Is Danny Finkelstein right about televised party leader debates?

Over at The Times, Danny Finkelstein has cast doubt on the possible impact of the televised party leader debates at our next general election:

By the time of the campaign proper they are probably too late. We should be having these debates now if we want them to be influential.

In his piece, Danny draws on the evidence from the US (only – not from other Parliamentary democracies with TV debates, tsk tsk). However, there is some very relevant evidence from the UK. It’s from the polling carried out by The Times’s own pollster, Populus, at the time of the last general election into when people made up their minds how to vote:

34% – in 2004 or earlier
15% – in 2005, but before election was called
(49% in total before election campaign)*
16% – 3-4 weeks before polling day
9% – week before election
2% – last weekend
22% – last couple of days
(49% during the campaign)

This polling is consistent with other evidence, such as surveys that reinterview people during election campaigns and track fluctuating views, canvass figures during campaigns and the changing patterns in postal votes which are posted on different days during a campaign.

The presence of TV debates may well delay people’s decision making, but even if it doesn’t that would leave on similar trends around a third deciding after the last debate. That is a very large number, particularly given that a difference over only a few percentage points separates triumph from disaster for any of the main three parties.

* For Liberal Democrat voters this figures was even lower – 20%.

UPDATE: I have since somewhat changed my views for the reasons given in More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box.

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