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Unpopular Leaders Missing from 2015 Leaflets

By Caitlin Milazzo

A few weeks ago we explored which party leaders appeared most frequently in their party’s election leaflets in 2010. Based on pre-campaign evaluations of the leaders we expected that David Cameron would have appeared most frequently in his party’s leaflets, as he was the least disliked of main party leaders (followed by Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown). As a result, Cameron should have been seen as less of an electoral liability by his party. And indeed, when we looked at the extent to which the three leaders appeared in more than 4,000 election leaflets from 2010, we saw that Cameron was more likely to feature in his party’s leaflets than the other leaders.

Using leaflets collected by Electionleafets.org, we return to this topic and explore whether parties have been taking into account their leader’s popularity (or lack thereof) when designing their leaflets for the 2015 campaign. We looked at more than 1,300 leaflets collected between the start of the long campaign and 20 April, coding each leaflet based on a number of dimensions, including the issues covered, the nature of the message, and the types of images used.

Who should we expect to see in the leaflets this time around? To answer this question we look to the British Election Study (BES). If we take the public’s evaluations of the leaders prior to the start of the short campaign, we see that, once again, David Cameron should be seen as less of an electoral liability to his party. Figure 1 presents the percentage of BES respondents who said they disliked each leader. (Note that we were not able to include Nicola Sturgeon or Leanne Wood as we collected very few leaflets from the SNP and Plaid Cymru.) Roughly one in two respondents said they disliked the Conservative Party leader. Even though Cameron was disliked by more than half of the public, he was still less disliked than the other leaders. In terms of unpopularity, David Cameron is followed by Ed Miliband, Natalie Bennett, Nick Clegg, and, finally, by Nigel Farage.

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Figure 1. Unpopularity of Party Leaders

If parties are once again taking into account their leader’s popularity when designing their leaflets, we should expect that Cameron should appear more frequently in his party’s leaflets relative to the other leaders. Figure 2 displays the percentage of each party’s 2015 leaflets that contain an image of the party’s leader. Based on the leaflets collected prior to the start of the 4th week of the campaign, we see that David Cameron was significantly more likely to appear in his party’s leaflets. Thirty-four per cent of the Conservative Party’s leaflets include his photo. That is more than double the percentage for all of the other leaders. Despite being the least popular with the public, Nigel Farage was the most likely to appear on his party’s leaflets after Cameron – 15 percent of Ukip’s leaflets include his photo. Even though Ed Miliband was only modestly less popular than Cameron, he is far less likely to appear on his party’s leaflets. Just one in ten Labour leaflets contain his photo. However, this was more than Nick Clegg, who appears in only three per cent of the leaflets sent out by the Liberal Democrats.

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Figure 2. Percentage of Party Leaflets with a Leader Photo

It is interesting to note that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg appear in far fewer leaflets than they did in 2010. During the last election David Cameron appeared in nearly twice as many Conservative leaflets (67 per cent). Nick Clegg has seen an even greater drop – in 2010 he appeared in half of the Lib Dem’s leaflets. Both leaders also considerably less popular than they were last time around. Prior to the 2010 campaign only a third of those interviewed in the BES indicated they disliked Cameron. Clegg was disliked by less than half. This means that the percentage of the public that dislikes the two leaders has grown by more than 20 percentage points. By contrast, Ed Miliband’s pre-campaign popularity is nearly identical to that of Gordon Brown. As a result, we should not be surprised that both Labour leaders appear with the same frequency in the party’s leaflets.

Will the Tories confidence in David Cameron’s popularity pay off? Just as Labour’s attempts to distance itself from Brown were not sufficient to secure victory for Labour in 2010, David Cameron’s popularity looks increasingly unlikely to save the Conservatives in 2015.

Help us study parties’ campaign strategies in 2015 by uploading your election leaflets to Electionleaflets.org.

Caitlin Milazzo is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. The British Election Leaflet Project is a collaborative effort with Jesse Hammond (University of California, Davis). Research assistance is provided by Joshua Townsley (University of Nottingham). The project is supported by the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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