Hurricane Brexit has wreaked havoc across the British political landscape. It has cost Britain a Prime Minister, the Opposition a vote of no confidence in its Leader, a run on the Pound, and that’s before Brexit negotiations have even started. Of course the polling industry also faces some consequences. We have begun the process of analysing our campaign polls as we look to look learn the lesson of the referendum. As we do so, there is still plenty of meat on the bones to pick off and digest.
Aristotle specified the “ingredients for persuasion” as pathos (emotion), logos (logic) and ethos (credibility) and elections can often be cut down these lines.
The challenge facing Britain Stronger In to win on pathos was made clear in a ComRes poll for the Sun. It showed that of those who intended to vote Remain, just 49% said liked they liked the EU while a plurality of voters were neutral. Clearly then Remain would not win on emotion.
Perhaps it was inevitable then that Remain’s campaign would be focused on risk, fear and trying to persuade voters that life would be worse off if the UK left the EU. Making a positive case was just too hard a sell. At the outset of the campaign the economy lagged well behind immigration and sovereignty as a key issue for voters. Project Fear helped the Remain campaign to shift this: after weeks of coordinated statements from politicians, independent organisations (think IMF) and international figures the economy jumped in importance some 17 points, leapfrogging immigration to be the most important issue for voters. This also seemed to pause the narrowing of the Remain-Leave poll gap, albeit it temporarily.
This shift on the economy and the raft of big-hitters coming out for Remain was an attempt at winning on ethos and logos. They banked on the credibility of their messengers: the much vaunted "experts" and the backing of the Prime Minister and Chancellor.
But perhaps the Remain campaign peaked too soon. The focus on the economy and risk was effective for a time, but ran out of steam weeks before polling day. Their key messenger and big asset - David Cameron - saw his own reputation and credibility take a knock. His ratings fell from 34% of voters saying he was important in helping them to decide how to vote in March to 26% in June. The ethos was flowing away from Remain.
The Leave side were then able to regain the agenda as they shifted the debate onto the cost of the EU and domestic public services, immigration and Turkey. Proof of the effectiveness of this tactic came just a week before Referendum day when ComRes found that more people thought it likely that Turkey would join the EU than the UK would fall into recession if we left the EU. It is no coincidence that the same poll showed a momentous swing towards Leave, narrowing Remain's lead from 11 points three weeks previously to just one point. It was becoming clear that as the debate shifted away from the economy so public support shifted away from Remain.
There was further evidence too that the Leave messages were cutting through - and therefore winning logos - in the final ComRes poll. The main Leave claim that ‘we can take back control’ had the greatest impact, with 44% saying it made them more likely to vote Leave. Indeed, two other Leave claims (Australian style immigration system and saving £350 million a week) had more impact than the top Remain message we tested (that Brexit would lead to recession).
At the outset of the campaign Remain had two out of three of Artistotle’s ingredients in their grasp. They perhaps never thought they could win on pathos, they could not match the raw emotional appeal of “taking control”. What really sealed their fate was Leave’s victory on logos in the final weeks and the deterioration of Remain’s ethos.