Ripple across the pond

British elections are always a bit difficult to sort out — it is possible to come in second (possibly even third this year) and still wind up forming a government.

The run-up to the election can drag on for years, but the actual campaign is only a month or so long — and still their politicians bemoan our lengthy process, seemingly ignoring that we’ve been reading about Brown vs. Cameron since Tony Blair stepped aside. The Brits do take it all in good sport, however, betting millions of pounds on everything from the eventual outcome to who will first mention the volcano in the next debate. (Those with money on Clegg won that one last week.)

But this year it is really, really interesting. In the first-ever televised debate in U.K. history, the charismatic young leader of the Liberal Democrats surprised everyone by turning in a dramatic performance that left Labour’s Gordon Brown and the Conservatives’ David Cameron in the dust. Most observers immediately compared their performances to Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip, Gerald Ford’s shrinking of the Soviet Empire’s sphere of influence or Jimmy Carter looking foolish and flustered every time Ronald Reagan repeated his “There you go again” mantra.

Polls in the U.K. all showed Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats winning that first debate and surging into a tie or narrow lead over his competitors. Speculation over there was that he would quickly fade and the election would revert to the usual Labour-Conservative shootout. That hasn’t happened. The Conservatives have gained some ground, and most polls have them leading the field, but Clegg’s Lib Dems are hanging onto second place, with Labour in a tight third position. (I find it a bit of a challenge to sort out British poll results, as only a percentage point separates Labour and the Lib Dems, but they do work with massive sample sizes across the pond, which greatly reduce the margin of error. So I’ll take the U.K. papers’ — especially the Times’s — word for it when they say this is now a two-horse race — and neither of the two is Labour.)

While Nick Clegg’s sudden surge after the first debate can largely be credited to his polished performance and the rather inept job done by the other two candidates, the debates themselves shouldn’t get all the credit for the Lib Dem rise in the polls. British voters are simply fed up with the status quo. “Liberalism has replaced Labour statism as the driving edge of the center left,” says Clegg, and there is ample evidence that he is correct. Both Labour and Conservatives have been badly burned with scandal, a sinking economy and concerns over homeland security. Quite a few Liberal Dems have been caught with their fingers in the public pie, but most of the blame has fallen on those who’ve been in power for decades. Voters see two old parties that have put our environment, our economy and our security in danger. “This is the last best chance to salvage the future” is the message that Clegg’s Liberal Dems are best positioned to carry for the next 10 days to the election.

Clegg also believes that momentum for reform of the political system is unstoppable. “You can’t duck it,” he says. He’s made clear that his price for helping form a coalition government will be a commitment to electoral reform. He knows that many Britons, particularly younger ones, don’t completely understand their convoluted system that favors the old guard. That is why most of his support comes from voters under age 45 — and why it’s especially strong among those 18 to 34 and with women.

His challenge is that these are also the voters least likely to turn out. They have been energized by his campaign, however, and if he is able to use the Internet and other digital media to turn these voters into a movement for change, he just may be able to deliver a powerful message to the Conservatives and Labour, who have run the U.K. since World War II. Voters are “hankering for change,” says Clegg, and he makes a strong case that he’s the one to deliver it.

It is going to be an interesting 10 days on the other side of the pond, with the lead likely to shift around some in the closing days. Clegg, however, seems to have the message voters want to hear. If he’s able to carry it through Thursday night’s debate and then turn it into a truly viral campaign, he may well make electoral history.