UK Election: How the Polls Missed the Tory Wave

What a night. After all the talk of coalitions, backroom deals and weeks of instability, David Cameron's Conservatives won the UK general election with a relatively clear majority, and Cameron has claimed the scalps of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP leaders. The Lib Dems – the Tories' coalition partners for the last five years – have been all but wiped out, as has the Labour party in Scotland.

Let's not get too carried away. The center of gravity of British politics is some way to the left of America's, particularly when it comes to social issues, and this is no right-wing revolution. But it is a victory for the politics of fiscal responsibility, aspiration and job creation. And it's a resounding defeat for the old-school socialism and class warfare that Labour's Ed Miliband wanted to inflict on the country.

Pundits have been struggling to explain how the Conservatives won – and why the pollsters didn't see it coming. In answer to the "how," we need look no further than James Carville's exhortation to Bill Clinton that "it's the economy stupid." While issues such as healthcare, immigration and Europe figured in the campaign, Cameron kept bringing the discussion back to the economy, and it worked – a majority of voters simply weren't prepared to put the nation's recovery at risk.

But the polls didn't pick this up – Labour and the Conservatives were deadlocked at 33 or 34 percent right up to election day, but the final vote share was 37 percent for the Conservatives and 31 percent for Labour. Some of the disparity can be explained by late-deciding voters breaking Conservative for reasons of economic self-interest; but many voters, perhaps hundreds of thousands, chose not to disclose their true intentions to pollsters, even in confidence.

This phenomenon is called "shy Tory syndrome," and it's not dissimilar to the "Bradley effect," named for Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of Los Angeles who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite being ahead in the polls. In both cases, it's claimed that conservative voters are reluctant to admit to their support for causes deemed unpopular by the liberals who dominate the opinion-forming cultural and media elites.

Ed West of Britain's Catholic Herald writes about "shy Tory syndrome" here. However, what's particularly baffling the pollsters is that in the 2010 general election the opinion polls were almost perfectly in line with the actual results. What happened to the "shy Tories" last time around?

The answer, I think, is simple, if troubling. By 2010 Tony Blair and New Labour had largely emasculated the hard left in Britain; New Labour's own brand of social democracy was discredited, but the left had had the fight knocked out of them, and with the Tories having been out of office for 13 years they didn't present much of a target for leftists to aim at.

But that year the Tories returned to power in coalition with the Lib Dems, and five years in opposition, as the Conservatives set about necessary but unpopular cuts to welfare and other public services, enabled the left to get its mojo back. Anger over the cuts, and Miliband's class warfare rhetoric and anti-Conservative fearmongering, on the NHS and welfare in particular, helped to make the left's "Tory scum" brand of campaigning, with Conservative candidates routinely subjected to personal abuse, mainstream again.

So it's hardly surprising that many Conservative supporters decided to get back in the closet this time around – and it's no coincidence that the pollsters got things similarly wrong in 1992, when the Tories were also the incumbents and were being savagely attacked by the left.