Will the polls get the Scottish referendum right?

As the Scots goes to the polls Anthony Wells considers to what extent we can expect the outcome to match the predictions.

The Scottish polls at the end of last week and the weekend were broadly clustered around a small No lead. Perhaps a more likely route to a YES victory is if the polls are underestimating the level of YES support for some reason. Over the last couple of days I’ve seen several blogs or articles pondering whether the polls could be wrong, could they be underestimating YES or NO?

It would be hubris to suggest the polls couldn’t be wrong. Obviously they can. At most elections there are polls that perform better or worse than their peers, some of that is better methodology. When the polls are close most is probably just normal sample variation. That’s a matter for another time though, here I’m pondering more about the possibly that all the polls are wrong, the potential for a systemic bias with everyone a bit too yes or a bit too no. This is possible too – think of the way all polls overestimated Lib Dem support in 2010, or most famously how all the polls overestimated Labour support in 1992. How likely is that?

The Scottish referendum is a bigger challenge for pollsters than an election would be because it’s a one-off. In designing methodology for voting intention the experience of what worked or didn’t work at previous elections weighs heavy, and most companies’ weighting schemes rely heavily upon the previous election – if not directly through weighting by recalled vote, in using the data from the previous election in designing and testing other weighting targets. For a referendum you can’t take that direct approach, pollsters needed to rely more on modelling what they think is an accurate picture of the Scottish electorate and hoping it reflects the Scottish people well enough that it will also reflect their referendum voting intentions – it’s complicated because Scotland has a complicated electorate. Scottish voters have two Holyrood votes and a Westminster vote, and they use them all in different ways with different political loyalties. Within the space of a year Scotland managed to be a Labour stronghold at Westminster and to produce a SNP landside at Holyrood – using either election alone for weighting gives a rather different picture of what the Scottish electorate are like, even though you are trying to model the same population. Different companies have arrived at different methods of political weighting to deal with the issue – Survation, ICM and TNS weight by Holyrood recalled voted alone, YouGov weight by Holyrood recalled vote with a nod towards 2011 Holyrood voters who backed Labour in 2010, Opinium weight by Holyrood and Westminster recalled vote, Panelbase weight by Holyrood and European recalled vote, Ipsos MORI don’t use political weighting at all. Despite the variance they have all converged to produce the same sort of result, and that gives me some confidence – if there was a particular skew from being online or from using Holyrood recalled vote we would expect to see different results.

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