Volatile Polls

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By Dave Taylor

As I listened to the brilliant NATO debate at Perth on Friday afternoon, my position changed after almost every speech, as good points were made by both sides.

Had an electronic opinion poll been taken after each contribution, support for the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ sides would have oscillated wildly.

The protagonists mightn’t have been able to appreciate this state of flux.  Both sides no doubt felt their own arguments compelling, each believed they had greater merit.

So it will be on the Independence question – and the very many surveys that will be carried out as we move towards 2014.

We can expect considerable volatility in support for the three positions of Yes, No and Don’t Know as the campaign develops.

The Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times and Real Radio was an interesting one, because it tried to put the independence question into a wider political context.  They envisaged the alternative Westminster governments, and asked Scots to react to them.

In the preliminary, de-contextualised question, 18% were Don’t Knows (with 37% Yes and 45% No), but faced with the prospect of a Cameron or Milliband led Government in Westminster in 2015, 10% of the Don’t Knows were able to make a choice.

It is illuminating to see how those choices went.

Faced with a Milliband UK Government, one third of the Don’t Knows would be sufficiently reassured to vote No (up 3% to 48%). However, two thirds would vote Yes (up 7% to 44%).

If, at this stage of the campaign, the gap between support for independence and remaining in the Union is only 4%, then the Yes Campaign will be overjoyed.

Faced with a Cameron UK Government, not only do the Don’t Knows move overwhelmingly Yes (up 15% to 52%), but 5% of previous Nos join them, and the No vote drops to 40%.  Interestingly, the shift is dramatically more among women.

If the survey is to be believed and the electorate do not expect a change of UK Government in 2015, then a 12% lead for the Yes campaign, at this stage, is nothing short of astonishing.

Of course, I say “IF”, because lots of factors will intervene along the way, and polls will rise and fall.

Since some of you will be watching the polls very closely, it’s worth pointing out an aspect of polling that is often overlooked.

As in the USA, parties here invest quite heavily in polling to test out how different phrases and spin will affect attitudes.  At one time, such polls weren’t published as the parties didn’t want to give away the information that they had paid for.

However, there has been a recent shift recently in party behaviour.

For example, the SNP commissioned YouGov to run a poll on aspects of the Yes campaign and the results were as follows

“In general, which government do you think is better at making decisions for Scotland?”

  • The UK government 24%
  • The Scottish government 64%
  • Don’t know 12%

“The ‘Yes’ campaign is deploying a series of arguments as part of their bid to achieve a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014 – for example they point to statistics showing that Scotland generates 9.6% of UK taxes, but receives just 9.3% of UK spending in return.

If the ‘Yes’ campaign could persuade you that you and your family would be economically better off with Scottish independence, in these circumstances, how likely or unlikely would you be to vote ‘Yes’ for an independent Scotland in 2014?”

According to their poll the results are:

  • Total Likely 45%
  • Total Unlikely36%
  • Don’t know 9%

“Do you think that the Scottish Parliament should have more powers so that it can bring about the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from Scottish waters?”

  • Yes 46%
  • No 35%
  • Don’t know 19%

The decision making poll is clear cut.  But neither of the other two issues commands an unassailable majority, and polls can move up or down depending on circumstances and events.

Why release them then?  Why not keep this information to yourself?

Well, not being privy to the thinking behind the SNPs campaign strategy, I cannot say.  But it demonstrates that there is often a lot more to these polls than meets the eye – trained or untrained.