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With UK general elections likely to come in May, the Conservatives’ formerly commanding lead in nationwide polls continues to be slowly evaporating. Though the Prime Minister’s approval ratings are still dismal ,David Cameron is simply having a devil of a time selling his “New Conservatives” as a palatable alternative. (And headlines like this don’t help.)

Whoever emerges as the winner will have independent, swing voters to thank for it. Just as in last November’s US gubernatorial races, whichever party wins has by definition captured the swing vote. As described in previous posts, however, certain idiosyncrasies of the British system make the relationship between vote-swing and electoral outcome less predictable than in the US. Constituencies are not uniform in population; there are three viable national parties and several regional ones competing for single-member, first-past-the-post seats; voters are choosing a local representative as well as a national government; and partisan identity has deep socio-cultural roots. Taking these factors into account, who are the swing voters in the United Kingdom this election?

Here is a breakdown six major swing voting groups that will be of particular interest this election:

1. Tactical voters: These are the people who recognize the aforementioned idiosyncrasies and plan their votes accordingly; they are voting for a government, not a party. Some of these voters may desire a hung parliament, and–depending on the late polls and constituency–vote for the party most likely to produce one. Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, while not ordinarily inclined to vote Tory, may do so to push through proportional representation. The Conservative Party has very little presence in Scotland and Wales–in part because of lingering bad memories of Thatcher –and small-c conservatives there vote for third parties. The real possibility of a hung parliament this year makes tactical voters even more important that usual.

2. Religious voters: In a country that supposedly doesn’t “do God,” religious voters are an increasingly important voting bloc this year. In the past decade, the Labour government legalized same-sex adoptions and civil unions, and the Tories are trying to push a “family values” backlash –with Equality Minister Harriet Harman as a bogeywoman.

Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy has said that Labour cannot win a majority without winning over religious voters, whom he claimed are 8% more likely to vote than others. A new poll by the religious think-tank Theos has Labour and Conservatives essentially tied for support amongst observant Christians. Watch for more overtly religious talk from both parties (though not from Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg ), but not to the level of an American-style campaign.

3.”Change” voters: These people want to throw the bums out; they don’t like Brown and are put off by the parliamentary expenses scandal. Labour–as the party in power–should bear the brunt of these voters’ unhappiness, but both parties are attempting an Obama-esque pitch to woo them. The Tories’ strategy includes recruiting minority candidates and making them the face of the new Conservatives.

The “I’ve Never Voted Tory Before, But…” campaign is geared toward prying away disloyal Labour voters–so far to mixed reviews. Still, “Change” voters are hardly a lock for the Tories: the Lord Ashcroft Scandal is doing damage, Cameron has a reputation for out-of touch toffishness that’s difficult to overcome, and voters have out options than the Tories to express their discontent.

4. Motorway Marginals: Like Florida’s “I-4 corridor voters” these voters live in the exurban corridors along major motorways. Motorway marginals, as they have been dubbed, are most likely to be concerned with the economy, crime and immigration. Early Tory support in these constituencies has fallen sharply since the autumn, and these voters are now up for grabs.

5. Economic discontents: It’s still the economy, stupid. With unemployment at 7.8% and the country on its heels from the Great Recession, these voters are willing to try something different. But as with other issues, the Conservatives are having trouble inspiring confidence on the economy. George Osborne, who would become Chancellor of the Exchequer under a Tory government, is seen as young, inexperienced , and more of a personal chum of Cameron’s than a serious economist. The rest of the shadow cabinet recognizes his lack of readiness, and some backbenchers have urged Cameron to replace him. Also, unemployment has gone down some since the end of 2009, and the economic trend appears to be positive–possibly validating Gordon Brown’s “kick-the-can” strategy of delaying the election. If the economic narrative come May is “things are on the up,” Labour will be able to minimize the damage.

6. First time voters: Without a voting history or ossified partisan identity, these (mostly young) voters are the prime target of novel marketing campaigns, like “speed dating”. Look for all parties to play to these voters’ concerns about higher education and jobs.

In many ways, the background of this election resembles the 2009 New Jersey governor’s race. In both you have a deeply unpopular incumbent leader (Brown and former Gov. Jon Corzine), a long period since the opposition party’s last win (1992 for the Tories, 1997 for the NJ GOP), and a perception of corruption involving the governing party. In both cases, the opposition party suffered from a poor brand name, and had trouble convincing the electorate that they were a serious alternative for governance. In the Garden State, Republican challenger Chris Christie bled a double-digit summer lead, but held on to win– barely. These swing voters will help determine if the outcome is the same in Britain.

Using language that again parallels U.S. politics of the last couple years, many observers in the U.K. criticize David Cameron for not having been able to “seal the deal” with swing voters. Particularly because the Tories have so many of their supporters in safe seats, a relatively small number of seats have come into play given the national swing in their favor. And the major worry is that the approximately 5 percent softening in support could be coming from swing voters in competitive districts, rather than swing voters in safe districts or safe voters.

However, even given the Conservatives’ troubles in this regard, it remains their race to lose. With an unpopular government and P.M. and change on the minds of voters, the Tories must turn up the heat in swing constituencies and deliver a practical and principled message. Swing voters will make the call as to whether it is believable.

This article was authored by research assistant Thomas Dollar, with contributions from international affairs columnist Renard Sexton. Please send comments or suggestions to sexton538@gmail.com

Additional information on FiveThirtyEight’s coverage of the United Kingdom 2010 General Election can be found here.

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