Salmond Wins Round Two

An instant poll of 505 people who watched the second and last leaders’ debate between Mr Salmond and Mr Darling last night suggests that, in contrast to the first debate three weeks ago, Mr Salmond was widely regarded as the winner of the joust. However, the poll, conducted by ICM and commissioned by The Guardian, also suggests that the event may have done very little to shift the balance of referendum voting intentions.

No less than 65% of the sample reckoned that Mr Salmond had ‘won’ the debate, while just 26% gave the verdict to Mr Darling. An additional 9% were unable to nominate a winner. Once that last group is left to one side, that equated to a headline finding of a victory for Mr Salmond by 71% to 29%. This constituted a rather more decisive victory for the First Minister than the one achieved by the former Chancellor in the first debate three  weeks ago, when a similar exercise by ICM put Mr Darling ahead by 56% to 44%.

Once again, however, many a viewer watched the debate through a partisan lens – albeit one that was not strong enough to shield many a No voter from the conclusion that perhaps their man had come off second best after all. No less than 96% of Yes supporters reckoned that Mr Salmond had won, whereas only 51% of No supporters put Mr Darling ahead. More important, perhaps, is the fact that (the, however, very small number of)  undecided voters were more inclined to think that Mr Salmond had won (63%) than reckoned Mr Darling did (20%).

The Yes side itself were especially pleased that women in particular seemed to give Mr Salmond the thumbs up (by 77% to 23%). However, that particular finding comes with a health warning. As it happens the female participants in this instant poll were more inclined than their male counterparts to back Yes in the first place, contrary of course to the position in virtually every single regular poll. Leaving aside the undecideds, 53% of the women in this poll said in advance of the debate that they were going to vote Yes compared with 43% of men. Consequently, given the tendency of viewers to see the debate through a partisan lens, it was hardly surprising that female respondents were more likely to say that the First Minister had won.

In any event winning the prize for rhetorical style is one thing, persuading voters to change their minds potentially quite another. Indeed even when respondents were asked separately which leader they thought had the better arguments, Mr Salmond’s lead was a more modest 56% to 36%.  Above all, however, the poll suggests (as did the equivalent exercise three weeks ago) that the debate had no immediate impact on the balance of voting intentions.

Before the debate, 44% of those who took part in the poll (which as a sample of those who watched the debate is not necessarily representative of Scots as a whole and the figures for which should thus not be compared with those for ICM’s regular polls) said that they would vote Yes in September, while 46% indicated they intended to vote No. After the debate both tallies increased by just one point to 45% and 47% respectively (while Don’t Knows fell from 10% to 8%). Once the Don’t Knows are left to one side, that meant that the Yes side were on 49% before the debate and 49% after! Only if we calculate the figures to one decimal point (which in truth is far more precision than an exercise of this kind can be expected to deliver) can we see that the Yes vote might have edged up a smidgeon – by one half of a point.

Moreover, although previously undecided voters were more inclined to think that Mr Salmond had won, that did not translate into any particular propensity amongst them to switch to the Yes side. While 17% switched to Yes, slightly more, 20%, said that they would now vote No.

However, as we noted after the first debate, what matters is not the immediate response of those who actually watched the debate but the more considered reaction of voters as a whole. Many of them will only have seen or heard what was said when they turned on their television or radio this morning, or may only do so when they glance at a newspaper (or news website) later in the day. That coverage is largely favourable to Mr Salmond, but only when we have acquired the results of two or three regular polls will we be able to make a judgement as to whether his success has made any difference at all to the state of the referendum race.

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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.