As you might imagine, a year out from a general election the one question I get asked more than any other is “well, who is going win then?”. It’s a question I try to avoid answering like the plague. The simple answer is we don’t know – polls measure public opinion now, not a year ahead. Assuming no change from the polls now (which would imply a Labour majority) is a naive approach that would have served you poorly in past Parliaments. Assuming public opinion will change in the same way as it has towards the end of previous elections gives you a prediction (hung Parliament, Tories the biggest party), but also gives you huge confidence margins that stretch from a Tory landslide to a comfortable Labour majority.

My answer, therefore, tends to be to give the five questions (and one observation) that I think will decide the next election one way or another…

1) How will the growing economy effect the polls?

The economy has universally been the issue that voters see as most important in polls since the economic crisis began, and as such has been a major influence on voting intention. Economic confidence amongst the general public started rising sharply early in 2013 in all the major trackers, and has continued on a broadly positive trend. This has coincided with movement in public attitudes towards the government’s economic policies. From being neck-and-neck with Labour on the economy last year the Conservatives now have a consistent lead. Last year YouGov’s cuts trackers consistently showed that people thought that their cuts to public spending, while necessary, were actually bad for the economy, now they show more people think the cuts were good for the economy. It is impossible to draw a causal link, but over the same period the average Labour lead has dropped from about 10 points to around about 5 or 6 points.

Whether or not the facts back them up (that is a discussion for some economic blog elsewhere), the recovering economy seems to be having the effect of convincing some the public that the government’s economy policy was right and that the Conservatives can be trusted more on the economy. I am not an economist and this is not an economics blog, so I have no educated view on if the economy will continue to grow, which seems to be what commentators expect. Assuming it does, will that lead to continuing increases in government approval and a bigger lead for them on the economy, and will that translate into increased support? More specifically, while polls show people are more optimistic about the economy as a whole, they are still downbeat about their own personal finances. Will people themselves start to feel better off in the next 14 months, and would that translate into more government support?

A final thing to watch there is how important people say the economy is. There are examples of government’s losing elections despite being ahead on the economy – the classic is 1997. The reason becomes apparent if you look at what issues people told pollsters were important in 1997 – it wasn’t the economy (where the Tories were still holding their own), it was public services like the NHS and education where Labour were a mile ahead. I don’t think 14 months is long enough for this to happen, but if the economy really starts getting better keep an eye on whether people stop telling pollsters it is such an important issue.

2) Will Ed Miliband’s unpopularity matter anymore than it does now?

I find the contrast between Ed Miliband’s ratings and Labour’s support a puzzle. There really is a gulf between them. The basic facts are straightfoward – for an opposition leader whose party has been consistently ahead in the polls for years Ed Miliband’s ratings are horrible. His approval ratings are horrid, down at IDS, Howard and Hague levels; best Prime Minister ratings normally track voting intention pretty closely but Ed Miliband trails behind David Cameron by around 15 points. Polls consistently find that people think Ed Miliband is weak and not up to the job of Prime Minister. This is not just a case of opposition leaders always polling poorly compared to incumbent Prime Ministers – if you compare Ed Miliband’s ratings now to David Cameron’s in opposition Miliband is doing far worse. For example, in 2008 49% thought David Cameron looked like a PM in waiting, only 19% think the same about Ed Miliband now. To claim that Miliband’s ratings are not dire is simply denial. Yet Labour consistently lead in the polls.

Pause for a second, and imagine that we didn’t ask voting intention in polls. Imagine all you had to go on was all the other figures – the polls asking who people would trust more on the economy, who would make the better Prime Minister, who people trust on the issues they currently think are most important. Based on those figures alone the next election looks as if it should be a Conservative walkover…and yet Labour consistently lead in the polls.

The paradox between the underlying figures, which in most areas are increasingly favourable to the Conservatives, and the headline figures, consistently favourable to Labour, are fascinating. They are something I’ve returned to time and again without apology, as I’m sure there’s a key message here. Whatever the result of the next election, it’ll tell the loser something very important. If the Conservatives win, Labour will need to learn about using the goodwill an opposition gets to actually build up the foundations to, well, support their support (I suspect they’d also have to accept that getting a leader who people take seriously as a potential PM really is a prerequisite). If Labour win, the Conservatives should take home the message that leadership, economic competence and being preferred on policies really isn’t enough, that they have a serious issue with how people perceive their party and its values that needs to be addressed (I doubt they would learn that lesson, but there goes).

Given Labour are ahead now, I think the question is whether perceptions of the opposition and the choice of Prime Minister increase in importance as the election approaches and voting intention becomes less of a way of people indicating their opinion of the government, and more a choice between two alternatives. The reason Labour poll badly on so many of these underlying questions is not because Labour voters say they prefer Cameron and the Tories, it’s because many Labour voters simply say don’t know (or none of them). They aren’t convinced Miliband would be a good PM or Labour would run the economy well. Will those people overcome those doubts? Vote Labour regardless? Or do something else?

3) What level of support will UKIP get at the general election

Looking back over UKIP’s performance in the Parliament so far their support has mostly followed a pattern of election successes leading to boosts in the polls, followed by a decline to a new, higher plateau. I think UKIP can fairly comfortably expect a strong performance European elections (personally I would still expect them to come top, but whatever happens it’s going to be a strong showing). This will in turn be followed by another publicity boost and another boost in the Westminster polls. It will vary between different pollsters, as ever, but I think we can expect UKIP in the mid to high teens with the telephone polls and up in the low-twenties with the more favourable online companies.

From then on, it’s probably a case of a decline as we head towards the general election as the focus moves more towards the Con-v-Lab battle. The question is how quickly that support fades and to what extent. Here we are very much in unknown territory. UKIP got up to around 8% in the Westminster polls following the 2009 European elections, but declined to around 3% by the 2010 election; the Greens got up to 8% in the polls following the 1989 European election, but declines to 0.5% of the vote by the 1992 election. This time round is clearly different in terms of the size and scale of UKIP’s support and history provides no good guide. Neither does present polling – people are notoriously bad at answering questions on whether they’ll change their mind or what might make them change their mind. We are flying blind – but given that UKIP support has thus far disproportionately come from people who supported the Conservatives at the last election it is something that would have implications for the level of Tory support come the general election.

4) How resilient will Liberal Democrat incumbents be?

The three points so far have been about levels of overall support at the next election. The fourth is instead about distribution of the vote and therefore the outcome in numbers of MPs. On a uniform swing the Liberal Democrats will face severe losses in the election. It obviously depends just how badly they do, whether they are still in the coalition, whether they recover towards the election and so on, but projections of them losing half their seats are not unusual. However, there is also an expectation that Liberal Democrats will do better than this because of their incumbent MPs’ personal vote. Analysis from past elections and from studies like the PoliticsHome and Lord Ashcroft polls of marginal seats are pretty consistent in showing that Liberal Democrat MPs benefit more from personal votes than politicians from other parties, they handily won the Eastleigh by-election and have managed to hold on to councillors in some (but not all) of the areas where they have MPs. This would point to the Liberal Democrats actually doing better in terms of MPs than the raw numbers would suggest, although don’t expect magic… Lib Dem MPs might outperform the national trend, but it doesn’t render them immune to it. If you’ve lost a third to a half of your support, it has to come from somewhere and would be naive to expect it all to come from places you don’t need it.

As a caveat to this Lib Dem optimism though, look at the Scottish Parliament election in 2011. In that case Lib Dem incumbents didn’t seem to do any better, if anything the Liberal Democrats lost more support in areas where they had the most support to begin with, the very opposite pattern. The cause of this is probably a floor effect (the Lib Dems lost 8% of the vote in the election, but started off with less than 8% in many seats, so by definition more of their lost support had to come in their stronger seats). If the Lib Dems do really badly we may see the same effect at Westminster, if the Lib Dems lose enough support it’s impossible for it all to come from seats where they have hardly any support to begin with! The question is to what degree, if any, Lib Dem MPs can outperform the swing against them.

5) Will Scotland be voting?

Or perhaps more accurately, will the Scottish MPs be sticking around afterwards! All the polls on the Scottish referendum so far have shown the NO campaign in the lead. There has been a slight trend in the direction of yes, but nothing more than that. Personally I would expect the NO campaign to win, but there is obviously a chance they won’t and if so it would massively change our predictions for the next election. Exactly how and when Scottish MPs cease to be members of the House of Commons would need to be decided, but it would obviously disproportionately affect Labour – the Conservatives have only one Scottish MP to lose. More important though would be the wider effect on politics, thus far the Scottish independence referendum is something that has had minimal effect upon politics south of the border. Until January the London based media barely even mentioned it, it’s still something that’s very much a sideshow. If Scotland were to vote yes then then the negotiations in the following 18 months would suddenly become an issue of paramount importance, David Cameron’s position would presumably come under some pressure but either way, nothing would be the same anymore. I don’t expect it to happen, but it would be remiss of me not to include it here.

So, five things that I think will decide the election. I said there was an observation too – remember the impact of the electoral system. This one isn’t a question, we know that the system is more helpful to Labour than the Conservatives and, given the government’s failure to get the boundary review through, will remain that way. Getting ahead in the polls is not enough for the Conservatives – it would probably leave Labour as still the largest party. To get an overall majority the Conservatives need a lead of somewhere in the region of 7 points. We can’t be certain of the exact figures (the double incumbency bonus of MPs newly elected last time round will shift things a bit), but we can be confident that just being ahead isn’t enough for the Tories – they need to be well ahead.

319 Responses to “Five things that will decide the next election”

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  1. @ Maninthemiddle,

    I think that is a likely outcome.

    It would be interesting to calculate how many Tory MPs would lose their seats if they won every vote they won in 2010 but LD -> Lab switching continued at its current rate up until the election. It gets you at up to Seat # 45 on Anthony’s Labour target list.

  2. Spearmint is that on UNS or proportionate basis.

  3. @ Jim Jam,

    That is me multiplying the 2010 Lib Dem vote in a given constituency by 0.33 and adding that to the 2010 Labour vote.

    So I guess it’s technically proportionate, but applying a term like “swing” to it probably dignifies it beyond what it deserves.



    I stick to my point though.

    Spearmint concedes that this group saw Labour in May 2010 as not “progressive ” enough. I take that to mean not Left enough for them.

    The fact that LDs turned out differently to the perception of these voters does not wholey explain why the group have turned to Labour. If Labour had not in fact changed then surely the group’s antipathy to it would be unchanged & the search of this group for the “more progressive” alternative to Labour & now LibDems too-would have resulted in a VI for Greens.

    Put it this way -in today’s Times John McTernan , former adviser to Blair AND Brown advises EM to stop “breaking ” with the New Labour past & start talking about it’s successes.

    Do you agree with him, and what effect-if any-do you think this would have on the current VI of those LD 2010 voters who have switched to Labour ?

  5. JIM JAM

    @”It may be because like many he thinks that these are essentially already decided so it is not a factor that will determine the outcome which we don’t know unlike the 5 he lists.”

    I was struck by that too.

    AW makes no mention of the LD 2010 defectors-but merely talks about LD incumbency from the current VI.

    This is in stark contrast to his analysis of the UKIP VI , in which he says “From then on, it’s probably a case of a decline as we head towards the general election as the focus moves more towards the Con-v-Lab battle.”

    note the word “probably”.

    AW-sorry-this wasn’t meant to be a second hand comment to you-I had meant to ask you, but Jim Jam’s post prompted the thought again.

  6. “Labour will seek to fight the election on the NHS”
    Wasn’t the Tory plan to ringfence the NHS (whereas Labour opposed ringfencing anything) what stopped Labour from focusing on this issue? Despite some major changes, the NHS seems to have been off the political radar for most of this parliament, and I had (perhaps incorrectly) assumed that this was a consequence of the ringfencing strategy.

    -At the last Election More NHS Staff voted LD than for any other party with the Tories and Labour Neck and Neck on around 30%.

    A recent survey I can’t recall who by I am afraid put Labour support on 54% The Tories on 20% and the LD’s around 10%
    Similar figures have been produced in the Teaching Profession with Conservative Support dropping from around 30% to 7%

    So while the NHS might have not been at the Top of the Public’s list I would actually fundamentally dispute that represented any real satisfaction with the Coalition’s handling of it and it has most certainly not been reflected in increased support for the Coalition Parties amongst those employed in it with support down a Combined 35%

  7. Colin – I agree and almost said as much but desire for brevity won out.
    If the LDs’ implied manifesto was more appealing (less unappealing) than Labours’ in 2010 then a same old platform for Labour would have some of these looking around.
    Not all as some would be shaken by the 2010 out-turn and given FPTP be back with Labour as the best ABT.

    You will recall that I have said a few times that one of EMs priority in my view is to entrench these 2010 LDs not just for 2015 but for subsequent GEs and forget about ‘Blairs Tories’ for now. (maybe for good?)

    The question then begs has EM done anything much to solidify this group and at what if any cost to seeking other supporters?

  8. Colin- the majority of LibDem 2010 switchers were Labour supporters until the Iraq War. So, they have returned to Labour and that’s why they are so sticky. They are not going anywhere. (I am one, and that is also the response I am getting on the doorstep).

  9. Colin – re McT – did not read the article but it is all about balance of course.

    New Labour embraced markets – great but failed to rebalance the economy.
    New Labour tackled much poverty but largerly by welfare transfer payments not sufficiently by long term Predistributive measures etc.

    In short be proud of what New Labour achieved but don’t be scared to reflect and criticise where appropriate.

  10. JIM JAM


    It seems clear to me that EM has publicly disowned New Labour , has tried to move the policy background noise ( we have little substance yet) to the Left-because he wants to “solidify” NC’s unexpected gift. [Snip…normally best not to speculate on the motives of party leaders, other than assuming even your opponents want the electoral best for their parties, and the policy best for the country – AW]

    I have always thought that the GE Campaign will produce dynamics that simply cannot be forecast . Doubly so in the current circumstances , where the ACTUAL content of Labour’s Manifesto can have effects on it’s support levels.
    Of course that is also true in the Con-UKIP context as well.


    I don’t see any indicator in the LD support through the 2001/5 Parliament which indicates a sudden switch from Lab to LDs as a result of that war.

  12. COLIN


    I don’t see any indicator in the LD support through the 2001/5 Parliament which indicates a sudden switch from Lab to LDs as a result of that war.”

    You should have come round canvassing with me in 2005!

  13. @Nick P

    It wasn’t me (Con 2005 etc.)

    I’m not really into predictions. There are thousands to choose from and all of the them bar one (maybe) will be wrong.

  14. Colin – I think it is inevitable that the media and opposing parties, fairly I guess, will concentrate on those areas of ‘New Labour’ that EM has criticised.

    I think publicly disowned is an exaggeration but I guess it matters little what you and I think it is those damn swing voters.

  15. Colin –

    The effect of Iraq was significant on voting in 2005, but only indirectly. Essentially as an independent variable it had very little effect on people’s vote, but it had a huge effect upon perceptions of Blair, which in turn had a major impact on people’s vote (see page 11 of the BES findings:

  16. Good afternoon everyone, lovely sunny day here, strolled the second 9 holes today with a couple of my young ex- offenders, I find them challenging but wonderful, it’s a privilege to help introduce them to the real world of good people and kind thoughts, if Carlsberg made a polling site it would be called UKPR. :-)

  17. ken

    Is it too late to mention my team (from Selhurst) and their wonderful support and your team and Terry’s wonderful own goal?


  18. Wow, now this what I call political comment. I don’t care if it is not by Banksy.

  19. CROSSBAT11…….Whilst I take your gentle ribbing in the spirit in which it is given, don’t forget my background in engineering, where I was taught that there is no action without friction, and, that greasing wheels means all movement but no action….I am Right-wing because I enjoy friction…..the Left is a talking shop, although I do believe that Ed Miligrease is doing his best. :-)

  20. NICKP…………..If Tony Pulis isn’t Prem Manager of the Year, there is no justice. :-)

  21. Ken…I have a theory that you right wing because you support Chelsea and like Millwall, you have to either subscribe to certain views or listen to a whole lot of unacceptable stuff if you don’t.

    Don’t bother trying to disabuse me of my theory. You know how entrenched we football fans are.


  22. Steve
    Good polling stats about public workers. I didn’t know that. Also refer to AW’s post about 2005. Big similarities in effect of disappointment about direction of leaders and parties, when revealed.

    I knew that Clegg’s party would be prepared to coalesce with either Labour or Conservatives but the majority of these disgusted voters seem never to have dreamt of the notion.

  23. Howard – be careful of the teachers one – the question order was completely different so they weren’t comparable.

  24. @Colin: “where the ACTUAL content of Labour’s Manifesto can have effects on it’s support levels… Of course that is also true in the Con-UKIP context as well.”

    Does anyone much care what’s in the manifesto – who reads them? I imagine most people will already have their perceptions of a party, for better or for worse.

  25. AW
    I didn’t get that I am afraid, but thanks for commenting. If you have time to just expand just a little I would be grateful.

    [The NUT did two surveys of teachers, first one asked VI first, second one asked voting intention after lots of questions about Michael Gove and policies. Aren’t comparable, as the caveat in the releases said … but the problem with caveats is they get ignored in secondary reporting – AW]


    Thanks for that-some bedtime reading !

  27. Just a further thought on coalition politics. I suspect many of those ‘disgusted of St Mary’s’ and ‘disgusted of Grange Hill’ voters would probably vote for genuine PR if given the choice but, as a separate issue, apparently don’t like the consequences.

    I don’t have any polling evidence for that contention but have noted some of the comments from public workers, indeed, on here, for instance.

  28. ROGERH

    I think the GE Campaign-which is about promises being examined as well as records, is a huge factor in the final vote-regardless of what has pertained throughout the Parliament.

    Of course there are partisan My Party Right or Wrong Types-always will be.

  29. Roger – yes it is the implied manifesto that matters.

    Like LDs being to the left of Lab on some issues and closer to Lab than Con on the Economy.

    Ed does have to be careful not to allow the pro-consumer agenda to come across as anti-business and perhaps he needs to preface his remarks sometimes by praising good business and industries and saying that attacking predatory capitalists assists genuine entrepreneurs and small business etc.

    There is a danger that the subconscious question of how will Labour pay for stuff if it attacks the wealth creators will permeate in to some swing voters minds.

  30. ken

    I’ve just turned 55 and just paid off my mortgage last month, so I’m old-ish and not feeling so poor right this moment.

    But I have two school age kids so I guess I am going to be poor for a few years yet, in truth.

  31. @Colin

    Isn’t the evidence that most elections are won or lost before the campaign even starts? Only think I have to hand is this from Curtice & co.’s analysis of 1992:

    “Like most of its predecessors, the 1992 election was won and lost before the official campaign began.”

  32. …so you can clean your own windows.

  33. “Only think I have to hand…”

    thing, not think.

  34. RogerH – yep, not much normally happens by the time the proper campaign starts. 2010 and the debates was an unusually active campaign in terms of public opinion.

  35. NICKP………..Just trying to be helpful, anyway, my window cleaner is a Millwall season ticket holder, so it wouldn’t be sensible to replace him with an Eagle. :-)

  36. TOONIE
    ” My question is how many of those who voted Libdem were traditional disillusioned Labour voters who have now seen the error of their ways? ”
    In the Southwest, which is the area I know the LDs best, I think you would have to go back fifty years,, certainly Paddy period or pre-Paddy, to find any LD or Liberal voters who had switched from Labour. Except, I think, in Bristol and maybe Plymouth, the region was carpeted blue and yellow.
    The LDs in the 90’s onwards had policies which were so close to Labour that it had to be specific issues, such as student fees and AV which distinguished them.
    My problem with Colin’s and your argument is that you are subsuming support for policy in your assumptions of support for the party. LDs in the southwest in my limited experienced detested mainly Westminster and the dominance of the Home Counties more than they did Labour or the Conservatives.
    When Clegg defected to Westminster, erstwhile LD voters turned to the party which represented their views, and (as Colin has so subtly almost put it) shed not a tear for the the Yellow Wag whose chirpy song was heard in the 2010 election, until the Cat, with a capital C, as my old Mum used to say, got his tongue.

  37. NICKP
    “I have two school age kids so I guess I am going to be poor for a few years yet, in truth.”

    As an even older geyser than most, and post-kids’ schooling and university, my advice is discuss the whole issue with them, including how the school and university fees and living costs will eventually be covered, and what returns in terms of access to jobs and earnings arise fromchoices and investing in education, and let them make a few of the decisions. Otherwise they won’t be informed on decisions and options which could mean they end up looking after you as well as still paying off their uni debts.
    Good luck.

  38. I’m sure that’s good advice. My elder girl 16 just doing AS levels seems a lot more clued in than me.

    Wants to do -ologies. I hope there’s some public sector jobs left!

  39. ‘Pay increases are set to outstrip inflation for the first time in six years’

    The Telegraph

    On Wednesday, headlines are likely to show CPI inflation dropping to 1.5% and the 3 month average of total pay rising to 1.8%

    There is a few points to make about this :-

    1) ! thought it would happen later,but CPI has fallen faster than I expected.

    2) The pay figure is for February, so we should be using the February CPI of 1.7%, to compare the 2 figures

    3) As far as I can remember, there was no particular change in the polls that month towards the government parties or noticable improvements in personal financial optimism.


    I was thinking about this and I make these points

    1) This is a mean average, not everyone had this pay rise and if certain groups got big pay rises then the majority would still be getting rises below CPI

    2) Only those who got a pay rises in February would be above CPI everyone else would still be below.

    3) ONS doesn’t sample the self-employed. Here is a report claiming they are suffering falling income .

    4) if you are economically inactive or relying on government help, you won’t feel the benefit of pay rises

    5) RPI is still well above the rise in total pay.

    I wonder how much this implied rise in living standards will effect polling. I will check the Sunday yougov question on personal finance with even more interest over the coming months.

  40. @ Spearmint, Jim Jam, Colin and others….

    As one of those dedicated Lib/LD voters (and activist) of 36 years to 2010, now dedicated to voting Labour in 2015 perhaps my stance and its reasons has a bearing on the wider LD>Lab switchers?

    As per my last post there was always a significant anti-establishment vote within both the voters, and especially activists in the yellow column.

    Some of us, particularly community activists/Anti-Nazi League activists etc were on the far Left of the Liberal movement since the Peter Hain/Gordon Lishman years of the Young Liberals of the 1960s. Read the “Red Guard” section of the following attachment to understand where we were coming from…

    An internal party enquiry in the 1960s declared with horror that we were “crypto communists”, but in truth there was always a distinctive anti-capitalist “power to the people” element in pre-2010 Liberal Democracy. The coalition with the Tories made this stance within the party implausible, and the only alternative home was Labour despite its “radical timidity”. EM leans towards the sort of radical solutions favoured by this element but ex-New Labour elements hold him back.

    In terms of the wider electors who have switched, being regional anti-Westminster establishment is probably a major reason for the shift from LD to Labour, but the appeal of Labour is probably luke-warm for these voters because Labour isn’t anti-establishment enough – however, there is nowhere else effective to go and at least Labour isn’t Tory!

  41. ROGERH

    @”Isn’t the evidence that most elections are won or lost before the campaign even starts? ”

    Is it?-over to AW.

  42. ICM out

    Lib Dems on 12% ahead of UKIP on 11% and 5 point Lab lead.

    Big lead for Labour in the Euros that just doesn’t seem right with Tories 2nd and UKIP trailing miserably.

    (I was being a bit ironic with my post).

  43. Another disastrous poll for Ed M just published in the Grauniad.

  44. ROGERH

    Oh-he says you are right & GE Campaigns have no effect.

    I am very surprised-and still believe that this one will.

  45. “Another disastrous poll for Ed M just published in the Grauniad.”

    That’ll be the one headlined ‘Support for Tories falls..’, presumably.

    Interestingly: ‘The smallprint of the latest ICM poll confirms that many voters who prefer the Cameron/Osborne financial stewardship nonetheless decline to back their party.’

  46. Lib Dems on 6% for the Euros. Ouch.

    Although I’m sure Chris still thinks it looks high…

  47. If that actually happens in the election, they will officially be less popular than the BNP. (Well, the BNP circa 2009.)

  48. COLIN………..In that case put your money on the Tories, polls measure intent, not behaviour, the emotional drag effect of the recession is beginning to wear off, as evidenced by increased spending in the leisure and entertainment sectors, the cost of living factor is a thought, spending is a deed, in 2015 deeds will prevail, IMO.

  49. The new ICM poll looks incredibly wrong and I really doubt UKIP will get just 20% in the Europe election.

  50. @Ken “………the cost of living factor is a thought, spending is a deed,…..”

    But the critical question is what element of society is responsible for the increased spending? There may very well still be a cost of living crisis amongst some of the elctorate whilst others are spending happily!

    Ultimately, it really depends upon which type of voters (floating or committed) are those feeling the pinch or are the confident spenders. By definition you are unlikely to be both!! Yet both clearly exist at the moment.

    Do we have any polling results for this type of differentiation?

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