TV debates and “game changers”

Laurence Janta-LipinskiAssociate Director
July 09, 2014, 9:45 AM UTC

With little over two months until the Scottish Independence Referendum, most current polling suggests that for the result to be anything other than a resounding vote to remain part of the UK, the Yes campaign will need a “game changer”.

What, therefore, constitutes a “game changer” in the world of politics?

During peacetime and away from an election campaign, the answer is “not much”. In the last four years, looking at YouGov’s GB voting intention polls there are only two or three moments which could realistically be considered game changing events.

The first of these happened almost instantly as the Lib Dems entered coalition and saw their vote share plummet. The only two other events where we saw an instant reaction, rather than the gradual trends that make up much of this graph, were the Omnishambles budget of 2012 and Cameron’s EU veto.

However, in an election campaign when minds and the news agenda are focussed almost solely on the election, are game changers more common?

During the 2010 General Election campaign, with the 24 hour news cycle cranking into overdrive, we were told of numerous events that had the power to alter the outcome of the coming vote. The manifestos came and went, Brown’s bigoted woman comments captured a nation for a day or two and yet the polls remained largely unmoved.

However, despite these events having little or no impact on the state of the parties, there is one moment from 2010 that can, legitimately, be termed a game changer. Clegg, as the leader of Britain’s third party, knew he had nothing to lose in the TV debates but what occurred was beyond what even the most optimistic Lib Dems could have hoped for.

The day before the first debate, our YouGov daily poll had the Lib Dems at 18%, 14% behind Labour with the Tories on more than double at 41%. Fast-forward 48 hours and Clegg’s party had jumped 12% in the polls and now found themselves above Labour (28%) and just 3% behind the Tories. ‘Cleggmania’ had taken hold and over the next week we had the Lib Dems topping our daily poll on two occasions.

And, yet, there is a cautious end to this tale. Despite the boost in the polls (indeed one of YouGov’s competitors even had the Lib Dems winning the election), Clegg’s vote share receded in the run up to the final vote and, in the end, the Lib Dems picked up just 1% more than in 2005 and ended up as Britain’s third largest party, exactly where they had been before Cleggmania started.

As the two campaigns for the Scottish Independence vote make their final demands and concessions ahead of televised debates in Scotland, Salmond will not only be hoping that he can capture the mood like Clegg was able to in 2010, he will be hoping to retain these supporters all the way to September the 18th as they enter the polling booth to mark their X in the yes box.

Follow Laurence on Twitter at @jantalipinski