One of the most important things in understanding public opinion on politics is quite how little attention most people pay to it. I constantly see comments in here asking what effect a news event will have on voting intention. Most of the time the answer is none. This is should be evident from looking at the polls, which have had a steady Labour lead of 10 points or so for months, despite lots of “things” happening. The reasons are that firstly people aren’t watching anyway – most people don’t read broadsheet newspapers or pay much attention to the news, secondly, those that do normally interpret events and stories through their pre-existing political preferences, so they are more likely to re-inforce their existing views than change them.

If you are reading this website in the first place, you are probably a bit of a political anorak. At the very least you are interested in politics. Most people are not, and no matter how little attention you think people pay to political events, you are probably still *vastly* overestimating it. To illustrate it, think of something you care absolutely nothing for – celebrity magazines perhaps, soap operas you don’t watch, US baseball, whatever doesn’t float your boat. Do you know what the big story was in that field last week, how has it changed your opinion of the big players in that field, do you even know who the big players are? That’s most normal people’s attitude to what happened at PMQs this week.

The lack of public interest and awareness of what is going on in politics first really struck me looking at some Populus polling Lord Ashcroft did for his book “Smell the Coffee” back in 2005. It is easy to ask people if they have heard about a story, but it is not the best way – they may not want to look stupid, they may misremember having heard about the story*, the act of prompting people about the story may make people remember it when they’ve forgotten it and so on.

What Lord Ashcroft and Populus did was each day, between January 2005 and election day, ask 250 people if they recalled anything the Conservative party had done or said that week. There was no prompting, it was just what people recalled. Most of them noticed noting at all – sometimes up to 90% of people had noticed nothing (recall, this was just before an election was interest was at its height). The biggest score of anything was Michael Howard pledging to cut immigration, which peaked with 30% of people noticing it straight after Howard’s announcement. The key Conservative election pledges on things like cleaner hospitals, cutting taxes, more police were normally recalled by well under 5% of people. Never forget how little of politics gets through.

Anyway, seven years later and we have another bit of polling from Lord Ashcroft on a similar vein. He’s asked people to list what political news stories they have heard over the last few weeks, again unprompted. The most recalled, by far, is Andrew Mitchell and plebgate, which was recalled by 33% of people, followed by George Osborne not paying for a first class ticket which 13% of people recalled and 8% who recalled stories about the Scottish independence referendum. 7% recalled cuts to child benefit, 6% recalled the story about MPs “swapping flats” to claim more expenses. 5% recalled the increase in GDP figures and the row about prisoners voting, everything else was below 5%.

The second half of Ashcroft’s poll gave people a prompted list of stories and asked if they had heard of them, and also how important they were. The proportions of people claiming to have heard of a story were higher, but “plebgate” still came top (many of the other differences were timing related – in the unprompted question people cleared tended to give stories from the previous couple of days, when the prompted question included things from weeks or months back). People did tend to rate the solid policy stories as more important than the “political soap opera” stories, but the “soap opera” stories were more widely recalled.

What it shows, especially the unprompted question, is that people are more likely to pay attention to and remember the rather trivial but human stories that they think are unimportant than stories about policies and proposals. People may say they think it is comparatively unimportant that Mitchell called a policeman a pleb… but a third of people recalled it unprompted. Try getting a third of people to recall a party’s tax or economic policy unprompted. One might be seen as petty and one might be seen as important, but if people are only aware of the petty one is it going to inform their view of the party.

That’s different, however, from saying they necessarily make an impact. As I said at the start of this post, the reason most events don’t have any impact on voting intention or other trackers isn’t just that they aren’t noticed, it is also that people view them through the prism of their existing political views. So if a Labour MP does something awful, Conservative supporters will probably think it is disgusting and corrupt and must taint the whole of the Labour party… but they weren’t supporting Labour anyway. Labour supporters will probably tend to take a more charitable view, it was an understandable mistake, just one rogue MP and there are bad apples in all parties, the leadership acted strongly to punish them, etc (and of course, it works the other way round if a Conservative MP does something awful).

Even if they do have an effect, it is probably so subtle it is impossible to measure. No one is, in three years time, going to think “Well, the Conservatives have done well in government, I think David Cameron is the better leader, but one of their MP was a bit rude to a policeman three years ago so I’m voting Labour”. However, they might well think “the Conservatives are out of touch with ordinary people and look down on those less wealthy, they aren’t the party for me, I’m voting Labour”. Some of that view could have been contributed to, or reinforced by, a Conservative MP allegedly calling a policeman a pleb. Could we ever prove or disprove this through an opinion poll, not really, no. If we had polls tracking whether people thought the Conservatives were in touch or not from before and after the event we could infer it – but it is tricky to isolate an event, and most changes cannot be distinguished from margin of error variation.

In short, as I’ve said here before, there are three ways of understanding public opinion and its impact on people’s views. The first is crude support or opposition – do people approve or disapprove, like or dislike something. Very easy and straightforward to measure – they don’t like politicians swearing at policemen. The second is salience – is is important to them compared to other issues? Are they even away of it? This is trickier to measure, but in this case we know a significant proportion of people were aware of the Andrew Mitchell story, but also that most didn’t think it was that important. Thirdly, what impact does it have on their wider perception of the party – does it make them think the Conservatives are more out of touch, just reinforce existing views, or neither? We really can’t tell, and its not something that polling can easily tell us.

(*on people misremembering stories that they haven’t actually heard about, the Ashcroft poll today included two fake stories. 14% of people said they had heard at least something about Labour MP Audrey Cockburn using union funds to decorate her flat. Given neither she nor her flat exist, those 14% of people are wrong)

310 Responses to “On whether political trivia matters”

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  1. AW

    ” If you are reading this website in the first place, you are probably a bit of a political anorak.”

    That’s slander, I will be issuing a writ shortly

  2. I think you’ll find it would be libel (puts on my big, special pedantry anorak)

  3. I’ve always been an admirer of Audrey Cockburn and I’m saddened by the news of her totally uncharacteristic lapse into venality.

  4. Ah, but Milliband acted swiftly to kick her out. Although I expect she’ll be back in the cabinet after the next election when she’s “done her time”.

  5. At the top of the ‘rememberance tree’ are energy prices, the party that can convince the electorate that they will bring them back under control and out of the hands of the cartels will win the general election.

  6. Useful article AW!

    Notable that the biggest number for any recalled story in any of the sub samples was 41% of Scots recalling something about the independence referendum.

    That story gets virtually daily coverage in the Scottish media, yet for 6 out of 10, “never brought to mind” – as Burns put it.

  7. It is really sad that folk don’t pay attention to politics. Mostly because politicians are always talking gobblegook and playing word games. It almost like there is a conspiracy to make politics as uninteresting as possible. But whatever the reason its very sad, can’t we have a law requiring folk to watch/read/listen to one hour of politics a day? In exchange id be willing to put up with a law requiring me to watch 1 hour of reality TV per day!!! Even though it bots the brain

  8. RiN

    The term “reality TV” is so dissonant a term from the actualite, that it is probably a word game developed by politicians! :-)

  9. Oldnat – the timing of it was just after the agreement between Salmond and Cameron and either running up to or just after the voting on whether an independent Scotland should be part of NATO.

  10. AW

    Yes, but even then, 6 out of 10 didn’t recall it, which was my point.

  11. One story will not make a big difference, unless it is a very big story. A steady drip-drip of stories which fit a pattern (posh boys not knowing the price of a pint of milk… I ate a pastie the other day, jolly nice, etc) does have an effect, possibly subliminal.

    These are matters about the ways in which people absorb or process information, the point at which it is available to conscious recall, and to what extent it becomes part of a reasoning process. In other words, quite a big ask for polling to tell us something meaningful – and even if it could, how could that information be used? By impressing on politicians the need to carefully regulate any tell-tale-signs which they might be giving out?

    There are complex webs of correspondencies, such as, if the police in general were happy about how the government values them, the story may not have emerged in the first place.

    Has there been movement in responses to the “in touch with ordinary people” type questions since the 2010 GE?

  12. @AW

    It seems to me that this is a brilliant analysis of why people do not change in response to events. It is, however, apparent that sometimes they do change e.g. people left the Labour party over Iraq, Mrs Thatcher struck lucky with her war, arguably Obama did with his hurricane, and the liberals do not seem to be as popular as they were. Can you give an equally insightful and general explanation of the type of event (or string of events) that does change views and the circumstances in which it/they do/es so?

  13. US update per the Gruniad live blog.

    Florida: the state that time forgot. As of not long ago, the latest tally was:

    Barack Obama 4,143,364
    Mitt Romney 4,096,351
    That’s with 100% of precincts reporting. The reason for the hold up: several hundred thousand absentee ballots still to be tracked down, verified and counted.

    In the presidential popular vote nationally, Obama’s lead is slowly widening as the final results come in:
    Barack Obama 60,671,676
    Mitt Romney 57,834,822


  14. Well its obvious that breaking the tuition fee pledge killed the libdems VI
    But it seems to have surprised the party leadership probably because parties in govt break their promises all the time and rarely get punished in the polls for it. Was it tuition fees that the voters were upset about or was it disappointment that the dems despite everyone’s hopes really were just as untrustworthy as all other politicians. The conservatives broken promise on “no top down reorganization of the NHS” was every bit as big but without the VI impact, you have to wonder why

  15. RiN

    “Well its obvious”

    But the tuition fee thing only applied in England. Elsewhere it may have contributed to a sense of untrustworthyness about the LDs, but unlikely to have been sufficient to cause the huge fall in support that they faced in Scotland.

    Sometimes factors other than the obvious come into play.

  16. HuffingtonPost now has

    Obama: 4,164,115 – 49.9%
    Romney: 4,113,247 – 49.3%

    So Obama currently maintaining his lead as ballots are processed?

    Florida has

    Romney: 4,124,853 – 49.24%
    Obama: 4,180,678 – 49.9%:

  17. Knowing how the internet works, soon it will be all over the net that Audrey Cockburn MP had some expenses problem. Reminds me to the story, when a man’s coat was stolen at a restaurant. He tried to find it, asked about it, etc. A few months later when he enters some place people whisper to each other: “he had some coat-theft affairs you know”.

  18. richard in norway

    Well its obvious that breaking the tuition fee pledge killed the libdems VI

    It’s not true though. The (Labour commissioned) Browne Review wasn’t published till 12 October 2010 and by the start of that month Lib Dem VI had declined from 21% just after the election to 11-12% – not much more than we see now. The decline did continue slightly by another 2 points or so, but whether the student fees debacle had much effect on that is a matter for debate. Certainly most of the drop preceded it.

    Two fun facts. In the actual Commons vote the Lib Dems actually split 27-21 (with 8 abstentions) in favour of the fees, so most of the Lib Dems actually didn’t support it. And according to Wikipedia on the Browne Review

    The Browne Review spent £68,000 on research, from a research budget of £120,000. The majority of the expenditure funded one unpublished opinion survey of students and parents.

    The survey focussed on how much participants would be willing to pay if fees were restructured. It asked 80 school pupils, 40 parents, 40 early-year University students, and 18 part-time students from various backgrounds for their opinion on University funding. Participants of the survey were posed questions on an upper-limit on fees of £6,000 per-annum, and did not discuss a reduction in state support for University teaching. The report acknowledges the small sample size, and states: The findings are not statistically robust and should not be treated as such.

    which rather suggests an attitude to evidence based policy and getting value for money which has since been confirmed.

  19. Anthony Wells

    […] (puts on my big, special pedantry anorak)

    In that case ought it not be?:

    On whether political trivia matter

  20. I don’t think the fake question is particularly fair because of the wording

    14% of people said they had heard AT LEAST SOMETHING about Labour MP Audrey Cockburn using union funds to decorate her flat. Given neither she nor her flat exist, those 14% of people are wrong

    There was an MP during the expenses scandal who used funds to decorate their flat. I can’t remember the name or party, but if asked do I remember AT LEAST SOMETHING, I might have said yes, because I remember there was ONE MP who did something similar.

  21. I suppose it is also a factor how long some news is on the TV (and in newspapers) and how it shifts very slowly perhaps the views. Especially bad news: can people see that it will end sometime.

    Although people know that there is no permanent recession, it seems that they feel that it’s a never ending story, sometimes here, sometimes in other countries, but it is constantly present. Compared to the 1991-92 recession its influence on the quality of life is smaller, yet as there is no end to it, people just get tired of it (actually businesses do it as well, especially SMEs). Although none of the main parties offer very convincing ways of ending it, it would, if it continue to flicker on the TV screens, turn the opinion against those who have the means to do something about it (the government) even though nothing really changes and there is no bad news.

    I wonder therefore if it is not the news, scandal, etc that affect the opinion but it’s evaluation from the perspective of the future. If it has a bearing on it, opinion shifts.

  22. @Billy Bob

    Thanks for those figures. Widening his lead from the look of it. Not that surprising, considering the parts of the state where those provisional ballots would have been cast after the polls closed. If I’d been persistent enough to stand in line for hours after every obstacle had been put in the way of my voting, I’d be hopping mad by the time I finally got the chance.

    It can’t be long before Florida is called for Obama, surely?

  23. AW

    Wouldn’t you say the question about poor Audrey a ‘Labour’ MP was a push poll question?

  24. @Laslo

    “people know that there is no permanent recession”
    “Compared to the 1991-92 recession its influence on the quality of life is smaller”

    Austerity? Tis but a scratch!

    Try looking at the NIESR’s time series comparisons of the recession starting in 2008 with 1930, 1973, 1979 and 1990, here:

  25. Phil

    Nice chart, but its even worse than that because of changes to the way inflation is calculated, every change has led to a lower inflation figure(not intentionally, I’m sure. LOL) and the GDP figures are adjusted for inflation which means that today’s GDP figures are not adjusted down to the same extent as before.

  26. couper2802


    Wouldn’t you say the question about poor Audrey a ‘Labour’ MP was a push poll question?

    Shh, Don’t mention the pp words! You’ll set him off again!!

    To be fair the other dummy question was “News that married Tory MP David Williams has been having an affair with another man”

    so the fake scandal was spread to both sides. But that also reinforces the point that MitM made about partial recall. Because there have been Tory MPs who have left their wife for a man (though not called Williams) and there is a gay MP called Williams (who is a Lib Dem and never married to a woman). And there is the very camp (but straight and not an MP) David Walliams. These things may indeed make some people think they know “something” and in a sense they are right.

  27. “If you are reading this website in the first place, you are probably a bit of a political anorak.”

    How very dare you. I’m an anorak of many subjects!

  28. You could argue that ONLY trivia matters.

  29. Statgeek

    Does that make you a polyrak?

  30. I thought a polyrak was the plastering section in B&Q. :P

  31. Statgeek

    Worse than that! It’s a cockroach and ant killer. :-)

    In political terms that makes you quite endearing. :-)

  32. “Given neither she nor her flat exist, those 14% of people are wrong”

    It might be helpful for the data if people are asked how political they consider themselves to be, and how much interest they take in politics. What of those who are very interested / very political but still get such questions wrong?

    Something else that occurred to me while reading this interesting (and non-partisan…yay!) article is that people probably take more and less interest in opposition depending on who the opposition is.

    Do Labour voters ignore Conservative opposition policies/criticism? Do Conservative voters do likewise when Labour is in opposition? Are the Lib Dems getting the best coverage ever, now that they’re in government? Will it help or hurt their chances in 2015? Will I run out of question marks soon?

  33. @ Old Nat

    I left a message for you about iMPower on the last thread. I’m actually really pleased you brought this organisation to our attention. I’m going to look into them further, e.g. the executives’ backgrounds etc. because they look like they might be a really interesting firm to work for/ with.

  34. Amber

    I saw that.

    Always pleased to help.

  35. @ Phil

    I know these graphs, they don’t show much, primarily because they use GDP figures. If somebody believes in GDP as an indicator, then just simply should privatise UK universities and we have a 6% increase in the GDP…

    There is a major issue about how recessions are calculated in general. There was no 1973-75 and then 1979-81 recessions, this was on single period with lots of oscillations, which expressed the crisis of the economic and business system of the post-war period. The current recession is very much like that one was.

    There are major problems with macroeconomics…

    According to this disposable incomes will still have to be reduced by a couple of percentages. There are two choices really. Either austerity, but Greece could be a big enough warning and I don’t see political appetite either. Or inflation which will also get rid of some of the debts. But there is no political bravery to accept that either…

    The real problem is that simply reducing the aggregate disposable income (or increasing if one is Keynesian, but it is just an upside down standard macroeconomics) is neither here nor there: the firms have to be affected, that is, a differentiated economic policy (this is why it is not the standard supply side economics) is needed (even if it’s an accidental one, like Reagan’s 1983 package).

  36. @ RiN

    Neither inflation nor GDP can be calculated for such a long period. They use all kinds of co-efficients to do so, but most of them are arbitrary if they are bothered to let us know anything about them – in most cases they don’t (but the arbitrary nature of these figures is true for the last month inflation figures: the consumer basket is arbitrary and for the GDP deflator which is quite tainted with residuals).

    In the US the admitted discretionary (decided by statisticians) portion of the GDP is about 10%…

  37. @ Phil and RiN

    When did the current recession start?

    In 1997 the sales/asset ratio of UK public companies was around 1.5 (in 1990 it was about 1.3). By 2000 it dropped to about 1. I has never recovered from that, thus the only way firms could increase their sales if they expanded, but the expansion did not mean more efficient use of assets… The whole thing has been in crisis since the late 1990s. One wonders if the 2001 crisis were allowed to happen, we would have had an easier time now.

  38. Looking at Florida, I suppose it is down to who reports when. Many of the smaller (and some frankly miniscule counties) lean heavily to Romney,

    the big districts (200k+ electors):

    Brevard (Romney 56:43)
    Duval (Romney 51:48)
    Lee (Romney 58:41)
    Orange (Obama 59:41)
    Pasco (Romney 53:46)
    Pinellas (Obama 52:47)
    Polk (Romney 53:46)
    Sarasota (Romney 53:46)
    Seminole (Romney 53:46)

    and biggest districts (500K+):

    Broward (Obama 67:32)
    Hillsborough (Obama 53:46)
    Miami-Dade (Obama 62:38)
    Palm Beach (Obama 58:41).

  39. OLD NAT
    Are you aware that polyrakrosy, as we know it in the trade, is closely related to bricolage, and therefore very properly to be sought in the DIY section? I.e. what may appear to be a string of events, is, in the electoral unconscious, the slow-moving process of mythological constructionism, well explored in Levi-Strauss, by which the social and political consciousness is informed and routinised? Thus Audrey, whom I hope the whips will protect for future elevation, has contributed, both to the idea of the venality often seen in political success, and to the Labour Party’s long struggle to protect the party of the working man from the negative effects of exercising power and controlling the purse strings.

  40. Good Evening all.

    Any polling on Corby?

  41. NickP
    ‘You could argue that ONLY trivia matters.’

    No you could not -see Roger M’s posting.

  42. The population of voters will contain significant numbers of people not interested in politics (I understood 96%) and of those interested, there will be those with short memories, as this blog proves. :-)

  43. Read all about it

    Florida still counting

    Romney: 4,127,520 – 49.22%
    Obama: 4,185,616 – 49.92%.


    Brilliant psephological analysis!

    I am persuaded.


  45. I remember the Audrey Cockburn story.

    She was my (Conservative) MP at the time!

    We had him deselected and now she’s a UKIP MP for West Lothian.

  46. @Laszlo

    Sorry, whilst I’m no particular fan of GDP data either that doesn’t mean that I’m going to disregard such data as worthless in favour of whatever argument you’re making. I’m too tired to argue on the detail and must have already fallen asleep. In my nightmare there are all sorts of horrible things happening that appear really tangible in the midst of the deepest and longest recession in living memory, one which risks being all too permanent for the rest of my working lifetime at least. Hopefully I’ll wake up and discover that it’s just been a fleeting blip of relatively minor consequence.

  47. @Billy Bob

    Obama won that latest batch by nearly 2:1, compared to your earlier figures. Not that it really matters now, thank goodness.

    At the risk of over generalising, because most of the shenanigans over queues and voting difficulties in general were in the big Democrat counties, that is surely where most of the provisional ballots will be. And it’s reasonable to expect that the areas with the biggest problems will be the last to sort them out and the last to declare.

  48. oldnat @ RiN

    “Well its obvious”

    “But the tuition fee thing only applied in England. Elsewhere it may have contributed to a sense of untrustworthyness about the LDs, but unlikely to have been sufficient to cause the huge fall in support that they faced in Scotland.”

    Nor did it. It was something much more fundamental than that.

    Few LibDems supporters transfered. Many anti-cons decided that the LibDems were no longer the best bet for them and Labour got about a third of them, the SNP the rest.

    Some years ago in this Highland constituency with a substantial LibDem majority, the SNP disclosed that they could find no LibDem supporters. They found plenty of anti-cons, anti-labs, and ani-SNP voters who chose the LibDem candidate as the vehicle of their retribution.

    The anti-Labs and the anti-SNP may still be content but the anti-cons are the biggest political force in Scotland by far. The Libdems did not convince them that they were capable of restraining the Cons (tutiion fees were symbolically important). No second chances for traitors to the anti-con cause.

    I think there are bigger events which Roger and Charles refer to. If the more extreme rumours of the fallout from the Saville etc cover up are believed that could be one.

  49. @Billy Bob

    The bloke in charge of the count in Florida said this morning that he’d be able to release the final figures by noon on Saturday (Fla time).

    So please…don’t waste your Friday :)

    And it isn’t that i’m not interested. I predicted a 303-235 EC result, and a 51-48 popular vote split. So I have a lot riding on it!

  50. Yuk! Piers Morgan on This Week.

    Really dislike him so had to turn off.

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