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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Sir David Butler, Pioneer of Modern Election Science, Dies at 98

Prominent academicians poured in their condolences, thanking him for his contribution to the world of election science

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UNITED KINGDOM: Sir David Butler, the father and proponent of modern election science, died at the age of 98 after a seven-decade career.

Butler’s friend and biographer, the journalist Michael Crick, paid homage to his late friend as the “father of psephology”—a term that he promoted early in his career to describe “the new study of election science based on the Greek word psephos for pebble, which the ancient Greeks used to vote in elections.”

“For decades, Butler was the foremost psephologist in Britain and around the world,”
Crick added.

Born on the 17th of October 1924, Butler became a diligent student of philosophy, politics, and economics at New College, Oxford. His studies were disrupted when he was commissioned as a lieutenant to serve in the Second World War.

Butler developed upon a long-forgotten Edwardian equation called “the cube rule” for his research on elections as an undergraduate. He discovered that he was able to estimate the total number of seats won from the polling numbers, enabling him to forecast the seats likely to be won by any party based on opinion polls.

“For the 1950 election, aged just 25, he was the in-house analyst on the BBC’s first ever TV election results programme, a job he retained until the 1979 election,”
Crick said.

Moreover, Butler gained recognition for his work on the swing concept—the percentage of votes that switch from one party to another between elections.

In 1955, he introduced the swingometer to the BBC’s election night broadcast, which went on to become a staple of election coverage all over the world.

Michael Crick wrote highly about Butler in his biography, Sultan of Swing, and how the pioneer “didn’t confine himself to an audience of academic colleagues… but was determined to make elections understandable for a mass audience.”

Meanwhile, prominent academicians poured in their condolences, thanking him for his contribution to the world of election science.

The BBC’s Nick Robinson described Butler as “the granddaddy of all election poll watchers, analysts, academics, and pundits.”

Robert Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, hailed Butler as a “giant of political research.”

Butler achieved recognition early on, when he was asked to contribute to the first ever televised election results segment on the BBC, and then went on to meet erstwhile British PM Winston Churchill, who quizzed him on his chances of winning the premiership.

Churchill would eventually lose the election. Butler activated a Twitter account to comment on the possibility of Conservative leader Theresa May losing her majority support as the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn overwhelmed the opinion polls.

Butler eventually signed off from social media and retreated into the cave of political science, as he wrote in a tweet he posted after things returned to normal after the 2017 election. He wrote, “Learning to tweet at 92 has been fun.” “But my musings should now be confined to elections, so I am signing off… until next year.”

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