A Lot of Polls – But Still Much Uncertainty

Posted on 8 April 2016 by John Curtice

Although local and devolved elections taking place on May 5th might have been expected to compete for the limelight, the EU referendum is proving to be remarkably intensively polled. All in all, no less than 21 published polls of referendum vote intention were conducted wholly or partly in March, or more than one every other day. Not that all of this polling is being paid for – quite a few companies are issuing poll results for which there is no immediate client. But if anyone thought that the difficulties that beset the polls in last year’s general election would result in a relatively poll-free referendum campaign, they should by now be disabused of that expectation (or hope).

A Close Race

One probable explanation for the intensity of the polling is that (if the polls are to be believed) the race appears to be close. While most polls put Remain ahead, few do so by much. Of those 21 polls conducted in March, no less than 17 put Remain ahead. But only two gave Remain more than 55% of the vote (once Don’t Knows are left to one side).

Polls conducted over the internet have, of course, long been suggesting that the contest is tight. Five companies (BMG, ICM, ORB, TNS and YouGov) that poll in that way have during the last fortnight or so issued findings that we can compare with equivalent polls conducted a month or so earlier (that is, in late February or early March). A month ago these five companies on average scored the contest, Remain 50, Leave 50 – and the figures are just the same in their most recent polls. ‘Very tight, nothing changing,’ is their persistent message.

In contrast, polls conducted by phone have hitherto tended to paint a relatively optimistic picture for Remain. That, however, has come to be less the case. Three companies (ComRes, Ipsos MORI and Survation) have in recent weeks published polls that we can compare with equivalent polls conducted a month earlier. They now on average score the contest Remain 55, Leave 45. While these figures are still more favourable to Remain than those provided by the internet polls, previously these phone polls credited Remain with 59 and Leave with just 41. And while in their most recent phone poll ORB’s figures have come more into line with those of other phone polls (their first phone poll in mid-March actually put Remain slightly behind on 49%), at 54% for Remain, 46% for Leave, it still pointed to a tighter contest than phone polls had previously been suggesting.

Quite why the figures in the phone polls should have perceptibly narrowed when there is no sign of any movement in the balance of opinion in the internet polls is a bit of a mystery, much as is true of the reason for the original discrepancy in the first place (despite Populus’ valuable attempt to understand what might be happening, on which we have commented earlier). And, of course, maybe the phone polls will swing back in Remain’s favour again. But in the meantime the narrowing of the Remain lead in the phone polls has certainly helped reinforce the impression that the race really is a rather close one.

In any event, a look underneath the bonnet of the polls helps us understand why the contest is so tight. Poll after poll finds that most voters believe that being in the EU results in too much immigration and undermines Britain’s sovereignty. At the same time, most voters are also inclined to the view that leaving the EU would be harmful to the economy and poses something of a risk (perceptions that the UK government’s controversial leaflet setting out its case for staying in the EU appears intent on reinforcing). Many a voter is seemingly having to work out which set of feelings they should follow. Nowhere is this more the case than amongst Conservative supporters, who (despite the Conservative UK government’s position) remain deeply divided on whether to vote for Leave or Remain, pulled it seems in opposite directions by the respective persuasive powers of David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

The Importance of Turnout

Given the apparent closeness of the contest, speculation has inevitably turned to the possible impact of turnout. So far as the demographics of the race are concerned, it is not immediately obvious that one side should necessarily have an advantage over the other on this front. While Remain is much more reliant than Leave on younger voters, who are less likely to make it to the polls, Leave is more reliant than Remain on less well-off, working class voters, who in general are also less likely to vote. However, perhaps one side’s voters are more committed to their cause irrespective of their age or social background.

For the most part this remains an issue on which many polls are still silent. Some companies (such as BMG, ComRes and YouGov) are not as yet even asking people how likely they are to vote in the referendum (although ComRes are producing figures based on their estimate of the differential propensity of people in different social groups to vote in last year’s general election). Others are asking people how likely they are to vote, but are not using that information in their estimates of Remain and Leave support (and in some cases are not even tabulating the figures by referendum vote intention). Only Survation and (in their last couple of polls) ICM are weighting respondents by their reported propensity to vote in the referendum.

Such evidence as we do have, however, consistently points to Leave voters reporting on being keener to make it to the polls. In four recent polls (from ICM, Ipsos MORI, ORB and Survation) for which the information is available, on average just two-thirds (66%) of Remain supporters said they were certain to vote, compared with three-quarters (75%) of those backing Leave. Of course, voters may not in the end prove to be good predictors of their propensity to make it to the polls. Nevertheless, expect the polling companies to pay more attention to turnout in the coming weeks – a change that could simply make the race look even closer.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

15 thoughts on “A Lot of Polls – But Still Much Uncertainty

  1. these polls are absolute nonsense.

    polls should be open to anyone who wishes to make a vote. its the only way to get a true representation of the host population being surveyed and their positions.

    i dont trust any of you sods…especially those that state they are independent. we all know what independent actually means where governments are concerned.

    these polls have zero credibilityReport

    1. most definetly…if you love being screwed over by the rich so much then its an excellent choice.

      these scum have used a beaueacratic organisation under the guise of cooperation and peace to usurp democracy. its nothin more than a tansfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and complete power grab.

      you are voting for sefdom…insanity in actionReport

  2. vote OUT. TTIP, kalergi plan and agenda21 etc. If EU put tariffs on us we can set up trade deals with other countries. What do European countries provide that the rest of the world cant at better rates? Also big companis like McDonalds pay tax in the EU country with lowest corporation tax. not UK tax. If we leave then this loophole closes meaning in your town centre a McDonalds will then be paying same tax as a British cafe. Instead of the wholly unfair advantage big business has against British business atm. Essentially big financial institutions do not want competition. They want the worlds 5th largest economy tied to Brussels. Other countries like China and India can invest heavily in UK without the current EU tariffs on their products. Britain will prosperReport

  3. There is a lot that is bad about the EU but i believe staying in is the best option. There are too many unknowns to throw everything to the wind. Financially I think it will be disaster out for the economy just as the World seems to be heading for another economic crash. We don’t export enough now so what will happen when tariffs are imposed in our goods. The EU will just buy the goods they buy from us in other EU states. I don’t believe we will be any safer from terrorism if we leave, terrorists ain’t really bothered about whether we are in the EU and we have plenty of home grown extremists who are just as likely to cause us harm. Immigration is an issue but if we cracked down on illegal immigration and carried out proper checks on legal immigrants the down side will be reduced. What will happen when the 2.5 million UK expats living in Eurooe suddenly lose their right to work or reside and come flooding back to the UK. The EU are more likely to punish us than praise us. The British don’t want to do half the jobs done by immigrants anyway. Everyone bangs on about exporting to the Commonwealth. Is that the same Commonwealth we unceremoniously dumped to join the EEC? They have moved on. I don’t think people realise just how much leaving wil impact on their daily lives. People seem to think the EU will come running to offer further concessions. That isn’t going to happen.Report

    1. Paul you do not say about the Euro that is about to crash or how we can stop immigration, as we have no control over our borders, all we can do is inspect the passports but not stop anybody from the EU. even if they have committed crimes in the EU. You also forgot about the NHS and houseing that has come under huge pressure, you seem worried about the many unknows if we leave but there are just as many if not more if we stay. If the Euro crashes it will bring down all the EU not just the Eurozone, Britain is the only country that is not declineing. Greece is about to default, Italy , Spain and Portugal are all in trouble, The EU has already said that it will have a EU army that will be controlled by Germany. It will have all states as they will be called by the EU join the Euro by 2020 and that the control over all countries in the EU will be complete by 2030, both fiscal and legal. I do not think that you have taken everything into consideration. The EU is not standing still, all they think is that the answers are ever closer union. which has not worked.Report

    1. Why????? Despite being the recipient of the most expensive leaflet on the planet, I still haven’t seen one single compelling reason to stay in. Not one.

  4. \I will be 88yrs old , born in London & Lived here all my life. I voted for the common market which I believed in, but not for the EU which it has turned into. We no l longer control ourselves and the only way we can is to leave the EU, we are a great country their are none better.We can still deal with the rest of the EU they need us ,we import far more from them,than we export to them..The rest of the world & the Commonwealth are our biggest market .
    it is time to vote out .Report

  5. We are told in the £9m leaflet that ” The Government believes the UK should remain in the EU”.

    BUT we are not told why the Government is then giving people the ability to vote to leave.

    After all, there is no knowing what the real consequences will be (either way).

    Aren’t we being asked to choose between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea?Report

  6. Have just received the £9m leaflet . Full of opinion not fact .

    Perhaps the Leave campaign could be a bit more adult . Just a suggestion- why not get voters to think for themselves by asking questions people can relate to ?

    Questions to consider as we are in the EU

    Uncontrolled immigration
    Do you think our public services are as available as they used
    to be ?

    National Safety
    Do you think our security services are the best in Europe and do an excellent job to keep us safe from terrorist attacks?

    Our laws overruled by European court of Human Rights
    Do you think it should take 4 years for our Home Secretary to deport Hate Preachers ?

    Air pollution
    Do all countries follow EU laws like we do ?
    eg Germany – VW

    Do we import more from EU than we export?

    Helping each other – harmonising
    Did we benefit from Mrs Merkel’s strategy of inviting unlimited economic migrants to Germany? Did she ask us?


    Do you think the Euro has been a success ?

    Does small business suffer under the weight of red tape ?


  7. Surprising how the unmentionable “E” word is not the EU but the EEA (European Economic Area)- by either side.
    The LEAVE people could point out that quitting the EU would still leave us in the EEA and thus retain existing free trade but without the CAP and CFP. Subsequent negotiations (eg on Free movement of capital and labour) would be with the EEA.
    Of course the REMAIN people don’t like to mention the EEA because it means answering difficult questions about the flourishing economies of Norway and Iceland outside the EU but in the EEA.Report

  8. A big factor in all this is that David Cameron is making the most almighty hash of everything:

    EU negotiation that never was,
    the attack on the disabled budget debacle,
    hiding of true immigration numbers versus NI numbers issued chasm,
    his divisive and abbrasive approach to his fellow cabinet members,
    Panama offshore tax manoeuvres,
    indolence in the loss of steel manufacturing in this country – we invented the stuff
    Burgeoning and out of control debt.

    If Cameron is secretly on the side of Brexit – then he is playing a blinder


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