Are the political opinion pollsters getting it wrong?

It’s pretty common for the polling companies at the moment to ask how people would vote with a Brown/Cameron/Campbell match-up, and the result typically¬†is the Lib Dems dropping a few points compared with Blair/Cameron/Campbell.

But what do these figures really tell us? Take the latest Populus poll for The Times. It uses the question:

Q.5 Now I’d like you to think ahead to the next election, expected in 3 or 4 years time. Imagine that the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair as Labour leader and the Conservatives are led by David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats by Ming Campbell. Which party would you vote for – or would you vote for another party or not vote at all?

That “3 or 4 years time” wording is crucial. It’s asking people how they think they will vote in the future AND under different leaders. The result doesn’t tell us whether changes from current voting intentions are due to different leaders or due to the imaginary vote being in 3-4 years time rather than today.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s well known that the Liberal Democrats are good are picking up support from floating voters, so our support is often softer than that for other parties. Hence pushing the voting question into the future means it’s no surprise Lib Dem voters are less sure of who they’ll vote for than other parties.

Conclusion? The poll doesn’t tell us that the Lib Dems will do worse if Gordon Brown is leader.

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