Another week, another false dawn?

Posted on 3 June 2016 by John Curtice

It is, in truth, becoming an all too familiar story. Both last week and the week before, many a media headline gave the impression that there had been a significant shift in the polls in favour of Remain. In both instances we argued here that a cooler, more systematic look at the polls suggested there was insufficient evidence to support any such conclusion. Now this week, the mood has swung in the opposite direction, with claims that the Leave side has made progress, accompanied by a coincident panic in the financial markets. But do these claims of a shift to Leave have any more evidential weight behind them than the previous headlines of a swing to Remain?

This week’s shift of mood began when ORB’s latest phone poll for The Daily Telegraph appeared on Tuesday. This, the paper claimed, represented a ‘significant poll boost’ for Leave, and demonstrated that the Leave campaign’s ‘focus on immigration is paying off’. Indeed, at 55% for Remain and 45% for Leave (excluding Don’t Knows) the poll’s figures  did represent a considerable swing back to Leave as compared with the same poll the previous week, which credited Remain with 61% and Leave with 39%.

But then it was the previous week’s ORB poll that had helped set off last week’s speculation that there had been a marked shift in favour of Remain. In the event, the rest of the polling released that week failed to confirm that there had been much of a shift, suggesting that ORB’s poll was a bit of an outlier. Thus, it was almost inevitable that this week’s offering from ORB would see a shift back to Leave, reverting back towards the mean figure being obtained by phone polls. Indeed, at Remain 55%, Leave 45%, ORB’s latest figures are exactly in with the average for all phone polls in recent weeks, and are no more than a point adrift from the figures that ORB themselves had reported at the end of April (Remain 54%, Leave 46%).

(By the way, there is some confusion about what ORB’s vote intention figures are. In its reporting of the company’s polls the Daily Telegraph focuses on the share of the vote for the two sides amongst the sub-sample of ORB’s respondents who say they are certain to vote. However, the practice that we follow on this site is to focus on the figures the polling company in question regards as its headline numbers, and ORB have advised that they prefer to focus on the vote intentions for all respondents to their polls. Thus the numbers quoted above, and those reported elsewhere on this site, are for all respondents in ORB’s polls, numbers which tend to be more favourable to Remain than those on which the Telegraph focuses.)

However, the feeling that there had been been a significant swing to Leave really became widespread when later on Tuesday ICM released the results of its latest polling. This proved to be the company’s third attempt to compare the results of internet and phone polling, attempts that previously had replicated the industry-wide finding that phone polls produce more favourable results for Remain than internet polls. However, on this occasion it did not. Instead, both polls produced the same result – Remain 48, Leave 52. This meant that the phone poll of the pair was only the third such poll to put Remain ahead – and that was enough to see the pound being sold quite heavily on the financial markets.

There is certainly no gainsaying that this represented a remarkable finding. After all, ICM’s two previous phone polls had put Remain on 54% and 55%, Leave on 46% and 45%, well in line with the norm for phone polls in general. On its own it certainly represented apparent evidence of a substantial swing to Leave, even if the poll had been conducted over a Bank Holiday weekend when  ascertaining a representative sample of voters is perhaps even more difficult than usual.

But, of course, it was not on its own. There was also the evidence from ICM’s parallel online poll. This did not suggest that there had been a sharp swing to Leave. While its figures of 48% for Remain and 52% for Leave did represent a two point swing to Leave compared with the equivalent poll last week, these numbers were by no means remarkable. ICM came up with exactly the same estimates just a fortnight ago.

Meanwhile, given that ORB’s phone poll, taken at much the same time, was in line with most other recent phone polls, there was also no good reason to jump to the conclusion that the findings of phone polls were now coming into line with those of internet polls.

Then on Wednesday along came an internet poll from YouGov, conducted just after the ORB and ICM polls. Its finding? That nothing had changed at all. It put Remain on 50%, Leave on 50%, exactly in line with the long-term average for internet polls as well as YouGov’s own findings the previous week.

In short, in what has proven to be a relatively thin week for polls  (thanks perhaps in part to the bank holiday), we have had three polls that, properly interpreted, do not give any grounds to believe that a significant change has occurred at all, and just one unusual finding that has yet to be corroborated. Unfortunately, much commentary and speculation on polls is inclined to focus on the poll that is the exception rather than the rule – but it is the rule that is the better guide.

The narrative that there had been a swing to Leave undoubtedly also gained purchase because it followed on from the fact that ONS revealed at the end of last week, just as the ORB and ICM polls went into the field, that net migration in 2015 was just below its all-time record high, with migration to and from the EU being responsible for just under half of that total. That seemed an obvious reason to some commentators, including not least to the Daily Telegraph, why some voters might have switched to leave.

However, there was no evidence in either the ORB poll or in YouGov’s poll, both of which are repeatedly asking voters what they think the consequences of remaining or leaving would be, that voters’ views about the implications of EU membership for immigration had particularly shifted. True, the ORB poll did show that the proportion who believe that Remain was better able to improve Britain’s immigration system had fallen by six points as compared with the previous week, while the proportion who reckoned Leave could better do on that score increased by two. But even so, this simply meant that the balance of opinion on this issue had simply reverted to where it had been a month ago.

More importantly, it was not just on the immigration question that there was an apparent swing to Leave. It was also evident on many another issue, including not least the economy, on which the proportion that Remain were more likely to ‘create a stronger economy’ was also down by six points, while the proportion who thought that Leave were more likely to do so had increased by six points. Rather than indicating that voters had been particularly swayed by the immigration issue, the poll simply suggested that ORB’s sample this week was a little less enamoured of the Remain side’s arguments in general than the previous week’s sample had been.  But then, given that it was a sample that contained fewer Remain voters, this was hardly surprising.

Meanwhile, YouGov failed to find any marked change in attitudes towards the implications of leaving the EU for immigration at all.  At 58% the proportion who said that there would be less immigration if we left, was little different from what it had been in the company’s polls both a week and a month ago. While the publication of the immigration statistics might have affirmed some people’s existing views, there is no reason to believe that it had served to change minds.

So, it seems that, once again, we should conclude that another week has gone by in which little, if anything, has changed. That doubtless makes for a dull day in the newspaper office and an unexciting one in the City trading room. We are though still left with the uncertainty created by the divergence between the phone and the internet polls, and with the inevitably imponderable question as to whether the final three weeks of the campaign will see a movement in one direction or the other as voters finally make up their minds and, in some cases, cast their postal ballots. But then perhaps that is more than enough potential excitement to be going on with.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

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

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