The Poll Position – A Quick Guide

The publication this week of the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence is arguably the most important development in the referendum campaign so far. It is intended to answer the public’s questions about what independence would entail – and to persuade them of the merits of a Yes vote.  But how big a task does Alex Salmond face in winning a Yes majority? Here is a quick guide to the state of public opinion so far – if the polls are to be believed.

1. The Yes side is behind.  In nine polls conducted during the last three months, the average percentage support for Yes has been 32%, while that for No has been 49%. Once we take the Don’t Knows out of the calculation that translates into 39% for Yes and 61% for No.

2. The pollsters do not agree about how far behind Yes are.  Different polling companies have persistently and consistently disagreed with each other about exactly where the balance of opinion lies.  For example, the three most recent polls conducted by Panelbase have put the Yes vote on 45% (once Don’t Knows are excluded), while the three most recent conducted by TNS BMRB put the figure on 36%.

3. However, what the pollsters do agree on is that the balance of public opinion has been remarkably stable. All but one of the seven polls of referendum vote intention conducted by Panelbase this year have put the Yes vote at 44% or 45%. All but one of the five conducted by TNS BMRB have put the figure at between 35% and 37%.  At 39%, the latest average Yes vote across all poll is almost identical to the equivalent figure, 38%, in all polls conducted between February and May this year.

4. The Don’t Knows are not particularly numerous – according to most polls.  All but two of the nine polls conducted in the last three months have put the proportion at well below 20%, and on average at 16%. However, two polls conducted by TNS BMRB put the Don’t Knows at 32%. Most pollsters ask people how they would vote now whereas TNS BMRB ask how they intend to vote next year. TNS’s question is perhaps a tougher question to answer for those who have an idea how they might vote but could change their mind.

5. The Yes side has to overcome a major gender gap. Women are far less likely to support independence than men.  On average across all nine of the most recent polls, just 31% of women say they will vote Yes, while 69% back No. Amongst men the gap is much narrower – Yes 45%, No 55%.  This is easily the biggest demographic divide in the referendum. Mind you, women are also more likely than men to say they do not know as yet which way they will vote.

6. Voters look set to turn out in high numbers.  In three polls Ipsos MORI have conducted this year, on average 73% have said they were certain to vote. When in polls conducted at much the same time they asked voters across Britain as a whole how likely they were to vote in a UK general election, on average just 54% said they were certain to vote.  It seems as though voters accept the referendum matters.

7. The most important issue in voters’ minds seems to be the economy. According to TNS more voters want information on this issue than on any other, while Panelbase have shown that the issue is the one cited most often by voters as the reason for their current view. Meanwhile the issue that most divides Yes and No voters is what they think the economic consequences of independence would be. Unfortunately for the Yes side, it appears that at present more people are pessimistic about the economic consequences than are optimistic.

Aware of importance of next year’s ballot, voters can certainly be expected to pay attention to what Mr Salmond has to say tomorrow. What is much less clear is whether the White Paper can succeed in shifting an electorate that has so far seemed immune to the blandishments of both sides.

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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.