What does a general election look like from the point of view of the voters? Media attention tends to focus on the content of political parties’ messaging, and research tends to focus on its impact on turnout and voter behaviour. Unlock Democracy set out to examine something altogether different: we wanted to examine the levels of engagement, and how and where voters gained their information, as well as comparing local and national campaigning methods as perceived by voters.
In the past, Unlock Democracy have monitored voter engagement with elections, in a general election, and in a Scottish election. Between January and May 2015, Unlock Democracy analysed voter experience and messaging in the General Election through a series of surveys and a crowdsourced election leaflet analysis project.
Those surveyed were Unlock Democracy supporters, a demographic who are already more engaged with politics, and more politically active. They were also more likely to vote: 98.2% of our respondents reported having voted in the 2015 General Election. Nonetheless, the results present interesting insights into what caught the attention of those who are already paying attention.
In section 3 we examine the national campaign. The televised leaders’ debate did not change viewers’ opinions of the more media-exposed party leaders, but an effect was observed for female leaders, and mainstream media remained a dominant source of information about parties’ national policies. Indeed, the mainstream media was considered the most important influence on the national campaign.
In section 4, we examine the local campaign. Knowledge of local candidates was good, and people felt it was easy to find information they wanted. Local election leaflets were the dominant source of information about local candidates. Very few people had been canvassed locally throughout the 2015 election campaign. On the whole, people felt the election was not very visible at a local level in February 2015, and visibility had not improved by May when the election took place.
In section 5, we analysed the content of local election leaflets. Parties varied in making links between the local and national campaigns, with the SNP and Plaid Cymru most likely to mention their leaders in election leaflets, and the Liberal Democrats least likely to. The Conservative Party were the party most perceived to have run a negative campaign, while the Liberal Democrats were most likely to deploy “squeeze messages” in their election leaflets, framing themselves as the only credible rival to an opponent.
In section 6, we examined social media usage in what had been called “the first social media election.” The majority of respondents did not use social media to engage with the election, although 42% had used it at some point. In terms of other digital campaign tactics, while 77% had signed up to receive email updates, the majority of those had signed up to receive updates from parties they had already decided to vote for. Social media played a small but significant role in the local campaign, with 42% following all or some local candidates. Of those who used social media, the most popular reason was to show their support for a party or candidate they already intended to vote for.
Finally, in section 7, we examined how influenced respondents felt by campaign messages in the leaders’ debates, local and national campaigning. Our respondents felt they were less influenced by messages than others.