Yes are behind – but how far?

Eight polls have so far been conducted since the Scottish Government accepted in January that the question on the referendum ballot paper should read, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.  Every single one of those polls, conducted by no less than five different companies, has put the Yes side behind. On average the Yes vote has been just 33%.

Yet this headline figure is misleading. The remaining two-thirds of Scots are not all against independence.  In all of the polls there is a not inconsiderable group of ‘Don’t Knows’, ranging from 10% in an Ipsos-MORI poll conducted at the beginning of May to 20% in a Panelbase poll undertaken later that same month. (Ipsos-MORI’s figure is low because their headline figures are based only on those who say they are certain to vote, a group that, unsurprisingly, is more likely to have a view on the subject.)

To see the referendum outcome to which the polls are really pointing, we need to take out the ‘Don’t Knows’ and calculate what percentage of those with a stated view say they will vote Yes, and what proportion, No.  This, after all, is standard practice when it comes to Holyrood or Westminster vote intentions – and our poll explorer enables you to see what the results are when calculated in that way . Doing so reveals that the average Yes vote is not 33% but 39% (with 61% saying No). Rather than being two to one behind, the Yes side is seemingly more like three to two behind.

Moreover, the polls do not all agree with each other.  One company, Panelbase, has persistently painted a brighter picture for the Yes side than everyone else. Panelbase’s average rating for the Yes side – once the Don’t Knows are taken out – is 44%.  Everyone else’s, in contrast, is just 37%.

We cannot be sure who is right and who wrong.  But who is right makes a big difference to the psychology of the campaign.  If everyone else is right then the Yes side has a mountain to climb. But if Panelbase are closer to the truth then it is at least within hailing distance of the winning post of 50% + 1 vote. This divergence means the wise head will be cautious in presuming to know the likely outcome.

Still, even if Panelbase are right, the Yes side will at some point need to make progress. So far there has not been any sign at all of it doing so.  During 2012 and early 2013 twelve polls asked people how they would vote in response to the draft referendum question originally proposed by the Scottish Government in January 2012, that is ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country’. On average, once the Don’t Knows were taken out, Panelbase reported an average Yes vote of 44%, while everyone else put the figure at 38%.

These figures are almost identical to those obtained since January of this year. For all its sound and fury it seems that so far the referendum debate has not had any discernible impact on the balance of public opinion at all.

So the Yes side may be closer to victory than might appear at first sight. However, it has yet to demonstrate that it has the ability to win new converts to its cause.  Those who would like to see an independent Scotland have to hope it starts to do so soon.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.