With two days to go, the Liberal Democrats have the edge in the Eastleigh by-election. My latest poll finds a 5-point lead for Mike Thornton over Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings. Labour’s share has been squeezed since the start of the campaign, with John O’Farrell in fourth place behind UKIP’s Diane James, who has progressed to 21%.
This is the first poll whose fieldwork took place after news broke of two big political stories – the accusations against Lord Rennard, and the loss of Britain’s AAA credit rating. Neither seems to have made a difference: views of the Lib Dems as a party have held up, presumably because politicians behaving badly is hardly news, and Cameron and Osborne remain well ahead of Miliband and Balls when it comes to trust on the economy – indeed an identical proportion of Eastleigh voters (57%) said they most trusted Cameron and Osborne as in by previous poll at the beginning of February.
Two thirds of voters in the constituency – including two thirds of Lib Dems – are either satisfied with Cameron’s performance as Prime Minister or would prefer him to Miliband. The Tories also remain ahead overall on being the best party to get the economy growing and create jobs – though the Lib Dems have taken the lead on this measure among their own voters.
Crucially, the Lib Dems are well ahead on “understanding the Eastleigh constituency and representing local people in parliament”. Four in ten of all voters in the seat think this, as do 90% of those who intend to vote for Mr Thornton. Nearly half of voters generally, and two thirds of Lib Dems, say getting the best local MP will be the most important factor in their voting decision.
The campaign on the ground has reached saturation point. Though the Thornton campaign has a slight lead on door-knocking and direct mail, overall 90% of voters say they have been contacted by the Tories and 92% by the Liberal Democrats.
Accordingly, the proportion of people naming a party who say they may yet change their mind has dwindled markedly since the start of the campaign. Expectations, too, have hardened, with 55% expecting a Lib Dem victory (including 88% of Lib Dem voters). Conservative voters continue to consider a Lib Dem victory more likely than a Tory one – perhaps heightening the attraction of a nothing-to-lose vote for UKIP.
There is an intriguing methodological footnote to this series of by-election polls. The headline voting intention figures here, as with my previous poll, are based on the assumption that 30% of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but now say they don’t know how they will vote, or refuse to say, will vote for the party again on Thursday, compared with 50% of don’t knows and refusers who voted Labour or Conservative at the last general election. This has been a standard assumption in my polls, and is based on reliable national data. However, it is debatable whether this holds true in a Lib Dem stronghold like Eastleigh, where the party’s support is so entrenched that it ought perhaps to be treated on the same basis as that of Labour and the Conservatives. On this assumption, the Lib Dem share increases to 34%, a 6-point lead over the Tories.
Even if it is true that half of guarded or supposedly undecided voters will vote for the same party as last time, a total of 27% of Eastleigh voters remain impossible to allocate – not least because nearly half of them refuse even to say how they voted in 2010. These people could yet produce a surprise.