So What Can Happen in 16 Weeks?

As doubtless most readers will be aware, tomorrow marks the official start of the campaign for the independence referendum – that is the period during which the amount of money that the two official campaigns, Yes Scotland and Better Together, along with the political parties and anybody else who wants to spend more than £10,000 advising us which way to vote, is subject to a statutory limit designed to ensure there is a relatively even financial playing field. From now on all pennies spent have to be accounted for.

The last 16 months have apparently been just the aperitif and only now are we to be served the main course.

But how much difference could another 16 weeks of campaigning possibly make? On the basis of what has happened so far, how much scope does there appear to be for the polls to change? How volatile or stable has the picture been so far?

Our current poll of polls, based on the six most recently conducted polls, puts the Yes side on 42%, No on 58%. That is actually rather different from where it stood at the beginning of this month, when the Yes vote was as high as 45%. That 45% figure, however, was boosted by an unusually high degree of activity by polling companies that tend to produce relatively optimistic estimates of the Yes vote.  Equally, though, the current figure of 42% might be thought a little on the low side for not dissimilar reasons.

If we take the average of the most recent poll conducted by the five organisations that have been polling regularly during the last 16 weeks, we hit upon a figure of 43%.

Going back sixteen weeks takes us to the end of the first week in February – shortly before what to date has been the most dramatic intervention in the referendum campaign so far, the announcement by the Chancellor that the UK government would not be willing to allow an independent Scotland to share the pound.

At that point our poll of polls stood at 41%.

So, the polls have moved in the last 16 weeks – but only by around two points.

What, though of the 16 weeks before that?

That takes us back to almost the end of October, well before the publication of the Scottish Government’s White Paper laying out its prospectus for independence. At that point the Yes vote stood on average at 37%.

So, the Yes side made twice as much progress, an advance of four points, between October and February than it did between February and now.

However, if the current poll average is an accurate estimate of where the two sides stand then even a four point increase in Yes support would still leave it three points short of what it needs for victory.

The advances made by the Yes side so far have at least put the winning post within its sights. But its campaign is going to have to step up a gear (or two) in the next 16 weeks – or their opponents make a major slip – if the perpetual lead that the Better Together campaign has enjoyed so far is eventually to disappear. We await both sides’ efforts.

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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.