Who won the Leaders’ Debate? ICM’s Instant Poll

Within half an hour of the conclusion of last night’s leaders’ debate, ICM produced for The Guardian an instant poll of the reactions of a supposedly representative sample of voters who watched the debate. Only just over 500 people (512 to be exact) were successfully contacted in the limited time available, and some demographic groups, most notably younger people, had to be substantially upweighted to make the sample look representative. Consequently, not too much emphasis should be placed on small differences in the poll. But given that as part of their attempts to win the post-debate battle of spin both sides have combed the exercise for evidence that their man won, we should try to assess what it did and did not reveal.

The poll was headlined as indicating a victory for Darling.  While 47% thought the former Chancellor had had the better of the argument, only 37% reckoned that the First Minister had. Once the 15% who could not decide who had won were left aside, that left Mr Darling the apparent victor by 56% to 44%.

But, of course, people often see events through the prism of their existing convictions. Yes supporters might be expected to think that Mr Salmond had won, while we might anticipate that No voters would be inclined to feel that Mr Darling had the better of the argument. Given that the latter group is the more numerous, Mr Darling would have emerged as the ‘winner’ even if all both gentlemen did was to appeal to their own side.

This indeed is largely what happened. Most existing No supporters (78%) adjudged Mr Darling to be the winner while a majority of Yes backers (67%) believed Mr Salmond had emerged on top.  There is perhaps just a hint in the difference between the two numbers that Mr Salmond’s performance came as a bit of a disappointment to some Yes supporters. On the other hand, the First Minister emerged narrowly ahead  – by 44% to 36% amongst undecided voters – though given only 63 undecided voters responded to the poll, not much can be made of that difference.

As one might have anticipated, Mr Salmond emerged as the more personable in voters’ eyes; as many as 47% felt he had the more appealing personality while only 39% nominated Mr Darling. But the First Minister apparently could not convert his advantage on style into one on substance. Only 40% believed that Mr Salmond had the better arguments, while 51% reckoned Mr Darling did – though again we should note that undecided voters adjudged the battle of ideas to be more or less a draw.

But of course the aim of the exercise for the two combatants was not to emerge as the better debater. Rather it was to win voters into their camp.  By this criterion neither leader seems to have been particularly successful.

Before they watched the debate 40% of ICM’s sample said that they intended to vote Yes, while 46% indicated that they would vote No. Just 14% were undecided. Afterwards 42% said that they would vote Yes, 47% No. At first glance that looks like the narrowest of advantages for the Yes side. However, the difference is a quirk of rounding error.

In fact the Yes tally increased from 40.4 points to 41.6, and increase of 1.2 that happened to get rounded to an increase of 2. Meanwhile the No vote rose from 45.7 to 47.3, a 1.6 increase that only registered as a rise of one point. While No made net gains amongst previously undecided voters these were cancelled out by some switching from No to Yes.

So given also the small numbers involved, the net impact of the debate is best regarded as a draw.  Certainly attempts to suggest that the poll showed support for Yes had increased from 43% to 47% seem to rest on comparing the post-debate figures in this poll (once Don’t Knows are excluded) with the equivalent figure in ICM’s last regular poll for Scotland on Sunday – and not with what the respondents in the instant poll sample had said in advance of the debate. Once the Don’t Knows are excluded in the instant poll sample the Yes tally was 47% at the beginning of the night and 47% at the end!

If the debate has indeed proven to be a draw in its impact on voting intentions then both men could be said to have emerged with their honour intact.  Trouble is, given they are still ahead in the polls, all that the No said needed was a draw. Yes, in contrast, wanted a decisive win last night – and if this poll is to be believed they did not secure it.

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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.