Is it only the Blue Team that can defy the pollsters?
As we ponder whether there are historical precedents for a party to defy the polling and go on to win an election it’s hard to find examples in the Red side.
For the shocks that most stand out to me were 1970 – the first I covered as a professional journalist – and 1992 when I was a candidate. In the former Heath’s Tories came to power against most expectations and in the latter John Major totally defied the polls to hold on.
In 1945, as the war was coming to a close, the widespread perception was that a grateful nation would reward Winston Churchill with a general election victory. That didn’t happen and Clement Attlee’s landslide has been widely regarded as a shock.
Yet the polls, which were still in their infancy, were pointing to a percentage vote gap that was larger than actually happened. In the three 1945 Gallup polls Labour had leads of 20%, 19% and 13%. Labour’s winning vote margin was just 8%.
In February 1974, the one where Heath called an election in middle of the energy crisis and the three day week, the Tories ended up with more votes but fewer seats and there was a hung parliament. Labour was understated in the polls but only by minuscule amounts and the outcome was not a shock on the scales of 1970 and 1992.
The one election where Labour really did defy the pollsters is not one it likes being reminded of – Mrs. Thatcher’s landslide in 1983. All the firms understated Michael Foot’s Labour though they still finished on just 28.3% – fifteen points behind.
In polling terms Tony Blair’s great victory in 1997 stands out for the way all the firms bar ICM overstated Labour’s margin by quite considerable amounts.