Big Data: Who is Winning the Debates?

LONDON (Bywire News) – Last week, TV viewers got to see the party leaders going head to head for the first time in the Campaign. On Tuesday it was Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn before the field was opened up for a Question Time Special.

As always, the first question asked is: who won? YouGov’s snap poll of Tuesday’s debate showed a narrow victory for Boris Johnson. 51% of voters thought Boris Johnson had won the debate compared to 49% who gave it to Jeremy Corbyn.

Most outlets, the next morning, therefore either declared the result a draw or a narrow win for the Tory leader, but that wasn’t the whole story. First, other polls from Martin Lewis, the Times and ITV gave a clear win to the Labour leader.

It’s easy to dismiss online polls such as these as being unusually slanted towards Labour, but it’s hard to argue that followers of The Times and ITV are more likely to be left leaning. They also had a significantly larger sample size than YouGov’s.

The details of YouGov’s poll also paint a slightly more complex picture. Among undecided voters, Jeremy Corbyn won by 59% to 41%. 67% believed he performed well compared to 59% for the Prime Minister.

Almost half of Conservative voters thought he did well while only 33% of Labour voters thought the same of Boris Johnson.

Johnson won on more being more Prime Ministerial and likable while Corbyn was seen as being more trustworthy and in touch with ordinary people.

Voter bias also contains bad news for Johnson. Unsurprisingly most people are more likely to believe the leader of the party they intend to vote for performed well. With the Conservatives currently enjoying a significant lead in all major polls, a 51/49% split starts to look pretty good for the Labour leader.

Biggest losers

However, there were some undisputable losers from these two debates.

The Lib Dems and the SNP lost a court bid to be involved in the ITV debate. After the Question Time special, a couple of days later, Jo Swinson might have been reflecting on a lucky escape. She received a mauling from the Question Time audience and her personal ratings have suffered. Since becoming leader, voters have started to view her less favourably.

A YouGov poll, taken when she became leader, showed that 21% of people viewed her favourably while 29% viewed her negatively.

A more recent poll showed favourable ratings relatively unchanged while negative figures have risen by 19% to 48%.

Even remain voters seem to be turning against her; 33% now have a negative opinion, up 17 points since she became leader. The more exposure she receives, therefore, the less people seem to warm to her. Even so, her party continues to enjoy levels of support not seen since before the coalition days.

Picking a winner

So, who really did win? The answer you believe probably depends on who you support. If you plan to vote Conservative, you’ll grab that top line number of 51%/49%. A win is a win after all.

If you’re a Labour voter you’ll look at the various online polls which show big wins for Corbyn and the sub data which shows him winning over undecideds. Given that most voters expected him to lose the debate, you might also claim that getting close to a tie counts as a win.

For the Lib Dems, though, there really wasn’t much to cheer. The Question time show was Swinson’s big chance to be the alternative to two pretty unpopular leaders, but she didn’t take it.

With her polling looking weaker than hoped, her supporters have been reduced to pointing to the lack of Lib Dem voters in the Question Time audience as proof she was fighting an uneven battle from the beginning. In other words, if you don’t like the result of a game, claim it was rigged from the beginning.

Data, then, is never as reliable as it should be. Every data set contains multiple stories and you’ll probably pick the one which tells the message you want to hear. You can weave your own realities to fit your own beliefs, which can be a bit of a problem because every now and again, data comes along which is hard to argue against like the results of a general election.

Fitting that into your own embedded version of reality can be difficult so many will take the easier result and disbelieve the result itself. We’ll see claims of fraud, cheating or media bias. We’ll be told that voters didn’t know what they were voting for and that we’ll have to run the whole thing again. It takes us into a dangerous place when people cease to accept votes which don’t go the way they want.

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Michael O’Sullivan)


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