Regular readers will know that I have often complained about surveys claiming to show that an issue or policy stance will make people more or less likely to vote for a party. I’ve written about it previously here, here and here.

Polls like this are very popular with pressure groups and political campaigns because they inevitably end up suggesting that the issue they are campaigning on is really important and will swing votes, and MPs better listen to them and do what they say or they’ll lose their jobs. The problem is people don’t actually behave like that – we know from academic studies that people don’t vote on single issues, they vote on broad things like party identification, perceptions of party leaders, perceptions of competence, economic trust, party image and so on. Individual policy stances play into these things, but to reduce the complex drivers of voting behaviour to polling questions purporting to show that “If party X follows policy Y then 14% of people won’t vote for them” is simplistic and naive.

I won’t recite at length why these questions give such misleading data, but there are a number of reasons. Firstly respondents use them to indicate support or opposition to a policy or a party regardless of whether it would actually change their vote. Secondly it gives false prominence to a single issue, when in a real election campaign that issue would be considered alongside other important issues like the economy, leadership perceptions, party competence and so on. Thirdly people simply aren’t very good judges of what drives their own decision making. Working together these all work together to produce results that overestimate the impact of single issues on voting intention.

Yet, it is a question that people eternally want asking – and keeps provoking rather silly news stories, full of hyperbole about gay marriage dooming the Conservative party. Hence it is worth trying to do it sensibly.

In the Sunday Times/YouGov poll this week they first they asked what three or four issues would be most important to people in deciding their vote at the next general election. It’s still simplistic of course, and still depends on people understanding the drivers of their own voting intentions when they don’t, but at least it doesn’t give an issue false prominence.

Asked this way, 56% say the economy will be an important issue in how they vote, 42% immigration, 36% health, 28% unemployment and so on down to gay marriage, of which 7% of people say it will be an important issue in deciding their vote. This includes 5% of current Tory voters and 5% of 2010 Tory voters.

Of course, not all these people who care about the issue are necessarily opposed to it. YouGov asked those 7% who said gay marriage was likely to be an important factor in deciding how they voted whether it would make them more or less likely to vote for a party – 54% said more likely, 44% less likely. In other words three and a bit percent of voters claim they are more likely to vote for a party that supports gay marriage, three and a bit percent claim they are less likely.

Looking just at Tory voters, that 5% of Tory voters who say it will be an important issue in deciding their vote are mostly people who would be less likely to vote for a party that supported it… but this still equates to just 4% of Tory voters – that is, about 1 percentage point of their current 34 percentage points of support. Hardly a huge election winning or losing issue.

Even this is likely to be an overestimate of course, because as I said at the start of the post, people aren’t very good judges of what drives their voting intention and individual issues aren’t actually much of a driver of voting intention; party identification, competence, the economy, leadership perceptions are the sorts of things that actually drive votes. On top of that, gay marriage is very high up the news agenda right now – I expect it will be a far less high profile issue in 2 years time. It also ignores whatever positive impact the issue might have.

In terms of a direct effect, my guess is that, by the time of the next election, gay marriage will have negligible impact on Tory support. Potentially more important is the indirect effect – whether, on one hand, that it adds to perceptions amongst traditionalist voters that David Cameron does not understand or reflect their views or, on the other hand, helps build perceptions that the Conservatives are a more modern and tolerant party that is at ease with the modern world.

Things like this are almost impossible to measure in polls, but are probably far more important. My own view is that Michael Ashcroft is right on this – in terms of impact on party perception Cameron may or may not have been right to come down the route of pushing gay marriage, but now he is here he must continue. Changing his mind won’t convince his detractors that he actually agrees with them, it will just make him look weak, while fatally undermining whatever positive impact it has on making the Conservative party look more tolerant and in tune with modern Britain (that said, I’m far from convinced that it is having a positive impact on that front, because the impact of David Cameron supporting gay marriage risks being cancelled out by the impact of right-wing Conservative backbenchers opposing it).

Meanwhile YouGov’s weekly poll for the Sunday Times has topline figures of CON 34%, LAB 41%, LD 12%, UKIP 8%. The mid-week Sun polls clearly suggested the referendum boost was on the wane, but these figures suggest it hasn’t completely gone yet.


357 Responses to “What impact does gay marriage have on voting?”

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  1. On the subject of the Tory party being left behind by a socially liberal and tolerant electorate, surely that is one of the reasons Gove is on his Free School crusade? His twin goals are:

    -to reduce pay and conditions for teachers by detaching from LAs; and

    -allow schools to teach stuff that LAs don’t like…like religious (illiberal and intolerant) “law”.

    My kids are state educated and cannot even understand the anti-gay marriage argument. They can just see intolerance and homophobia at work.

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  2. NEW THREAD !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  3. What is the point of monitoring, if no decision or action is taken regarding them?

    So it’s a pointless exercise in bureaucracy, as opposed to positive discrimination?

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  4. I see there’s a lot of talk about over 60′s VI (I’m one of them). I know this looks to be a bit of an outlier, but over the past couple of months that gap usually favouring the Tories in 60+ looks to have been narrowing, sometimes the Tories are ahead by a few points, other times Labour nip ahead by a point or two. I was surprised at the gap this morning, but not surprised that the gap has narrowed.

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  5. While we pontificate on the identity politics stuff, stuff that hits the headlines and is the focus of polling, it’s worth bearing in mind that there may be other things having an impact on people that may also be affecting VI.

    For example, round about now people are discovering the impact of council tax benefit changes, and the bedroom tax. Child benefit changes too. ..

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  6. I am not so sure that the gay marriage thing will have no effect. I suspect that most voters who feel strongly about it (on the no side) are traditionalist and elderly. So more tory. And more likely to lean towards UKIP. And quite likely to be among the large number of people who think immigration policy might affect their vote. Wasn’t that second on the list?

    UKIP, could decide the next election. If they make hay out of Cameron’s support for gay marriage (or drag the tories to the right using the issue) that could be enough to change a hung parliament into a Labour majority.

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  7. Poem?

    Nobody for President.

    Who will lower you taxes…Nobody.
    Who will save your Pension… Nobody.
    Who will get the country moving… Nobody
    To save the country who to vote for!

    NOBODY!

    Peter.

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