Why did Nicola and Nigel do so well out of the debates? They are authentic and articulate, that’s why.
By Kristi Winters and Edzia Carvalho, the Qualitative Election Study of Britain
May 3, 2015 – With the televised leaders’ appearances behind us, we can assess how their performances have impacted British public opinion in advance of the May 7th vote.
Nicola Sturgeon received the highest positive ratings of any of the British party leaders according to polling conducted in mid-April by TNS. Using a sample of nearly 1200 British adults Ms. Sturgeon’s net approval rating was an impressive +33. Further, her positive rating held steady across Scotland, Wales and England. Perhaps more surprising, she receives the highest approval ratings right across Britain. According to the survey, Ms. Sturgeon earns a net approval of +38 in Wales and the West Country, +33 in Greater London and +30 in the north-east of England.
In comparison her male counterparts did not fare as well. Nigel Farage came second with an overall positive rating of +12. Mr. Cameron earned a net approval of +7, while the other two main party leaders were underwater: Mr. Miliband scoring a net negative approval rating of -8 and Mr. Clegg of -22.
If you’re like us, you might scratch your head at this result. How can two party leaders on such opposite sides of nearly every issue do so well amongst the same voters? More confusingly, how can Nicola Sturgeon – who is very much associated with independence for Scotland – get such high marks from the pro-union English public?
Evidence from the Qualitative Election Study of Britain provides insights into these numbers. Using focus group data from England, Scotland and Wales we have analyzed decided and undecided voters’ impressions of the seven party leaders. Preliminary findings indicate that both Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage hit the ‘sweet spot’ with British voters by being articulate enough to get their values and policy proposals across whilst being authentic enough to be believed. QESB participants gave high marks to politicians for taking a clear and sincere stance on the issues – whether or not they agreed with their policy positions.
Nicola Sturgeon came out on top in our leaders impression exercise right across Britain. Words such as ‘strong’ and ‘passionate’ came up time and again. In both the Welsh and English focus groups the odd participant would confess ‘I wish she was the leader of a different party’. One Cardiff participant disagreed with Ms. Sturgeon’s position on Trident but was appreciative of her reasoned policy position that emphasized conventional weapons instead. In our assessment, our data provides the context needed to understand her unusually high positive rating despite being the face of a second independence referendum. Voters across Britain respect that she says what she believes and delivers her message in a compelling manner.
Nigel Farage also came across as authentic, although in a very different way from Ms. Sturgeon. Mr. Farage was perceived as understanding of the lives of ordinary Britons, especially when contrasted against the ‘out of touch’ main party leaders. Many people referenced the image of him holding a pint and a cigarette. Another common observation was that he spoke in the way ordinary people spoke, not politician-speak. Unlike Ms. Sturgeon’s sincerity, some QESB participants questioned how much of the rhetoric of Mr. Farage was sincere or designed to rile up his base. UKIP-leaning voters felt Farage gave voice to things people like them were thinking, while non-UKIP leaning voters questioned whether he actually believed everything he said.
Based on the QESB data, the reason why Mr. Farage’s net positives are 20 points lower than Ms. Sturgeon is down to Welsh and Scottish voters having vociferously more negative views of him than English voters. Nicola Sturgeon managed to transcend national boundaries with her performance, coming across as reasonable and sincere while voters across England, Scotland and Wales associated words such as ‘racist’ and ‘scary’ with Mr. Farage.
We can compare the ‘sweet spot’ of authenticity and being articulate first with party leaders who were seen as articulate but inauthentic and then with those who were judged to be authentic but inarticulate. The three main party leaders fell afoul of the authentic dimension. All of our debate night viewers complained that the three main party leaders were too stage-managed and their styles were the result of coaching from PR firms. Another common complaint was that the main party leaders gave stock responses that our participants suspected had been prepared beforehand, rather than spontaneously answering an audience member’s question.
On the authentic dimension, Mr. Cameron came out ahead as a result of being seen as more confident and Prime Ministerial. However, focus group participants pointed out he did not answer questions directly in both his televised performances, despite their being weeks apart. Some voters indicated they thought Mr. Miliband’s leadership skills had improved over the course of the campaign, however memories of his ‘betraying his brother’ still lingered. In addition, Mr. Miliband was criticized for his use of stock phrases such as ‘let me explain’ and for talking directly to the camera, which was perceived as a trick he’d be taught by his handlers. Mr. Clegg’s performances were generally well-received. Participants in the 7-way debate and Question Time format rated his performance as comfortable and natural, but the Liberal Democrat leader was already defined as a liar and untrustworthy by most voters in our focus groups. His strong performances could not overcome the sense of betrayal expressed most intensely by those on the political left who voted Liberal Democrat tactically in 2010.
The two party leaders who scored high on authenticity but low on articulation were Natalie Bennett of the Greens in England and Wales and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru. Both were relatively unknown in comparison with the other leaders. Responses in our groups were based primarily on their debate performances or Ms. Bennett’s disastrous interview before the election. QESB participants’ impressions indicated both women came across as sincere, however neither was seen as delivering strong debate performances.
In an interesting contrast with her Scottish counterpart, a criticism of Ms. Wood was her narrow focus on Wales during the debates. In our view, Ms. Sturgeon was able to thread the needle of being an advocate for Scotland while simultaneously linking her party’s values to an anti-austerity, anti-Tory agenda for the United Kingdom. Her commitment to ending austerity policies and keeping out the Tories was clear in her debate responses while Ms. Wood was seen purely as an advocate for people in Wales.
Several voters sympathetic to the Green party expressed disappointment in Ms. Bennett’s performance. Criticisms of her included comments that the policies seemed too idealistic and not properly costed. In more than one focus group participants asked why Caroline Lucas was not representing the Greens on stage. On the measure of authenticity Ms. Bennett was not seen as a typical politician or someone who was acting cynically, but she was not seen as a strong leader.
Understanding what is driving Ms. Sturgeon’s record-high net approval across Britain requires more than survey data, it requires research such as the Qualitative Election Study that listens to the concerns of voters; many of whom are struggling to decide how to vote on May 7th.
Taking bold policy positons is always easier for party leaders who are not on the cusp of real political power. This lesson was learned by the Liberal Democrats since 2010. However, it is clear from our research that voters respond well to those leaders they perceive as speaking plainly and with conviction. Whether their admiration for Ms. Sturgeon’s convictions will remain if the SNP become part of the next government will be a development we will watch in future election studies.
See also: Nicola Sturgeon tops the ratings for leaders’ performance tnsglobal.com
Our thanks go to Dr. Rob Johns of the University of Essex for suggesting the words articulate and authentic to describe the dimensions on which the leaders were evaluated.