Analysis: Has the lack of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants burst the Ukip bubble?

By Christopher Goodfellow

Whether it’s Nigel Farage getting his feet wet in Somerset or Janice Atkinson attacking Cast Iron Dave on Question Time the Ukip is as visible as ever, but the big question is whether they’re still able to turn this attention into gains at the polls.

The meteoric rise the party made in the run up to last year’s local elections began to deflate as autumn set in and the party is yet to poll above 20% this year – something they did regularly in mid-2013. Is air hissing out of Ukip's bubble?

A monthly average of the main surveys on voting intentions shows support for the party almost doubled in the six months to May 2013, a huge gain in historical terms (the biggest comparable movement by another party over the last two years was a 15% gain made by the Lib Dems in March 2013).

Ukip insists it's still on the march, not least because of gains in the Wythenshawe by-election, but national support levelled off at around 12% over the last eight months and it has to be asked whether they've hit a ceiling. Will the party be able to galvanise support in such a spectacular fashion again or will they be left fighting the Lib Dems to play third wheel on votes, but with very few – if any – MPs?

Ukip was doing a much better job of turning the attention it received from the press and electorate into success at the polls than the Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats. For example, according to Google Trends Labour saw a spike in interest during its conference in September last year and the party generally does well on this measure, but this has had little-to-no impact on voting intentions. This disconnect should worry Labour HQ.

No doubt Ukip's success on this front is in part due to the fact that they're building from a smaller base, but the relationship between 'interest' levels and polling numbers suggests what they were doing reverberates better with the electorate, something that bears out when you look at the trend in the party's membership.

This puts an interesting light on Nick Clegg's admirable challenge to debate Farage on the EU – will this just turn into one more opportunity for Ukip to garner support as we approach the general election? Was Cameron's don't-feed-the-fire rebuke more sensible?

That said, while the party enjoyed a run of success on this front, the correlation Ukip achieves between the interests levels measured by Google and results at the polls is considerably stronger between April 2012 (when regular Ukip polling data becomes available) and May 2013 than the full two-year period. Their ability to turn hype into votes is diminishing.

The anti-EU message that worked so well in mid-2013 fell flat on its face when the part's fear mongering around Bulgarian and Romanians immigration turned into a 350,000-400,000 strong no-show at the start of the year.

At this point, Google Trends shows one of the highest ever 'interest' readings for Ukip and polls suggested a large share of people were in support of Ukip's position on tightening borders. But the correlation was broken and unlike results seen in the past this coverage had little impact on polling numbers.

You have to wonder what kind of narrative is going to kick them back into gear and get it growing again. Ukip can expect positive results from the European elections to allow it to gain ground on the national front, but when Europe's not the issue – or the Europe issue isn't following their line of reasoning – it's difficult to see what kind of narrative could win them a similar level of success seen in the summer of 2013.

Christopher Goodfellow is a freelance political and business journalist. You can follow him on Twitter, visit his blog, or read his work in the likes of the Guardian and Vice magazine.