With Michael Howard’s resignation letter due to land on Michael Spicer’s desk on Friday the Conservative leadership election has now really begun, the country having endured a sort of phoney leadership election for the last five months. During that time almost every week has brought a new selection of polls on the Conservative leadership, but can we actually gain anything useful from any of them?

Looking over the polls we have to date (and I’ve no doubt there will be plenty more over the weekend), here are 5 things we can actually tell from the polls and several things that, despite what you may have read in the press, we can’t tell.

1) Clarke is the most recognisable candidate

Polls by Populus and Yougov both showed that Clarke was the only candidate who the large majority of people could put a name to. David Davis was recognised by about half of people asked, while Liam Fox and David Cameron can only be described as obscure figures.

Clarke’s public recognition is not really a plus as leader – whoever becomes party leader will rapidly become known to the public anyway. What this does means is that the polls showing Ken Clarke as far and away the most popular of the candidates amongst the general public are of little or no value. Put simply, for a large group of respondents Ken Clarke will be the only candidate they have ever heard of, so asked which is their favour candidate their only realistic choices will be either “Clarke” or “Don’t Know/None of the above”. The effect of recognition is clearly demonstrated by a poll by BMRB immediately after London won the 2012 Olympics which found the people’s favoured candidates for leader were Ken Clarke…and Seb Coe.

Yougov’s study for the Spectator, which sought to give respondents information about candidates prior to asking questions on them, demonstrated this – once respondents obtained some knowledge of the other 3 candidates they no longer trailed behind Clarke.

2) Clarke and Davis have – or had – the support of the members

Which two candidates will qualify for the final round is anybody’s guess at this point, especially since David Davis’s conference speech. We what do know from YouGov’s polls of party members (which were spot on in 2001) is that prior to the party conference Clarke and Davis were the most popular candidates with the party membership, with David Cameron in third place. In the event of a Clarke/Davis final round it would be very close – party members told YouGov they would vote for Davis by 48% to 44% for Clarke. In a Davis/Cameron final round Davis would have won quite easily.

Both of these polls were, however, taken prior to the party conference. If the party membership have reacted to the conference speeches in the same way as the political pundits then the next polls may show a very different picture indeed.

3) Clarke would face some minor difficulties in keeping the party united

YouGov’s last poll of party members suggested that Clarke’s main weakness in the eyes of party members was that he would not be able to lead a united party – he was rated above Davis on every other count, but trailed behind him on party unity. Are they right? The poll also showed that a quarter of party members who said they would vote Davis were so anti-Clarke that they would seriously consider resigning if Clarke won. This equates to about 12% of the Conservative party’s membership, and would obviously be a blow to them if it actually happened. That said, it is important to keep this in perspective – it is easier to tick a box on an online survey saying you’ll resign than is it to actually getting round to doing it – many of these will be idle threats (equally, Clarke supporters would argue that he could also attract new party members to replace those who may leave).

4) David Cameron has the most positive image of the candidates

While the candidates are not well known enough to ask nationally representative polls of people to say what they think about them, there have been a number of smaller qualitative polls that have looked at the images of the candidates, ICM did a “hall test” using silent video footage of each candidate, and Frank Luntz, the US Republican pollster carried out a similar test, but using video clips with sound, for BBC Newsnight.

In ICM’s study Ken Clarke was seen as genial, approachable, charismatic, tough and a serious political figure, but on the downside he was seen as arrogant and not particularly trustworthy. His arrogance was his weakness in Luntz’s study too – people were turned off by Clarke’s tendency to talk about himself and he came out surprisingly poorly.

ICM found that David Davis was seen as attractive, trustworthy, smart, competent, but also rather grey and uncharismatic. Even Davis’s own campaign team accept that he is a comparatively weak public speaker, but these studies suggest there is a deeper problem with a lack of charisma.

David Cameron on the other hand shone in the qualitative polling – people found him presentable, trustworthy, confident and seemed to have a generally positive perception of him. Frank Luntz’s Newsnight report said that reactions to David Cameron were the most positive he had ever seen such a test. Informing his group of Cameron’s priviledged background did very little to lessen their ardour. On the downside ICM’s test also found people thought that Cameron looked bland and shallow – for people who deride (or indeed praise) Cameron as the Conservative Tony Blair, the focus group evidence does seem to the support it.

Some of the studies published in the media sought to give quantative results to studies like this – saying that x% of the group preferred Cameron. This is not a wise thing to do, they aren’t nationally rep surveys, nor are they supposed to be. Liam Fox was also absent from the ICM test and given little coverage in the Newsnight report (though the coverage he did get seemed very positive). All these studies can do is give us a good idea of the way candidates are likely to come across in the public eye, and they suggest that Cameron has the advantage over Clarke and Davis in terms of image, though naturally it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is better in other ways.

5) Which candidate would increase the Conservative vote the most?

There have been several polls that have asked how likely people are to vote Conservative with candidate A or candidate B in charge. There have been several polls that asked rhetorical voting intention questions – who would you vote for if Brown was Labour leader and Clarke/Davis was Tory leader. These are quite a good way of measuring the popularity of candidates relative to one another, but it doesn’t tell us much at all about what will actually happen to the way people vote.

People answering opinion polls are not stupid – if you ask a rhetorical question about how people would vote if X was the leader people do realise it is an attempt to gauge the popularity of candidates, and use it indicate approval for one candidate or another.

That said, in the short term, were a new Conservative leader announced tommorrow then the opinion polls published next weekend would probably show the largest increase in the Conservative vote if Ken Clarke was the new leader. Certainly polls asking hypothetical voting intention questions have shown this. What happens after that is a different matter – while Ken is a known quantity, we cannot know for sure how much other candidates would increase or decrease the Conservative vote once they became known by the public, nor what policies they might introduce, mistakes they might make, or victories they might win.

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