The near-demise politically of Nick Clegg, who little more than a year ago led his party, the Liberal Democrats, into a UK coalition government with the Conservatives, has got me thinking about how quickly buzz can dissipate and sentiment turn from positive to negative.
About 12 months ago, my company did a snap poll for ITN, the broadcaster, straight after the first ever televised UK party leaders’ debate. For many people, Clegg seemed to promise a new type of British politics - in sharp contradiction to the tired old two party bickering on offer from the leaders of the UK's two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour.
Asked to pick adjectives for each leader, our respondents described Clegg as friendly, relaxed and trustworthy, whilst the UK Conservative leader, David Cameron, was seen as smarmy, ambitious and arrogant. Yet a year on sees Clegg reviled and ridiculed, whilst Cameron basks in the sunshine of a crushing victory in the recent referendum on changing Britain's electoral system and much better than expected local election results. So what’s happened and could we have predicted it?
Conquest’s survey used a new tool called infeXious® (which measures the potential of ideas, brands or personalities to become socially infectious) and we expected Clegg to emerge strongly on measures of contagious potential like buzz and charisma. Yet the figures suggested that, despite Clegg’s seemingly stellar performance in the leaders' TV debate, he was only slightly ahead of Cameron in these areas> Where Clegg scored best was more in terms of personal engagement with voters - they ‘warmed’ to him, felt closer to him than to Cameron and also liked his energy and enthusiasm. He also benefited hugely from the element of surprise- they just didn’t realise he was that good in front of a TV camera!
However, what was also clear from the study was that, despite his lead over Cameron in terms of personal engagement, Clegg had not won the debate on core policy issues. Cameron was ahead on key issues such crime, immigration and the family - giving him a platform from which to attack Clegg in subsequent debates. Indeed Clegg led in only two areas: political reform and trust in politics. So while Clegg’s persona was a little more infectious than Cameron’s, his policies were not.
As we've seen in studies of brands and advertising, personal engagement is not enough to make something socially infectious. And, in politics, it takes an enormous amount of charisma or star quality for a politician to rise above the rational debate and capture the imagination of the voting public. Obama arguably did it in ‘08 but, in recent years, only Tony Blair has achieved it in the UK. Clegg was seen as a ‘breath of fresh air’, but even a year ago, the jury was out on whether he had the personal charisma or the substance to spring a big surprise at the polls.
And so it proved. The day after the first televised debate, the Lib Dem’s poll ratings soared to over 30% - an unprecedented level for them in modern British polling. As the election progressed, however, their poll ratings diminished and their eventual share of vote was 23% - only a percentage point up on their performance at the previous general election. Flash forward a year and a poll rating that high seems like a distant dream for the Lib Dems as they count the cost of their involvement in the coalition and Nick Clegg’s unpopularity.