difference, so if you want to be confident the difference is due to the leader the need to be done exactly the same way. If the main figures are weighted or filterted by likelihood to vote, they need to be weighted by likelihood to vote (ideally asked separately), if there is a squeeze question or don’t knows are reallocated in their main question, the same needs to happen in the hypothetical questions.
Trickier to control for is the question itself. Normal voting intention questions don’t mention the party leaders, so if asking how people would vote with Boris as Tory leader increases the Tory vote by 2 points we can’t conclude that he’d do better than Cameron without checking mentioning David Cameron as Tory leader in the question wouldn’t do the same. This is why when YouGov run the questions they ask a control question including the names of the current party leaders.
The second thing to consider is quite how hypothetical these questions are! In many cases we are asking about politicians who the general public know very little about – apart from very well known politicians like party leaders and Chancellors of the exechequer many other ministers – even cabinet ministers – are almost complete unknowns to the majority of people. Even when a politician is relatively well known, like Gordon Brown pre-2007 or Boris Johnson now, people answering questions like this don’t know what they would do as a party leader, what sort of mission and narrative they’d set out, what policy priorities they’d follow, and all these things could change how they are viewed.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean questions like this are never useful. Back before Gordon Brown became Labour leader polls like this consistently showed him doing less well than Tony Blair. At the time I made all the same caveats as above, but said in the specific context of Gordon Brown it probably was showing that Brown would do badly because of why people gave him negative ratings. The polls said people saw him as competent and efficient and capable… but they didn’t like him. If people had seen Brown as incompetent or inexperienced he could have changed impressions in office, but those were already positive. The polls were telling us that his problem was a negative that was difficult to change, just not being likeable.
So to Boris. What can we tell from hypothetical polls about him? Well, I haven’t seen the ICM poll yet, but YouGov have done two hypothetical polls about him. The first in May showed Boris doing basically the same as David Cameron. The second a week or so ago had Boris doing 5 points better than Cameron, presumably because of the effect the Olympics has had on how Boris is seen. We shall see if ICM shows the same sort of pattern.
Is this really meaningful? Well, as Gordon Brown seemed to do badly simply because people didn’t warm to him personally, Boris Johnson seems to be an opposite case – he seems to do well because he is likeable and eccentric. It’s an open question to what extent that would transfer were him to become Prime Minister or Conservative leader – a politicians ability to come across as likeable and to connect to people seems to be innate to some degree, so would probably benefit Boris in any role. On the other hand, being seen as a bit of a buffoon is not necessarily on the job description of PM. Would something that seems like a wizzard prank in a hypothetical opinion poll seem rather less funny in an actual election? We don’t know.
A more concrete caveat to keep in mind is to remember that all these Boris quesions are being asked in the midst of the London Olympics, Boris’s big moment in the sun. Before the Olympics the polls didn’t suggest Boris would do any better than Cameron. I’d wait until the publicity around the Olympics fades before drawing any long term conclusions…