Appraising the 2015 Debates with Mixed Methods

To provide a holistic view of voters’ engagement with, and reaction to, the debates, we employed a range of complementary methods:

  • - The 2015 “worm”
  • - “In the moment” focus groups
  • - Live Twitter analysis
  • - The BBC Election Uncut Community

The 2015 “Worm”

The 2010 General Election campaign had seen not only the introduction of the televised debates themselves, but also, at Ipsos MORI, the introduction to the UK political scene of our simple but effective measure of voter engagement, the Ipsos MORI “worm” (Ipsos MORI 2010c). Commissioned by the BBC, we recruited a group of 36 undecided voters, with a broad demographic mix based on gender, age, social grade and ethnicity, as well as voting behaviour. Each voter was tasked with watching one of the three leaders, and providing their reactions as they watched the debate unfold live. Participants used voting pads to indicate to what extent they liked what they were hearing from the leader throughout the debate. This was then graphically represented in the form of three traces or “worms”—one for each leader—illustrating visually the leaders’ “high” and “low” points according to undecided voters.

In 2015, the BBC was keen to repeat this analysis, but the nature of the debates, with seven and five leaders respectively, made tracking attitudes to individual leaders difficult to achieve. In addition, the more structured nature of the debate, with leaders taking turns to answer a series of questions, would have resulted in the participants regularly waiting several minutes before the leader they were rating was engaged with the debate again. Crucially, it would also be harder to visually represent, with seven “worms” difficult for viewers to follow. So in 2015, rather than have voters watch and rate just one leader, we asked the whole audience to provide feedback throughout the debate. We recruited a slightly larger audience of 50, undecided, voters (again broadly reflective of political opinion) from across England, Scotland and Wales to watch each of the debates and they all used their keypads to rate whoever was speaking at any point in time. This produced a single “worm”, tracking fluctuations in sentiment depending on the topic being discussed, and the leader speaking. The “worm” illustrated how viewers were reacting during the debate but not what they were thinking or why—so to support the 2015 “worm”, during each of the debates, we also ran “in the moment” focus groups with six to seven additional undecided voters at the same location as the “worm” audience. This allowed us to instantly delve into why people were reacting in a particular way during the debate and “diagnose” the “worm” movement.

In 2010, the “worm” trace was overlaid onto clips of key moments, which were used to aid the analytical discussion on BBC News at Ten after the debates. The 2015 “worm”, however, was also broadcast live on the BBC News Channel, offering viewers the opportunity to watch the debates with or without the live “worm” trace. The live “worm” was the source of its own debate about the possible social influence effect of the “worm” on viewers’ experience and interpretation of the leader debates, in particular the potential to influence judgement of who “won” the debate (Davis et al. 2011). There was also a more light-hearted discussion about the “worm” on Twitter, with some viewers seeing it as an unnecessary distraction, whilst others felt it added colour to the debate. One Tweet suggested that the debate could have been made more interesting by linking the “worm” to a trap door beneath each leader to be opened when the “worm” trace hit a low point, perhaps something to consider for 2020!

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