At 7.59, as the last teaspoon is being thrown into the sink, from the last cup of tea made for the last member of the family to settle down in front of the television, as the last advert ends, the leaders will take a deep breath and silently repeat the three key messages they have spent weeks preparing to deliver.
Around nine million people watched the 2010 debates, equivalent to nearly one in three Britons who went out and voted on polling day. The numbers are unlikely to be that high this time around with many people either at church or the pub for Maundy Thursday and a Bank Holiday weekend ahead. But the stakes are in some ways higher: tonight’s debate is the only one with all the main candidates and the only chance for Ed Miliband to take David Cameron on in person.
Some claim that the debates in 2010 had little impact on the result and “Cleggmania” did nothing to help the Liberal Democrats. But this overlooks that the Liberal Democrat vote share increased from 16% in the first ComRes poll of the campaign to 23% come polling day. Nick Clegg's assured performances also clearly influenced coalition negotiations, forging him into a plausible Deputy Prime Minister. In the week following the first debate, we found an astounding two thirds of Brits (64%) agreed that "regardless of how I vote, I think Nick Clegg should play some role in the next government." When the public forced his hand at the election, David Cameron obliged. Britain soon had its first peacetime coalition government for more than half a century.
Of course the real enemy in a debate is not your opponents but expectations. Low expectations for Ed Miliband were undoubtedly a key reason why his advisors were so keen for the debates to go ahead in the first place. He needed only to deliver a couple of half-decent lines to impress people who expected little of him.
But to get a better view about what Brits actually expected, we asked them to predict who would win a leaders debate. The full results for the five national parties are below and the public is clearly with the bookies: Nigel Farage tops expectations. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are both caught in the middle, while Natalie Bennett starts in wooden spoon position with voters expecting her to perform the worst so perhaps she stands to gain the most. Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon will also be hoping for the same, safe in the knowledge that there’s a very specific target audience they can appeal to and not have to worry about upsetting anyone else.
Do keep an eye out for
Whoever comes out on top this evening, we’ll be providing the instant verdict for ITV News to establish the winner as soon as the debate is finished. We’ll also be conducting televised focus groups with undecided voters across the country to catch their reactions to the jokes and the jibes, so stay tuned in to ITV News once the debate finishes to find out the definitive verdict.
View from the Battlegrounds
With the national polls still tight but the Conservatives perhaps just nosing ahead, we released a range of polls this week from major battlegrounds to get a more detailed view of how seats may fall out in key areas. First, Labour have a healthy 14 point lead in London (in 2010, they led the Conservatives 37% to 35%). On a universal swing across London, this would see Labour take six seats, with three more on a knife edge. The message to Labour and Conservative activists living in London is clear: go to those three – Battersea, Ilford North and Finchley & Golders Green – they will be the front line where campaigning will make most difference.
The news is much more mixed for Labour north of the Border. We polled voters in the forty Scottish seats currently held by the party and found a massive 19-point swing to the SNP. Remarkably, this provided a glimmer of hope to Labour. Previous polls and predictions have had the SNP taking all but three seats in Scotland with Labour facing near wipe-out. Based on universal swing, our poll showed Labour holding onto around 12 of their forty seats – still poor but less cataclysmic.
That said, it did also suggest that the swing to the SNP was smaller in seats with smaller Labour majorities and larger in seats with large ones, which could indicate the SNP’s vote is especially efficient and Labour could be in a great deal of trouble. At this stage, it is difficult to know if these differences between seats with small and large majorities is just sample variation, but whatever the case, Scottish Labour has a serious fight on its hand.