Voters pick their candidate based on a huge variety of issues. They aren't always the important issues that political strategists and pollsters spend late nights worrying over. Often how their mum was treated at the local GP, or next door's planning application for a ghastly extension is what really matters to Voter X.
What seems to be a consistent winner is how likable the candidate is. In the race for London Mayor Boris Johnson has consistently charmed voters in contrast to his aggressive and combative opponent Ken Livingstone. While this style has worked for Ken in the past, the new politics is about warmth, and even Labour MPs like Tom Watson are urging the faithful to "hold their noses" and vote.
No one really doubts Ken's ability to run London. He was the city's first mayor and we didn't go bankrupt or fall into the sea. He has a high-spending, big state approach to politics but that's the side of the political fence he sits on. His manifesto is popular, promising to bring back a version of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, increase police numbers and most popularly reduce tube and bus fares. The geeks with calculators are sceptical about many of these promises, but your average voter reads the headlines not the deep analysis.
Ken also has the great advantage that Mayor of London will likely be his last political job, whereas for Boris the future potentially holds many years and many jobs. The problem with Ken is that voters don't warm to him. He has huge pockets of enthusiastic support, but he is less than friendly with winnable floating voters. Sometimes aggressive to these key voters, his default stance is disinterest and intransigence.
Part of the problem with Ken Livingstone is that he doesn't like to be found wrong, and he almost never apologises. His recent gaffe, where he predicted that Jewish voters "won't vote for [him] because they're rich" is the latest in a long line of offensive remarks that have yet to receive an apology.
Ken's media handlers must have one of the toughest jobs in politics. Indeed the majority of the Labour Party must be wondering how they ended up with such an off-message candidate who threatens, if he loses on Thursday, to seriously damage their mid-term lead over the coalition government.
It's worth remembering they never wanted him as their candidate. In the first mayoral election in 2000 Labour fielded the rather under-rateable Frank Dobson and Ken Livingstone stood, and won, as an independent. They haven't been able to get rid of him since.
The reason the race for mayor has ended up being about the massive personalities of Boris and Ken has as much to do with the role itself as with the selection process of either party. Under the Labour created GLA Act 1999 the mayor has relatively few direct powers. It has been argued by many that this was Tony Blair giving power to regional government but not wanting to create a proper power base just down the river from parliament. The key role of the mayor is as figurehead and cheerleader-in-chief for London and to coordinate the London Boroughs in joint initiatives. Unlike Westminster politics where mass votes and loyalty are important the Mayor of London has the ability to let their own personality lead.
And personality is where Boris shines! Voters from all sides of politics can't help but love his affable and friendly nature. Some accuse him of putting-on his slightly bumbling nature, but no one accuses him of being a "posh boy who doesn't know the price of milk". I've spent time talking politics to him and there is no fool behind the hair, and there's no act.
There is an interesting fact in the wealth of polling that surrounds the elections. YouGov provide an interesting analysis on what effect the personal capital of each candidate enhances or reduces their party's core vote. The result is clear; Boris hugely drags up a flagging Tory vote while Ken drags down the support from his own side. Boris has remained ahead in the polls consistently with a Populus for The Times poll putting him 12 points head currently, and the bookmaker's odds on him are so short as to be barely worthwhile a bet.
On Thursday I predict that charm will win the election. The Livingstone campaign have tried a last minute negative poster campaign and portrayed the Conservatives as aliens.
The problem is that Boris just looks like a cuddly character from a children's book. To be elected Mayor of London you have to like the voters, and they have to like you. If Ken Livingstone does lose then it will be a lot more about the man than the machine.
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