Newspapers aren’t the electoral force they once were

For many in the remain camp, the time for panic is dawning. Remain’s current hope is the polls get it wrong and LeDuc’s law holds true – like the 2011 referendum on how Britain votes, or the 2014 campaign for Scottish independence. People’s instinct to avoid risks might make them pick the devil they know over the one they don’t.

Don’t hold your breath. A Guardian/ICM poll put leave a solid 6 points ahead, and most poll of polls show a decisive swing to Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s arguments. The change is coming off the back of a drop in undecided too, showing people on the fence are going for the door. The Sun, a tabloid (newspaper implies journalistic integrity), has backed Brexit, and has a lot of those on the Remain side worried. Since 1974, The Sun has always backed the winning horse in elections (with the exception of 2010), and now it’s mighty weight is behind Brexit.

Except newspapers aren’t the powerhouse they once were. Their circulation has been in decline since the 1990s. Paper Circulation final

Most people get their news from the TV or internet in the information age, and those numbers don’t back The Sun (based on Facebook likes). Papers by facebook likesIn part this is because younger people use the web much more than elderly people. The ONS note that almost everyone between 16 and 54 use the internet (99% of 16-34 year olds, and 95% of 35-54 year olds used the web in the last 3 months).

Younger people read more liberal newspapers too. According to Media Briefing, the average age of Daily Mail readers is 58, and 45% of their readership is over 65 (compared to 14% of under 35s). By contrast, 28% of under 35s read The Guardian, and 29% read The Mirror.

Changing digital landscapes aside, newspapers like The Sun maybe never had the muscle to sway elections like they claim. In 2015, polling service Panel Base found The Guardian had greater influence than The Sun when it came to changing minds. While The Sun trumpets that it won John Major the top job in 1992, the amount of evidence that the paper swings elections is limited. When they backed Thatcher in 1979, a third of the reader base thought the paper still backed Labour (based on an Ipsos-Mori poll). When The Sun turned coats in 1997 and backed Blair, the effect was as substantial as if people hadn’t bothered to read the paper at all, according to Professor John Curtice.

While there was a 13.5% swing from Labour to Tory in 2010 among Sun readers, 12.5% of that swing happened before the paper backed Mr Cameron. The Tory press enjoyed something of a renaissance in 2001, and had a larger lead in print media terms over Labour in 2010 than in 1992. But given the falling circulation of papers, the electoral potency of papers is not the beast it once was. 

Most people form their opinions from TV. The Murdoch press isn’t even consistent. The Times is backing remain. Why wouldn’t it? Times readers back remain. The press reads the mood of their base, and tells them what they already think. Not what they should think.  The remain camp has bigger fears than the decaying influence of Murdoch’s printing press.


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