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In late April the Tory data chief, Jim Messina, told senior Tories that his modelling pointed to a CON majority of 290

December 5th, 2017

Put this on your “Christmas” list

I’m just back in the UK after my holiday on the West Coast of the US visiting my son, Robert, and his family who have moved to LA from London in July.

Part of my holiday reading was Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election by Tim Ross and Tom McTague which was published last month.

It is an absorbing read giving a detailed account of GE2017 based on conversations with many of the key players and provides interesting revelations that look remarkable given what we know now.

The top point for me that put all this into context is the one highlighted in the heading – what Tory chiefs were being told ten days into the campaign. This is an extract.

“.. Ten days into the campaign, Jim Messina, the American data consultant working with the Tories, told Stephen Gilbert, Lynton Crosby, Mark Textor and other senior figures that his modelling suggested the Conservatives would win 470 seats – enough for a staggering majority of 290, more than double Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide – and an exponential improvement on David Cameron’s winning margin of twelve.

It was an extraordinary moment and one that caused serious concern among those at the top of the campaign who already feared expectations were spiralling out of control. Messina’s forecast was the high-water mark for the tide of Tory optimism, but right up to election day the most senior campaign officials thought they would make strong advances into Labour territory… “

Although this inevitably got ratcheted down as the campaign progressed the view throughout the seven weeks that an increased majority was a certainty had a totally adverse impact on Conservative thinking. Quite simply it skewed the party’s whole management of the election and approach to seat targeting.

This is how the authors describe what happened when in late May a poll had the lead narrowing sharply. They were so convinced of the outcome that it was dismissed.

“.. On May 25th YouGov ran a poll in the Times, cutting the Tory lead over Labour to just five points. It was the first clear sign that a real change could be happening but was widely dismissed by commentators and analysts as unrealistic. Five days later, YouGov produced something even more dramatic: a seat projection model that said the Tories were on course to lose their majority in a hung parliament. Jim Messina and Mark Textor did not believe it. Sitting inside CCHQ, Messina composed a message on Twitter: ‘Spent the day laughing at yet another stupid poll from .@yougov. Hey .@benleet do you want to bet for charity? I’ll take the over.’ Messina showed it to colleagues and asked if he could tweet it, before doing so…”

But it wasn’t just the Tory campaign that was getting a distorted view of what was happening. Labour’s private pollsters were also giving a gloomy picture for their client. This from just before polling day:

“.. The picture from Labour’s own pollsters BMG was pessimistic. For most of the campaign, BMG had been forecasting a Tory majority of 150. On election day, they thought May was on course for a majority of 80…”

In a telling point on LAB targeting the authors report that activists believe they would have come a lot closer to the CON seat totals if they’d known what was really happening.

If you are being pressed to suggest ideas of Christmas presents for yourself then mention this book. It is a must read for all who follow polls and election forecasting.

Mike Smithson