Predicting low turn-out elections

Predicting low turn-out elections


With almost all the parties having launched their local and Euro campaigns for “Super Thursday” on June 10 the nightmare for political gamblers and others who like to predict these things is how do you deal with very low-turnouts?

    For low-turnouts can completely distort a result making prediction very challenging and can cause politicians and commentators to draw totally wrong conclusions about the way the public feels.

Before the 1999 Euro Elections all the polls had support for Labour at well over 50%. On election day the party received just over half the opinion poll figures and the Tories experienced their one and only success under Willam Hague’s leadership.

In the following months the poll positions were unmoved but the Euro result convinced Hague that by playing the Euro card he could stand a chance at the General Election. This proved to be a terrible mistake.

All the evidence is that the lower the turnout the better it is for the Tories which is why political gamblers should be very careful about drawing conclusions from the June 10 votes. If it goes badly for Labour, as seems likely, then the Tories might harden on the General Election markets. Ignore this or use the opportunity of weaker Labour prices to get better value bets on.

The last heavily polled, and as it turned out, very low turn-out election was Ken Livingstone’s London mayoral campaign in 2000. This was a unique event in British politics receiving a massive amount of media coverage and before the polls opened nobody really knew how the electorate would treat it. Would the voting levels be similar to a normal London local election or would it, as seemed to be suggested by the polls, see the levels of turn-out experienced at a General Election?

A final week poll by ICM had 50% saying they were “absolutely certain” to vote with a further 13% saying they were 80-90% likely to turn-out. This poll recorded 51% saying they were voting for Ken Livingstone with 68% declaring themselves in the “absolutely certain” to vote category. Steve Norris’s final poll figure was 17% with a similar proportion to Ken saying they were “absolutely certain” to go to the polling station.

To make the betting interesting one of the spread companies had a market on whether Ken Livingstone would get 50% of the poll or not.

    The pollsters’ turnout predictions were a disaster. A third of those who had declared themselves “absolutely certain” to vote had been lying and the biggest group of liars were those who had told the pollsters that they were supporting Ken.

The final turnout was 34%. Ken Livingstone was down to 39% while Norris got 27%. The small proportion number of people voting had totally skewed ICM’s prediction because it was just the Ken Livingstone “absolutely certains” who had not been telling the truth.

Is it any wonder that this time the opinion pollsters seem to have been reluctant to put their reputations on the line by carrying out polls on the 2004 London Mayoral Election? Political gamblers should also be very careful here – the fact that huge numbers of Londoners support Ken is irrelevant. How many will actually turnout for him?

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