General election focus groups: How undecided voters see the party leaders

Jerry LatterAssociate Director
May 19, 2017, 1:31 PM GMT+0

What the leaders’ ‘inner animals’ tell us about the way the undecideds will vote

In the past week YouGov has run three focus groups with undecided voters in the run up to the general election. Two of the focus groups were conducted online with participants drawn from marginal constituencies across GB and the third was commissioned by the BBC Sunday Politics programme and was conducted face-to-face in Leeds.

Focus groups are small samples of voters who are asked to discuss topics in more detail than are usually possible with opinion polls. While they don’t claim to be representative of the electorate as a whole, they are useful to help understand in more detail how carefully selected groups of voters think and what shapes their view of politics, policies and politicians.

Personality and leadership

Our undecided voters were clear that a leader’s personality makes a difference when it comes to how they are likely to vote. While policy areas such as health, education and welfare influence which party they support, when it comes down to deciding who to support, it is more about the personalities of the leaders.

“It is about personality now like in American politics” (Leeds, undecided voter).


Although it looks like Theresa May is heading for victory on June 8th, our focus groups demonstrated that while she is seen as competent and effective she is not necessarily well-liked amongst the undecided. When watching video clips of both the interview the Prime Minister and her husband Philip did on The One Show as well as one she did with Andrew Marr, undecided voters felt that May came across as confident and in-control although sometimes she appears to be pushy and a bit patronising.

Many were frustrated that at the time the groups were held, she was speaking in soundbites and had yet to provide fleshed-out policy proposals. Despite this frustration, many agreed that, like her or not, May’s manner and approach were Prime Ministerial.

“TM came across as a groomed professional politician. Yes she appears like a PM” (Online, undecided, remain voter)


By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was seen as having a warmer and more principled personality, but one which was less likely to show leadership qualities. While some undecided voters (including ones who had previously backed Labour) were positive towards the (then just-leaked) Labour manifesto, they were actively considering voting against Corbyn because of his personality and their view of his leadership skills.

When watching videos of the Labour leader both delivering his conference speech and being interviewed by the BBC, the Leeds focus group generally agreed that he came across as passionate and engaged when delivering his conference speech, but appeared hesitant and evasive – even lost – when being interviewed by the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.

“Corbyn is consistent, principled and I think sincere, however, he seems to be being managed by the unions and others behind him which is why he lacks conviction in some things he says” (Online leave viewers)


Animal instincts

In each of the three focus groups we ran, participants were asked to describe and/or draw what they perceived as the party leader’s animal personality to reveal more about what they saw as their inner characteristics. Theresa May was commonly described as reptilian – a snake, chameleon or a lizard. This demonstrated the resilience of her character but also the voters' concern that she was cold-blooded and changed her mind, as a chameleon alters its colour to suit its environment.

“Stealthy, deadly, likely to consume you alive” (online, remain voter)


“She would be a very beautiful, large snake! Nice to look at and admire but not to be trusted” (Online, undecided, remain voter)


“Agree that Teresa says one thing then does another - and is a bit too good at never giving a straight and simple answer” (Online participant, Leave voter)


Other animal choices demonstrate how the “strong and stable” mantra has defined May’s campaign and has been internalised by our undecided voters. A camel, cart horse or elephant were all used to describe May’s personality:

“A cart horse. Sturdy, reliable to those who own it and does what you tell it to do” (Online, undecided leave voter)


“Elephant because they stay together in groups, and there slow and steady” (online undecided voter, leave voter)


The choices for Jeremy Corbyn’s inner animal were just as revealing. While those leaning towards Corbyn described him as a gentle and often sympathetic figure – a favourite old teddy bear, a mouse, a scruffy moggy cat or a tortoise – these choices did not necessarily exude belief that he will become the next Prime Minister.

“Old teddy bear in crumpled suit and no tie, homely, likeable, could rely, old friend; soft, scruffy” (Leeds, undecided voter)

However, while a cat and mouse analogy showed Corbyn’s softer personality, it also revealed how undecided voters haven’t ruled him out altogether. As one participant commented, “[a mouse can] catch you buy surprise when you are least expecting them.” Using the analogy of the tortoise and the hare, some pondered whether if he sticks to his principles he is still in with a chance to make gains on June 8th:

“Like the tortoise and the hare he doesn’t give up or deviate just follows on his way with determination and the end goal in sight” (Online, undecided voter, leave)


Smaller parties struggling to cut through

The groups showed that, in the eyes of the undecided voters we spoke to, this election is a two-horse race with the smaller parties barely getting a look in. When we asked participants to match leaders with their parties’ slogans, many were unable to name the UKIP Party Leader – Paul Nuttall – or the joint leaders of the Green Party – Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron fared slightly better, but a sizable number of our voter panel were still unable to name him and concluded that he had made little impact on the campaign so far. Interestingly, in all three groups we ran, the position of both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP was felt to have diminished since the last general election, and even those who had voted Lib Dem in the past were not expecting the party to perform well this time around.

More information about YouGov's Qualitative research

Image from PA

Explore more data & articles