Archive for April, 2004


Finding Elusive Tories – the challenge for the pollsters

Tuesday, April 13th, 2004


In the weeks before the last General Election a remarkable techicial innovation took place with almost no publicity. Several thousand households were telephoned by a computer and whoever answered was asked questions about their voting intention by a computer-generated voice to which they responded by using the phone’s keypad. Within hours the UK’s first ever completely automated opinion poll results were published.

The opinion poll establishment, if there is such a thing, was horrified. The BBC ruled that this new methodology was “not approved” and ordered that no mention of it or the results should on any BBC outlet throughout the whole campaign. This turned out to be the BBC’s and the public’s loss.

    For by using a computer rather than a live person to ask the questions the polls, by Rasmussen, for the Independent, put the Tories at 33% – the actual result was 32.7%.

The expereince is that many Tories are reluctant to tell a stranger their political views, or are inclined to give what they think is the “correct” answer rather than what they actually believe. But the Rasmussen experiment demonstrated that reluctant interviewees are quite happy to declare their intentions to a remote machine – but not to a live interviewer.

There is a history of polls underestimating the Tories. In 1992 John Major’s Tories were returned to power after achieving an 8% lead over Labour in the popular vote even though all but one of the pollsters were forecasting Labour leads. Even the BBC’s exit poll had it wrong. In the London Mayoral race in 2000 the average polling figure for the Tory candidate was 13% – less than half the 27% that was achieved.

One measure conventional polls use to correct potential bias is to ask which way respondents voted last time and to weight the overall result accordingly. Thus, in broad terms, if the Tories got 30% in the actual election and only 20% of those you interview say they voted for the party then you adjust your survey figure for the party by upto a half.

The use of the internet by the polling firm YouGov has produced higher Tory percentages because, like the automated phone calls, it’s thought that people are less likely to lie to a computer than to a real interviewer. But only about half the population have access to the internet and this, it is argued, will skew your result.

Will there be more polls such as the automated ones? Will the BBC changed their view? Political gamblers have a big interest in this because the polls are the main way that we can find out how elections are going.

With the next General Election likely to be much tighter than the last interpreting opinion polls correctly could be the secret of success.


The Monday Political Betting Calls

Monday, April 12th, 2004


Here we make a call when we believe that the chances of something happening are better than the prices that are available. For the sake of consistency all odds quoted on are in the decimal format. Unlike traditional UK bookmaker odds decimal odds do include the stake. So a price of 6/4 would on this site equate to 2.5. You put on £100 and you get back 2.5 times the stake – £250. All prices quoted are at time of posting.

UK General Election

  • On the main market of which party will win most seats – The way the Westminster boundaries are drawn mean that Tony Blair can retain a Commons majority on 32% of the vote. The only choice in this market is Labour – the issue is what odds you can get. The current prices of 1.2-1.3 should rise after Labour’s expected poor performance in the Euro & Local Elections on June 10. WAIT UNTIL JUNE 11 BEFORE BACKING LABOUR
  • The Number of Labour seats. The bookmakers do not seem to have factored in the boundary changes in Scotland that reduces the overall number of Westminster seats by 13 – at least 10 of which will be Labour. Even so the current spread on Labour 332-342 is risky. There is a huge down-side risk with spread-betting and it is possible here to bet on the same thing, at 3 seats more, with a bookmaker’s current open-ended price of 4.5 for anything less than 335 seats. BACK.
  • Seat markets for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The relationship between the two opposition parties will be the key to the election and small percentage shifts produce huge changes in seats won. This is far too fluid to make a call. DON’T BET.
  • Party leaders at the General Election. Two markets on the betting exchanges, party leaders and Labour leader haver been quite active. Charles Kennedy’s position seems to be more stable and Tony Blair remains. There’s no obvious good value either way. DON’T BET.
  • When will the General Election be? Small market with low odds and little liquidity on Betdaq. 2005 at 1.9 seems reasonable value. BACK.
  • London Mayoral Election

  • Ken Livingston’s chance of being re-elected is a much closer call because he is standing as the official Labour candidate and not as an independent. Even in the pre-Michael Howard days the Tories secured more votes across London than Labour in the last two local elections. The rising numbers of Tories and LDs are unlikely to vote for a Labour mayor and Ken has to find a way of bringing in other non-Labour supporters. The prices on the Tories and Lib Dems are 11 each which is out of proportion to the risk. To cover yourself BACK BOTH but with more money on the Tories.
  • US Presidential Election 2004

  • The UK bookmakers do not seem to have registered the declining position of George W. Bush. This is now very close and could go either way. Three bookmakers still have Kerry at 2.5 which is really good value compared to the risk. BACK.

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    Kerry soars in polls – UK betting confused

    Sunday, April 11th, 2004

    The worsening situation in Iraq is taking its toll on the Bush campaign according to the latest batch of US polls. Almost all of them are showing healthy leads for John Kerry even when the potential wrecking candidature of the independent, Ralph Nader is factored in.

  • The Newsweek poll has Kerry-Bush on 50-43 if Nader is not there but still 46-42 if he is.
  • The American Research Group figures makes it 50-44 to Kerry without Nader and 48-43 with.
  • These are the biggest totals for Kerry since he became certain of taking the Democratic nomination and the first that have him touching the 50% mark. What’s interesting from the full round-up of polls is that those taken most recently, upto Friday, are showing a better position for Kerry.

    The Observer columnist, Andrew Rawnsley, speculates today on the likely consequences of a Kerry victory for Blair’s premiership. He notes the extraordinary difference in view on the Kerry’s campaign between almost all of the Labour Party and Blair himself. He goes on-

    Preying even more heavily on the Blair mind is what the defeat of George Bush might portend for his own authority and prospects. He has always been an avid devotee of the momentum theory of politics. He especially believes that how America votes has a magnetic effect on British behaviour. The ejection of Bush would be widely interpreted as the rejection of the war, even by the country that led it. It could intimate Mr Blair’s own political mortality. Two of the prominent European supporters of the Iraq war, Spain’s José Maria Aznar and the Prime Minister of Poland, are already goners. If George Bush was removed from the scene as well, the Prime Minister fears that it would leave him looking like an increasingly vulnerable and isolated figure.

    As last week the British betting market continues to lag behind with at least three bookmakers pricing Kerry at 2.5. A good indicator that the bookmakers have got it wrong is when the betting exchange prices are tighter than those that they are offering. At the time of this post the Betfair back price on Kerry is 2.28 and the lay price is 2.34.

    So you could back with a UK bookmaker at 2.5 and lay your bet on Betfair at 2.34 making a certain profit

    There is a big gap with the leading US market, the Iowa Electronic Exchange price (see archive for details) where the price at time of posting is the equivalent of 2.13. Note that this is based on share of vote not who actually wins.


    A hung Parliament – Which direction would the Lib Dems go?

    Sunday, April 11th, 2004

    With the Tories polling at between 34-39%, Labour finding it hard to get more than the mid-30s and the LDs on a solid 22% there’s just a chance that the next election could produce a hung Parliament. If that was the result what would happen? What deals would be done? What sort of Government would we have?

    This has the makings of a really interesting betting market – what will be the make up of the Government after the next election?

    The heart of the issue is which direction would the LDs go? Picking this up a week or so ago the Independent on Sunday’s veteran political commentator, Alan Watkins, made the following intriguing comment.

      In years to come, I predict, when we are ruled by the Howard-Kennedy coalition (after the Conservatives have moved slightly to the left, and the Liberal Democrats slightly to the right), one of the sadly diminished number of Labour members will look into his pint of Federation ale and say: “Aye, lad, if we’d had sense to take up – what’s it called now? – that fancy-dan alternative vote, things would be right better today.

    Watkins takes up the theme again in today’s Independent on Sunday noting that the absolute certainty that Labour will win the next election has started to erode and that a “hung parliament” is now a possibility.

      For the Liberal Democrats, Watkins observes, the best electoral outcome is for the Tories to do as well as possible – “provided that this is at the expense of Labour rather than of the Liberal Democrats”.

    Such logic, which is clearly right, is quite hard for many LD activists to swallow. The party’s dramatic growth has been at the expense, almost exclusively, of the Tories which is seen too often as the enemy and not Labour. Yet to be in any kind of position of strength the LDs need the Tories to take a lot of Labour seats.

    Yet this does not come out in the rhetoric from the LD leadership – particularly Charles Kennedy who always seems to be more comfortable attacking Michael Howard than Tony Blair – which is a huge strategic mistake.

    As an LD I find it hard to envisage the party going in with the Tories as Alan Watkins suggests. But Tony Blair did himself no good with the LDs by holding out the olive branch of PR, putting something in the manifesto, and then reneging on the deal. Blair’s taking us to war without UN sanction is felt very deeply by the LDs and the continuing problems in the country make things much worse.

    Michael Howard is hungry for power – just look at the way he’s turned the Tory social agenda upside-down – and my guess he would be more ready to deal with the LDs than Labour which would probably be obcessed with recriminations over the result. But would the LDs prop up the return to power of the Tories under Howard? It would be hard selling this to the activists and, somehow, I do not think the Kennedy would go down this route. Maybe another leader would act differently?


    How Labour could win with just 32% of the votes

    Friday, April 9th, 2004

    If Blair is considering an October election then the latest opinion poll figures, from Populus in the Times, could be seen as encouraging. But this is only because the next General Election will not be fought on a level playing field. The scales are tilted very firmly in favour of Labour. These are the figures together with the seat distribution, using Martin Baxter’s excellent online calculator, assuming a uniform national swing.

      LAB 34% – 346 seats
      CON 34% – 202 seats
      LDs 22% – 68 seats

    Thus with barely a third of the vote , and the same vote as the Tories, Labour would romp home with a workable majority of 46. Michael Howard would get a meagre 37 more seats than the Tories won in 2001 and the LDs would be 16 up. And amazingly the way the seats are distributed mean that if the Labour share dropped to 32% – LESS than a third – and the Tories stayed at 34% then Tony Blair would still have a majority.

      LAB 32% – 325 seats
      CON 34% – 215 seats
      LDs 24% – 75 seats

    This would give an overall majority of 5 for Labour. This is in spite of the reduction of at least 10 Labour seats because of the re-drawing of the boundaries in Scotland to bring the size of seats north of the border more into line with the rest of the UK.

    The Populus figures take us into territory where it becomes politcally explosive. For Labour to have a substantial working majority on such a small share of the vote will be seen by many as an outrage.

    As I’ve been saying for months – however bad it gets for Labour – do not be tempted to bet on any other party however attractive the odds might seem. The time to back Blair will be straight after the predicted poor showing for Labour in the Euro vote on June 10. There will be all sorts of doom-laden predictions and the Labour price should move upwards.


    Is Blair thinking of an October General Election?

    Friday, April 9th, 2004


    A fascinating piece by Michael Brown in today’s Independent on whether Blair might be considering going to the country in October this year. He argues that if Iraq continues to go badly and leads to John Kerry beating George W. Bush then this could have serious consequences for Tony Blair…

      “This scenario lies behind the growing speculation that Mr Blair might conceivably be planning a quick, cut-and-run election before the presidential contest, in order to pre-empt any embarrassing read across to our own domestic political circumstances. I have no doubt that he had firmly already penned, rather than pencilled, Thursday 5 May 2005 in his diary a long time ago.
      But the arguments for a pre-emptive electoral strike are certainly worth Mr Blair considering, and may account for the extraordinary amount of parliamentary deck-clearing which has been surreptitiously taking place during the past few weeks. The controversial decision to dump the Bill to remove the remaining hereditary peers and the equivocation over the future of fox-hunting means that there is little for the Commons to do between now and the summer recess….
      …..Some believe that the September party conference, which will showcase policies resulting from the outcome of the party’s “Big Conversation”, could be the springboard for launching an October campaign – denying the Tories their own conference a week later.”

    The current price on a 2004 election is remarkably low.


    Dare you bet against the opinion polls?

    Wednesday, April 7th, 2004

    One of the most dangerous, risky but potentially most profitable political gambles is to bet against the opinion polls. I’ve done that twice this year – first by laying Howard Dean for the Democratic Nomination and second by betting against Ken Livingston being re-elected as Mayor of London.

    The Howard Dean call, made publicly on the Betfair Forum, was when Dean was 20% ahead and I got an average price of 1.7. At that stage I felt I could dismiss the polls because many respondents had not really considered the matter and were just repeating back what they had read in the media. I did not believe that any candidate could be priced at such odds when not a vote had been cast and I was influenced by US commentators who were saying that Dean did not have the character to be a credible candidate.

    My reading of the Ken polls is the same. They got it disasterously wrong last time, grossly over-estimating his position, and my doubts were underlined in the following YouGov poll at Christmas when his plan to re-join Labour was in the news. The answers to three questions were inconsistent and showed that, when probed, Ken’s vote was soft.

    The first was How would you vote with Ken as an Independent?
    37%- Ken Livingstone (Independent)
    19%- Steve Norris (Conservative)
    12%- Simon Hughes (Liberal Democrat)
    4%- Nicky Gavron (Labour)
    3%- Others

    The second was how would you vote with Ken as official Labour candidate?
    33%-Ken Livingstone (Labour)
    20%- Steve Norris (Conservative)
    15%- Simon Hughes (Liberal Democrat)
    5%- Others

    The third question was the revealing one – Taking everything into account, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for Mr Livingstone if he stood as Labour’s official candidate, rather than as an independent?
    9%- More likely
    19%- Less likely
    26%- Would make no difference – I would vote for him in any case
    35%- Would make no difference – I would NOT vote for him in any case
    11%- Don’t know

    The anti-Ken shares rise as people think more about the issues. With the first it was 38%; with the second it was 40%; and with the third (taking the “less likelys and the wonts) it reaches 54%. The pro-Ken total is 35%. These are not figures that would cause me to back Ken at 1.2 or lay Norris at 11 or more.

    Before Ken’s first election in 2000 every one of the six opinion polls had had him in the 50-68% range with Norris at 11-17%. The eventual Ken-Norris split was 39-27.2 %, an appalling outcome for the pollsters – a great outcome for me!


    British punters are ignoring the Iraq impact on Bush

    Tuesday, April 6th, 2004

    A spate of US opinion polls showing the Bush campaign to be under pressure, particularly on Iraq and its aftermath, is being ignored by British punters. Today’s claim by Edward Kennedy that “Iraq is Bush’s Vietnam” is resonating throughout the US media.

    In most recent surveys Kerry has crept up one or two points on Bush even taking into account the wrecking effect of the Ralph Nader candidature. It’s clear that Bush has been undermined by the recent revelations about the post 9/11 period in the White House and the continuing problems within Iraq itself.

    A new poll, carried out by Zogby International Poll asking the question “Do you think George W. Bush deserves to be reelected as president of the United States, or is it time for someone new?”. produced a split of 51-44% against Bush – the biggest margin yet.

    All of this explains the decline in Bush’s price on the the Iowa Electronic Markets price (see previous post) which has him at the UK equivalent of 1.98 – or just below evens – the weakest for nearly a month. This is in stark contrast to the current UK prices where the best price on the Republicans is 1.69. The Iowa price is on who “gets mosts votes” not who actually wins. Even so the price difference on different sides of the Atlantic is about at big as it has been.

    In recent days there’s been very little on the race in the UK media.

    Meanwhile the extraordinary idea (see previous post) that Kerry should choose the Republican Senator, John McCain, as his runnning mate continues to gain momentum. Another US poll has him as third favourite, behind John Edwards and Hilary Clinton.