20%

A candidate for the French presidency should not be able to win with 20% of the vote – the two round system is specifically designed to ensure that 50% plus one vote is the minimum threshold for the winner.  Yet 20% is the magic number this year, for any candidate above that in the first round held this coming Sunday will almost certainly go through to the second round two weeks later.  And if a candidate finds themselves against Marine Le Pen in the second round, they will probably be the next President.

For the last two weeks, four candidates have consistently polled around or above 20%, all of whom are currently within four percentage points of each other – effectively within a broad margin of error.  Who gets through out of the four is anyone’s guess only four days out.  How did we get here?Are we not at risk of obsessing over polls?  The Le Parisien newspaper went cold turkey from January, arguing that by ignoring polls it would avoid creating a bias in the electorate (it also saved the paper a lot of money of course…).  And in a world of polls that failed to see Brexit and Donald Trump coming, surely they are a waste of time?

That’s unfair.  In France the Presidential opinion polls are generally pretty accurate.  The panels are large (a panel of 10,000 – out of which a group of a couple of hundred is usually polled – has an error rate of around 1%) and the questions are straightforward, avoiding skewing the result.  The criticisms are usually twofold: no major opinion poll is conducted other than by internet; and no poll is able to predict the outcome of a vote.

Internet polling is often thought by some to be less reliable, failing to capture older voters or registering ill thought through votes.  Actually, there is little evidence that it produces results less reliable than telephone canvassing (which was often thought to have failed to capture the strength of Jean-Marie Le Pen – voters were embarrassed to say they supported him) and a representative panel should avoid results that fail to represent all age, income and social brackets.

The difficulty of prediction is a better criticism, but of course fails to understand that polls are a snapshot in time, not a prediction, and whilst the polls are faster today thanks to gathering responses by internet, there is always a lag of a day or two.  The polls’ failure to spot Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presence in the second round of the Presidential Election in 2002 was down in part to a lag of three to four days in the previous poll and a very late surge in support for him.  In the two recent primaries, François Fillon and Benoit Hamon surged from nowhere to victory, starting off in polls at 10% and 13% respectively when polling began.  However in the final days of the campaign when both candidates surged due to their strong debate performances, the polls did identify the shift in opinion.  The debates changed the structure of opinion in a fundamental way.  The debates came late, and therefore people’s minds were made up late.

This campaign has been heavily influenced by the debates as well.  Both first round debates are now past and the results embedded into public opinion.  Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s surge into the top tier is largely as a result of his strong debate performances, and the weakness of Hamon’s appearances.  Fillon has maintained his position despite the banging of saucepans at his every outing (casseroles is a French expression for a scandal) due to his ability to project as a strong leader in the debates.  Marine Le Pen’s failure to do much in the two debates other than look skeptical has probably dented her support with some voters, and she has floated back down to the early twenties.  Macron’s slow but steady performances have not bolstered his support, but not dented it much either.  In essence the current field seems to have stablised.

Nothing over the next couple of days is likely to shift that much (even a mild outburst of revisionist historiography, or an foiled terrorist attack – apparently on François Fillon – haven’t shift the polls).  Tomorrow night was planned as the final debate before the second round.  Understandably candidates have got cold feet and instead all 11 will be interviewed in prime time.  But with softball questions from David Pujadas and only 20 minutes’ airtime per candidate, they should be able to stick to their scripts.  Expect no surprises.

Turnout is also unlikely to change much – frankly I find it hard to believe that someone who is disinclined to vote four days out will change their mind over the weekend.  Turnout may well be down this year (to a still internationally-respectable 70+% – like in 2002) but that is probably because the candidates are more difficult to read than in previous years.  The more I look at 2017 and 2002, the more similarities I see: here again, a large number of candidates and the top candidates’ blurred rolls (the two key contenders effectively having governed together for the previous five years as President and Prime Minister).

So if the table is laid out and four are coming to dinner, who will be the top two who stay for dessert?  If we look at the polls (yes, again) the consistent presence of Le Pen and Macron in the top two for the past eight weeks suggests that there is a good chance that  these two will go through.  However, we should factor in the rise of Fillon and the Melenchon surge, both from 15% to 20% over the past two weeks.  At the same time both Macron and Le Pen have dropped from around 26% to 23%.  Whilst we shouldn’t see these four candidates in isolation, it is not implausible that Macron has been suffering to Fillon’s advantage (perhaps moralistic conservatives are forgiving Fillon his transgressions) and working class Le Pennists see Melenchon as a better way of “kicking the buggers out”.

If only it were that simple though, for tactical voting is likely to have an impact.  The French adore tactical voting, and demonstrated their flare for it in the Regional Elections in 2015, where a wave of crafty voters ensured that the Front National won the presidency of no regions despite scoring 27% nationally and getting through to the second round in 13 regions.  The lack of tactical voting in 2002, where many on the left indulged smaller candidates, thinking all along that Lionel Jospin, Prime Minister and Socialist candidate, was a sure thing for the second round, has left an indelible fear in the minds of many voters.

This is where the 20% becomes the threshold to win.  Tactical voters will choose their vote based on who they want to confront and (we assume) beat Marine Le Pen in the second round.  Many have assumed for months that she will qualify, the key question being who she would face.  A lot of anger directed at François Fillon and the Penelopegate scandal came from the fear that he might jeopardize the certainty that the non-Le Pen candidate in the second round would benefit from a “Republican Front” and win.  Witness the author, Christine Angot, and her fury at that very point in France 2’s prime time interview of Fillon several weeks ago: she marched out of the studio claiming that the journalists had brought her in to tell Fillon to stand down and spare France a Le Pen presidency “because they can’t tell you that”.

Much of Macron’s support might well be tactical voters who would have preferred another candidate, but are using Macron as a second-round shield against Le Pen.  His debate performance, where he effectively sparred with Le Pen, were clearly designed to encourage tactical voters.  The softness of his support (one third says they are uncommitted to him) suggests tactical voting.

But tactical voters are voting based on polling data, voting against a candidate rather than for something.  Tactical voters will react to misleading polls as well as reliable ones.  Most importantly, tactical voters will be disappointed no matter the winner.  That’s not a sign of a healthy democracy.  Nor is a system where you only need 20% of the votes to win.

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2 thoughts on “20%

    • I don’t think it is if it leads to a second round where, due to the presence of Marine Le Pen, whom a majority of electors will not vote for, the other candidate becomes the default. The fact that four candidates are potential second-rounders does highlight how divided the electorate is though – there has been no coalescing around two candidates (one left, one right) that usually happens.

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