Behavioural politics, day 17 of 30

The two stories of today are all about Nick Clegg:

  1. There's a debate tonight. Would Clegg perform as well as last week and maintain momentum, or would he be successfully neutralised by the other two (mainly, that is, by Cameron)?
  2. The Tory-supporting papers have decided now is the time to focus all their fire on Clegg. Will it work?
The debate itself was quite interesting - a much more even performance than last week's.

Brown is clearly hoping that people will focus on policy by now, but it's too early for that. The debate format is still a novelty - all the attention is therefore on presentation and on what the three leaders have learned or changed since last week.

This inevitably makes it another expectations game - Clegg was expected to be not quite so dominant, Cameron to be a bit better, Brown to be the same old Brown. And nobody did anything obvious to break out of expectations - so the debate will have mostly triggered the confirmation bias for voters' existing attitudes.

But there's one important game which played out immediately after the broadcast. Viewers who had no strong feelings about the debate, or who didn't see it, will have their judgement strongly influenced by social consensus. I've mentioned the Asch social conformity experiment before and it applies again here. This is why the Sun and YouGov were so keen to get their poll out immediately after the debate. If they declare Cameron the winner, people without a strong opinion would be more likely to say he won when asked afterwards. Thus, any poll taking place more than 15 minutes after the end of the debate is of little value as an objective comparison - it only measures how much people believe the earlier polls.

So the question to ask yourself about these polls is not: do you believe them? but: do you believe other people will believe them? If the answer's yes, then Cameron has the advantage. If not, probably Clegg. Either way, Brown is the definitive underdog now.

Which is also clear from the other story of the day, the Tory papers' vicious attacks on Nick Clegg. They appear to have decided by now that there's no need to bother with Brown any more - Clegg is the real threat. One paper has dug up an article he wrote years ago and printed a bunch of quotes out of context; another has found a "scandal" in which he received donations through his personal bank account to fund a researcher's salary. Whatever your political position, it seems clear that these stories are classic scaremongering.

That said, they may work. Nick Clegg has the huge advantage of being relatively unknown, and therefore having little negative baggage attached. It is probable that - due to the same mechanisms that explain loss aversion - we place more weight on negative than positive stories. Indeed, I'd argue that there is really no weighting process at all - more of a binary choice mechanism, where we simply ask ourselves whether there are bad things about a choice as well as good ones. If all three choices have both bad and good points, they will seem roughly equivalent at a casual inspection.

So if these papers can create the impression that Clegg has some skeletons in his closet, however minor, then he loses a big part of his edge over the other candidates. The hope for the Lib Dems is that the stories are so excessive that they can paint this as a Murdoch campaign to "overthrow British democracy". This message is starting to get some traction - ironically despite the fact that neither of the papers in question (the Mail and the Telegraph) are owned by Rupert Murdoch!

Mainly, the Lib Dems get stronger every day they survive without a major knock to their popularity. And they've hung on one more day today.

Ratings: Liberal Democrats 7/10, Conservatives 6/10, Labour 4/10.


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