The State of Polls in Britain and America

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America goes to the polls in just over five months. On November 6th, one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives is up for election in what Democrats hope will be a referendum on the Trump presidency.

With Robert Mueller’s investigation soon entering its decisive stage, which party controls Capitol Hill will furthermore decide the outcome of any impeachment proceedings. In Britain, with Brexit negotiations potentially heading for a deadlock, some Tory MP’s are reportedly preparing for another general election. So what can current opinion polling tell us about electoral prospects on both sides of the Atlantic?

America

In the United States, Democrats have maintained a consistent lead in the congressional ballot polls for over a year, while Donald Trump’s personal approval ratings remain low. Historically, the party which controls the White House has done badly in midterm elections, especially when the President is unpopular. Yet, as election day draws nearer, the Republicans are increasingly optimistic.

The reason for this stems partly from the fact that the Democratic poll lead has not exceeded 6% for a few months. To understand why what appears to be a substantial advantage is actually bad news for the opposition party requires a bit of context.

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Source: FiveThirtyEight

Elections to the House of Representatives are not conducted based on popular vote. Much like the ‘First Past the Post’ system used to elect MPs to Westminster, each state is split into a number of congressional districts, with each containing roughly 700,000 people. The outline of these districts changes every ten years following the census, with the current electoral map having been drawn up in 2010.

So far so good, yet here’s the kicker: in most states, congressional districts are drawn up by whichever party happens to control the state legislature, and mapping districts in a way which benefits your own side (gerrymandering) is not strictly speaking illegal. In 2010, the Republicans won the majority of election to local government, and the congressional map they subsequently drew up gives them a substantial in-built advantage. This is why the current Democrat poll lead is terrifically deceptive. In 2012, they won the congressional popular vote 49% to 48% but walked away with a mere 201 seats, or 46% (to the GOP’s, 234, or 54%). At every subsequent House election, the Democrats have won a lower share of seats relative to their popular vote.

How big is the Republican advantage, exactly? No one knows for sure, however, analysts with a far better understanding of the US electoral map than me, such as David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, have estimated that ‘Democrats would need to win the national popular vote by between six to seven points in order to win the barest possible house majority.’ Do recall that their current poll lead is around 6%, and the standard polling margin of error is about 3-4%. This means that, as polls currently stand, control of the House is a complete tossup. In a year when media expectations have often been pointing towards a blue landslide, and when the White House is occupied by a historically unpopular Republican President, this should seriously worry Democrats.

Of course, the midterms are still five months away, and either side can still expect the polls to shift in their favour. Moreover, actual results since November 2016 have been far more positive for Democrats than current polls might suggest. Many have pointed to the Alabama special election last December in which Democrat Doug Jones won a deep-red state in a dramatic upset. However, as I’ve written here, that result should be considered an outlier. What should worry Republicans far more is the recent special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, where Democrat Conor Lamb came very narrowly ahead in an area which Trump won by 19 points in 2016. Other recent contests, such as the Virginia gubernatorial election last November, also had Democrats massively overperforming their polling figures.

Britain

The most important thing to note about how polls in the UK have behaved since last year’s snap election is that they’ve been remarkably stable. Despite the current government chaos over the Brexit negotiations, despite the Windrush Scandal and despite Labour’s ongoing row over anti-semitism, both major parties have remained sitting at around 40%, or, in other words, basically where both Labour and the Conservatives stood last June. It is true that, over the past two months, the Tories have seemingly opened a narrow lead, but one barely of 2% (the same as their popular vote lead at the last election). As the now infamous saying goes, it seems that “nothing has changed.”

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Source: Britain Elects

I could be wrong, but it seems extremely unlikely that Theresa May will call another snap election unless the Tories are forced into one due to a collapse over Brexit negotiations. After 2017, when a poll lead of 20% practically evaporated over the course of two months, no seeming advantage will ever be good enough for the Conservatives for some time to come. For the same reason, the Labour leadership are not worried by their current inability to break ahead (for the polls to be so close this long into one party’s rule should normally cause the opposition to worry). Furthermore, Labour hopes that Brexit and the economy will go badly enough that a substantial swing can be expected by 2022.

Should a general election happen later this year, however, it seems that all is to play for. It’s true that Labour is not performing anywhere near well enough right now to hope for a governing majority, yet, they do have a real chance to form a minority administration. What has to be kept in mind is that, with the current electoral map, only a very narrow swing can be enough to kick Theresa May out of Downing Street.

As of last June, 17 Conservative Seats are held by a majority of less than 1000, requiring a swing of 1% or less for them to change hands. The Conservatives currently hold 316 seats, with 326 officially required for a majority. However, since the Northern Irish Sinn Féin doesn’t take their seats, that number is realistically 319, and the DUP (with 10 seats) has so far ensured that the Tories are able to govern.

However, if the Conservatives lose only 8 out of the 17 seats in which they have a less than 1000 vote majority (and Sinn Féin retains all of theirs), it starts being difficult to see how they can continue to remain in power, especially given that the Lib Dems are unlikely to prop up a hard-Brexit Tory party. Furthermore, just to illustrate how fragile the current balance of power is, the Conservatives would lose 31 seats on a uniform 2% swing. In that scenario, Jeremy Corbyn almost certainly becomes Prime Minister (this is another reason why the last election was far closer than it may have seemed).

With that being said, the reverse may also be true if Labour has a bad night. 19 and 25 of the party’s seats lie within a 1% and 2% swing respectively, meaning Theresa May has a fairly decent chance of salvaging an overall majority (note: not all of these ultra-marginal seats are Labour/Conservative battlegrounds, especially as a number of them are in Scotland). The conclusion here is that whilst general election polls have remained remarkably consistent, we can take away the following:

  1. Labour is far from an overall majority but very close to a potential minority government.
  2. The Conservatives are on the brink of losing power but have a similarly good shot at regaining David Cameron’s lost majority.
  3. Theresa May would be mad to call an election at this time.

Do keep in mind that I am only taking polls into account here. Labour hopes that in the event an election is called, its campaigning machine will be able to gain ground similar to the way it did last year. Moreover, some hope is placed in the fact that broadcasters are obligated to provide both parties with a fair share of coverage during an election campaign. Overall, the thing about UK voting intention surveys at the moment is that neither party is putting that much faith in them.

You can find more of Peter’s writing at his blog, Officially Denied, or hear his podcasts here.

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