Meet the Man Everyone Trusts on U.K. Election Nights: John Curtice

When Britain votes in a general election on July 4, one person will likely know the outcome before anyone else.

John Curtice, a professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, will spend Election Day with his team, honing the findings of a national exit poll. At 10 p.m., before any results have been counted, he will make a big, bold prediction that will be announced on national television: the winner.

“The lovely thing about the period between 10 o’clock and 11.30 p.m. is that nobody knows!” said Professor Curtice with a grin, raising his hands into the air. “It’s that moment when we don’t really have a government.”

While he is right that no one will know the final tally until results roll in from Britain’s 650 constituencies, in the past six general elections his team’s exit poll has proved strikingly accurate, correctly predicting the largest party every time. In five of the six, the margin of error for that forecast was five parliamentary seats or fewer.

That record is part of what has made this 70-year-old professor, with his formidable intellect, unruly tufts of white hair and infectious enthusiasm, an unlikely media star. But his beloved status in Britain goes deeper. He’s frank and scrupulously nonpartisan, making him a rarity in an age of polarization — a trusted source of information across the political spectrum.

“I try to speak in human. I am trying to speak in ways that the general public will understand,” he told The New York Times over a frugal tuna sandwich lunch in the atrium beneath the BBC’s Westminster studios.

“Sometimes I kick one party and other times I kick the other,” he said. “And usually I kick both of them.”

In February, as broadcasters awaited the results of special elections in two parliamentary districts, Professor Curtice was in front of the TV lights at 10 p.m. as a BBC News producer adjusted his earpiece.

His analysis was characteristically fluent, as were the 20 or so other interviews he completed through a night of TV appearances that stretched into breakfast time the following day.

Fueled by coffee and a bowl of porridge consumed around 6 a.m. in the BBC cafeteria, he then strode off to the broadcaster’s radio studios, continuing a media blitz that ended at 4 p.m. It was an exhausting, exhilarating stint of 18 hours.

“You don’t have time to think about going to sleep — it’s adrenaline, it’s intellectual excitement, it’s an intellectual challenge,” he said.

He comes prepared, however, his laptop brimming with data from previous elections, records that may or may not be broken, and his thinking for how he can summarize the most likely scenarios.

Professor Curtice’s first political memory is of the election of Harold Wilson as leader of the opposition Labour Party in 1963. He was 9 years old. A year later, he was allowed to stay up late on general election night, when Mr. Wilson won a small majority, bringing Labour to power for the first time in 13 years.

“Don’t ask me why, I just found it interesting,” he said.

He was raised in Cornwall, on the rugged coastline of southwest England. His father worked in construction, his mother a part-time market researcher and the family was prosperous enough to own a detached house with a large garden (but no central heating).

At Oxford University, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics, Professor Curtice was a contemporary of Tony Blair, who went on to become prime minister, but their paths did not cross. While Mr. Blair played in a rock band called Ugly Rumours, a young Professor Curtice was a choral scholar who spent two hours a day at evensong.

As a postgraduate, he was urged to become “statistically literate” by his mentor, David Butler, a towering figure in British political science who ran the nation’s first exit poll in 1970.

His first TV election night appearance was in 1979, the night Margaret Thatcher came to power. Armed with a calculator he had programmed himself, he provided Professor Butler with statistical backup in case the BBC’s mainframe computer went down.

It was exit polls, however, that really made Prof. Curtice’s name. His first involvement was in 1992, which he later told The Guardian was “not a happy experience” because the poll predicted a hung Parliament instead of the modest majority of 21 that John Major won for the Conservatives.

Since 2001, a new model he created with David Firth, another academic, has improved the accuracy of the forecasts, sometimes to the discomfort of politicians. In 2015, Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, promised to eat his hat if the exit poll prediction that his party would retain only 10 of its nearly 60 seats proved correct. In fact it won fewer. On a TV show the following night, Mr. Ashdown was handed a hat-shaped chocolate cake.

These days, the exit poll is jointly commissioned by three national broadcasters — the BBC, ITV and Sky News. On July 4, tens of thousands of voters around the country will be handed a mock ballot paper on their way out of polling stations and asked to mark in private how they voted.

In 2017, the poll correctly predicted that, instead of increasing her majority in Parliament, as she and many analysts expected, Theresa May had lost it. In 2019, the projected size of Boris Johnson’s majority was off by just three seats.

Professor Curtice is not complacent, however, and notes that upsets are always possible — as in 2015, when the exit poll projected a hung Parliament, but David Cameron scraped a thin majority. “People think there is some magic, but we are only as good as the data,” Professor Curtice said.

Exit polls are trickiest when elections are close. This time, the Conservative Party, which has held power for 14 years, has lagged the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls by about 20 points for 18 months. While such leads usually narrow in the final weeks of a campaign, the Conservatives would need to make modern electoral history to win.

Professor Curtice puts their chances of forming the next government at less than 5 percent — “the point at which statisticians go: it’s very, very highly improbable.” He adds that this is partly because, even if the Conservatives beat expectations and the outcome is a hung Parliament, they lack allies who would keep them in power as a minority government.

Honored with a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, Professor Curtice is now famous enough that strangers greet him in the street. His name trends on social media on election nights, and there’s a tribute account on X dedicated to tracking his media appearances called, “Is Sir John Curtice On TV?” (Right now, the answer is often “Yes.”)

Could this be his last general election TV appearance? That, he said, is something he will consider after the vote. “If the next election is in five years, I will be 75, and who knows?”

He has other interests: a passion for classical music, church, family and tending a community garden in Glasgow.

But for now, the country needs him. “There are a lot of experts who know a lot but can’t translate that in a way that is clear to the audience,” said BBC News anchor Nicky Schiller after interviewing Professor Curtice on the night of the February special elections. And, he added, “He’s a joy to work with.”

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