Going to the polls

As voters across the country head to the polls, we look at the General Election from three University research perspectives – Politics, the Media and Psychology.

On the political platform

This year’s General Election is one of the most hotly debated in decades. Although only officially called a few weeks before polling day on May 6, it seems that politicians have been campaigning for our votes for months. Now as the time for people to head to their local polling station draws near, it can seem that there is little else in the news.

Dr Martin Durham is a Politics lecturer at the University’s School of Law, Social Sciences and Communications. In the run-up to the big day, it became clear that one issue was at the forefront of the politicians’, and voters’, minds - the economy.

"It is overwhelmingly about the economy," Martin explains. "People are going to feel very worried about their situation in a way that in previous elections, they may not have been.

"People will have specific worries about particular jobs that are likely to be in the firing line, both in the public and private sectors. But people will also have generalised worries about whether their family is going to get through this time as well as they would like."

Another issue that can impact on any election campaign is law and order, particularly if something high profile happens in the weeks or months leading up to the day.

"If people feel threatened or insecure in some way, then that can be an important issue for them," Dr Durham says.

Looking at the historical context of this election, Martin says it is an important one as many commentators have described it as being close between the parties. This may induce more people to vote, as they will view it as an opportunity to make a difference. But Martin also says that people are less loyal to political parties, and this has been true for several decades.

Through the eyes of the media

1997 was a pivotal election in many ways – it marked the end of 18 years of Conservative rule and the beginning of New Labour. But it was also a transitional election in terms of the media, as it marked the emergence of 24-hour news coverage. By the 2001 election, rolling news was a fixture of the election, and has continued to grow from there.

In 2010, the biggest change has been the role of the internet, and in particular, social networking sites. Head of the Media and Film department Paul Brighton describes it as the first social media election, with politicians and their families using sites such as Facebook and Twitter to engage with, and win over, voters.

Paul cites Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign as an important turning point.

"His team tried to become part of the social network discourse rather than reacting to them, and this marked a significant step change to a new form of campaigning," he explains.

The 24-hour news and the internet gives journalists more of an opportunity to wrest control of the news agenda from the politicians.

"There has been a traditional battle, even in the more established forms of media, between the politicians saying "today’s issue will be Subject X" while the journalists are stating "We are interested in Subject Y". There are more opportunities for journalists to vary stories because there are more outlets. But even with the most sophisticated media monitoring service, you cannot capture everything from the various broadcasters, internet sites, blogs and social media sites."

A new addition to this year’s election has been the televised leaders’ debates. America first held one 50 years ago, and although there was a period without these, they have been a fixture in the USA since 1976. But this was a new aspect of the campaign for Britain, and one Paul believes is here to stay.

Paul argues that the role of the media in any election campaign depends on the quality of debate between the parties, although politicians may see this differently.

"Politicians get frustrated because they think the media spends too long focusing on the mechanics of spin and message communication, rather than policy. In the last three or four elections, the media coverage has focused on whether politicians are trying to influence the media – but it is difficult to say whether voters find that interesting," he says.

And although, at times, it may seem like you can not escape a particular party or politician wherever you go, there are strict guidelines from the media watchdog Ofcom regulating coverage once an election is formally called. Broadcasters have to ensure the main political parties have an equal share of the air time, especially on debates such as Question Time.

Decisions, decisions

Aside from the party faithful who will vote in one direction regardless of the candidate or issue, what makes a person vote a certain way, or even cast their vote at all? Professor Ken Manktelow is a Psychologist from the University’s School of Applied Sciences and argues that an election where the outcome is uncertain is more likely to draw voters out of their homes.

"You may wonder why anyone would bother to vote as there is no return – the best you can hope for is a warm glow for being a good citizen. But people are more likely to vote when they think it is going to make a difference. If they live in a safe seat in a predictable General Election then they are less likely to vote than if they live in a marginal constituency when the national outcome is uncertain," he explains.

Professor Manktelow says that people who have no party allegiance will make their decision in one of three ways. Firstly, they will look for the party that most closely corresponds with their world view, for example if they are a freemarket libertarian they will seek out a party with similar opinions. Secondly, people will make their choice in the same way they would select a house or car – by elimination. They take every attribute into account, for example price, and then exclude items that fall out of that range.

"People will do the same with voting preference," Ken says. "They will choose an issue they feel strongly about and choose between the parties. If you are pro or anti- Europe, you choose a party that has a corresponding policy. If more than one party has a policy you agree with, you will then look at the next important issue to you."

Some people, however, will make a decision intuitively, and almost be unable to explain how they came to that conclusion.

"In Presidential elections, it is more often than not the tallest candidate and the one with the most hair that wins. Uncommitted voters make their judgments in an intuitive way – they almost think without thinking and select based on personal attractiveness.

"But when asked why they voted in a particular way, they will not say ‘they were the most attractive candidate’ as everybody believes they wouldn’t make decisions on that basis. It is going on below the surface. What makes someone attractive is not just about being good looking, as a person with film star good looks is not necessarily the best leader or football manager."

In other cases, people will cast their vote tactically, which involves trying to second guess what other people will do.

"Tactical voting requires the candidate and the voter to think strategically. This is decision making based on what others are doing. There is also the ‘bandwagon effect’ which is when there is a feeling in the media that a person is going to win, and that idea spreads through a population."

However the voting goes on May 6, it will have been an interesting General Election, whichever way you look at it.