Don’t take it personally? Will how we think of party leaders affect how we vote?

Professor Charles Pattie

Sheffield Methods Institute/Department of Geography

University of Sheffield


KING LEAR:      Dost thou know me, fellow?

KENT:                No, sir; but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.

KING LEAR       What’s that?

KENT:                Authority.


With just over a month and a half to go before the UK’s 2015 General Election, the campaign is hotting up. Much of the focus is, and will be, on alternative policy proposals and visions of the country’s future. But the personalities of the main players, especially the party leaders, will also be under scrutiny. The leaders carry much of the burden of media attention and become, literally, the faces of their parties (leading some to ask whether British politics has become increasingly Presidential in nature). The focus is on not just on what the leaders say, but what their actions reveal about their characters. Are they nervous or confident? Trustworthy or shifty? Out of touch or the common touch? Decisive or ditherer? Clever or clodhopper? Commanding personality or geek? Nice or nasty?

Although often derided as trivial (“Shouldn’t we concentrate on the policies…?”), the focus on political leaders’ personalities actually is important. Elections choose governments, which face difficult decisions under high pressure conditions. To get their policies through, leaders need to: build support within their government; win over major interests affected by the policies; and win agreement from foreign governments. They therefore require not only clear policy visions, but also quickness of mind, force of personality, a capacity to persuade, a degree of empathy with others, a willingness to take painful decisions and, not least, considerable inner reserves of self-confidence and resilience if they are to be effective. The personal is certainly political.

Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests personality can be electorally important. The result of the 2000 US Presidential contest was controversially close. But in one area, likeability, Bush did win: a Roper Starch survey for the Sam Adams brewing company showed that 40% of Americans would rather have a beer with Bush than with Gore (37% chose Gore over Bush – the remainder were undecided).  Four years later, he repeated the feat: a Zogby/Williams Identity poll then suggested that 57% preferred Bush to rival John Kerry as a potential drinking companion.

Personality matters in UK politics, too. During the 1980s, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gained (and revelled in) a reputation for strength and decisiveness: she was the Iron Lady and was ‘not for turning’ (that she did execute several policy U-turns in the course of her premiership was largely ignored by the public). Her opponents, Labour’s Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, were both seen as weaker, less forceful figures – more caring, perhaps, but less effective. In the 1990s, Labour’s Tony Blair – at least initially – outshone his rivals – younger, more attractive, more energetic than John Major in 1997, more serious, more experienced, safer than William Hague in 2001. By the mid-2000s, however, perceptions of his personality had changed, partly because of war in Iraq: less likeable, less trustworthy.  Nor is this focus on personality a new feature of political life, as the opening epigraph, from Shakespeare’s King Lear, illustrates.

So is the 2015 election going to be a ‘beauty contest’ between the leaders? If it is, then all the parties need to worry. An Ipsos MORI poll conducted between 8th and 11th March 2015 shows why. Respondents were asked to say whether they liked or disliked the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip, and their respective leaders. In every case, considerably more voters dislike the party leader than like them. Even so, some leaders might still prove an electoral asset to their parties. Disliked though they are, David Cameron Nigel Farage are not as unpopular as their parties. But Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are not only pretty unpopular in their own rights, but they are also noticeably less popular than their parties (considerably so in the case of Miliband and Labour).


What’s more, as the graphic below (also taken from the 8-11 March Ipsos MORI survey) shows, this is linked to vote intention. In almost every case (the exception is for Ed Miliband and Labour), far more of those who like a leader than of those who dislike him intend to vote for his party.


It seems to be an open-and-shut case: the more personable a party’s leader, the more votes the party stands to win.

But is it really so simple? A major complication is that we do not form our opinions of the party leaders in isolation from our views of their parties, creating a huge chicken-and-egg problem. What comes first: opinions of the leaders’ personalities or support for their parties? If the former, voters’ evaluations of leaders’ personalities really matter in elections. If the latter, they might well not matter at all. Conservative supporters are more likely to think David Cameron a decent chap than are Labour supporters; Ukip supporters are liable to think Nigel Farage a more congenial companion in the pub than are Liberal Democrat supporters, and so on.

How can we find out which it is? Their other merits notwithstanding, surveys which interview people at just one time point (such as the Ipsos MORI poll discussed above) are not well-suited to answering this question. To do so, we need surveys which re-interview the same individuals on at least two (and preferably more) occasions (in the jargon, a panel survey). Because the same people are being interviewed each time, we can see how their views change. And because they cannot travel backwards in time, we know that while their views in the past might affect their future now, their opinions now can’t affect their opinions then.

The 2015 British Election Study provides one such survey. It interviews a (very) large sample of voters repeatedly over time. The first wave took place in February/March 2014; people were re-interviewed for a second time in May/June 2014, and then for a third time in September/October 2014. Further waves are being conducted just before the election, during the campaign, and immediately after the ballot, but the data from these are – understandably – not yet available. For out purposes, however, the first three waves are sufficient to illustrate the point.

In each wave of the survey, respondents were asked to assess, on an 11-point scale, how likely they thought they were to vote for each party: if they were very unlikely to do so, they scored 0; if they were very likely to, they scored 10. They were also asked how much they liked or disliked each of the party leaders (again, this was coded on an 11-point scale, from 0 for strongly dislike to 10 for strongly like).

The ‘probability of voting for party x’ questions in the third, most recent, wave of the survey gives an estimate of vote intentions and is shown in the figure below. All four of the parties competing throughout Britain turned significant numbers of voters off entirely: around a quarter of respondents said they would not consider voting Labour. A third each said they would not vote Conservative or Lib Dem, and 40% said they would not vote UKIP. The Liberal Democrats were the least popular party: their mean score on the 11-point scale was 2.7, compared to 2.1 for UKIP, 2.9 for the Conservatives, and 4.2 for Labour.


How was this related to perceptions of the party leaders? To find out, the next figure shows what people said about how much they liked each leader in the second wave of the survey, about 5 months before they discussed how likely they were to vote for each party.


But remember that people started out as supporters of particular parties, and opponents of others. And this will colour their views of the party leaders. In Wave 1 of the BES survey, in February/March 2014, respondents were asked which, if any, of the parties they identified with. And, not surprisingly, this correlates strongly with what they thought of the party leaders five months later, in Wave 2. As the figure below demonstrates, each party’s supporter rated its leader higher – usually substantially so – than they rated any of the other leaders.


So, voters are more inclined to vote for a party of they already like the leader. But they will be more inclined to think well of the leader if they already support the party!

A bit of statistical manipulation can help clarify things. Using the method of multivariate regression, we can see how much one factor affects another: the key statistic is R2, varies between 0 (when one variable has no effect on another) and 1 (when the first variable perfectly explains the second). Not surprisingly, how much individuals liked a party’s leader in May/June went quite a long way towards explaining how likely they thought they would be to vote for it in September/October. This is illustrated in the next figure. For instance, 65% of the variation in the likelihood of voting Conservative in autumn 2014 can be explained by how much people liked Cameron in summer 2014, as can 54% of the likelihood of voting Labour by earlier attitudes to Miliband, and so on.


Similarly, as the figure below shows, knowing which party people identify with in early 2014 helps explain what they thought of the party leaders in the summer of that year – especially so for David Cameron and Ed Miliband: individuals’ party allegiances explain around 40% of how they thought of those leaders. In comparison, party allegiance is a less effective guide to what people thought of Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage (in part because their parties had fewer adherents than was the case for the other two leaders): around 18% of the variation in attitudes towards them can be explained by party allegiances at the start of the year.


But regression has a further, very attractive property: it allows us to look simultaneously at how several factors influence another. And what is more, it shows the effect of each factor control for all the others. So we can see how much individuals’ evaluations of the party leaders’ characters in summer 2014 influences their likelihood of voting for the party in the autumn, controlling for their partisan leanings at the very start of the year.  When we do so (in the diagram below), the effects of leaders’ personalities on likelihood of voting for their party diminish. The extent to which the effect diminishes is quite marked for both Labour and the Conservatives. Taking party allegiance into account reduces by around three quarters the ability of opinions of David Cameron or of Ed Miliband of the likelihood of voting Conservative to explain how likely people feel they are to vote for their parties (down from 65% to 15%, and from 54% to 14% respectively). Evaluations of their characters are not unimportant, therefore. But they are nothing like as electorally consequential as they might initially seem, largely because people have made up their mind of what they think of each leader largely (but not entirely) on partisan grounds. Labour supporters like Ed but hate David – and are not surprisingly quite likely to vote Labour. Similarly, Conservative supporters approve of David, but despise Ed – and are liable to vote Conservative. For the ‘big two’ parties especially, tribalism still matters.


Controlling for prior partisanship also reduces the influence of opinions of Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage’s characters on the perceived likelihood of voting for their parties. But, interestingly, not by anything like as much as for the ‘big two’. Even when partisanship is taken into account, almost 30% of individuals’ self-perceived chances of voting Liberal Democrat can be accounted for by whether they like the party’s leader (twice as much as for the Conservatives or Labour). And 43% of individuals’ perceived chances of voting UKIP can be accounted for by whether the like Nigel Farage (three times the equivalent effect of attitudes towards Cameron or Clegg on support for their parties).

Part of the issue here is that, for smaller parties, the leader bears a larger part of the burden of representing the party (and, in the absence of sustained media coverage of the party, voters are likely to have less firm views on what the party stands for). Personalities matter, therefore. But they matter more for less prominent parties. The implications for the Liberal Democrats and for UKIp are intriguing, therefore. To a larger extent than is the case for Labour or the Conservatives, their fates seem tied to eprceptions of their leaders. The Lib Dems’ misfortune is that their leader is currently deeply unpopular. The challenge for UKIP, meanwhile, is that their leader is almost the only figure in the party who is easily recognised by voters (as a mark of that, the BBC News website recently ran a jokey feature asking readers how many previous UKIP leaders they recognised: for most, the answer was none!). Should Mr Farage step down from the limelight, would UKIP survive?


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