Time for a Cool Head and an Open Mind?

Posted on 20 May 2016 by John Curtice

It has been a week of considerable polling excitement in the EU referendum campaign. First, on Tuesday the Daily Telegraph reported a phone poll from ORB that, once Don’t Knows were left aside, put Remain on 58%, up four points on the company’s last phone poll in the third week of April. Then at Wednesday lunchtime the Evening Standard carried a phone poll from Ipsos MORI that, on the same basis, gave Remain 60%, also up four points on its last poll conducted a month ago. Indeed, this was the highest figure for Remain in any poll since February.

Coming as they did the week after interventions from Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and from Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, advising of the economic risks they believe are associated with a vote to Leave, these poll findings appeared to many commentators as evidence that voters were beginning to pay heed to the warnings about the economic consequences of voting to Leave. Moreover, it also seemed to many that these polls belied the message of the internet polls that the race remains as tight as ever. Certainly that appeared to be the view of the financial markets, with the pound staging a notable rally after the publication of the Ipsos MORI poll.

But one of the golden rules of the reporting of polls is that those with exceptional or dramatic findings secure widespread publicity, while those that are more mundane attract less notice. In fact, no less than seven polls have been published this week, including, not least, another phone poll from ComRes for ITV News and the Daily Mail that was released last night. Between them they make for a much more prosaic story in which it is far from clear that there has been any movement in the polls at all.

Below is a table of all of the polls that have been published this week, showing the percentage for Remain and Leave once the Don’t Knows have been removed. The penultimate column shows the increase or decrease in support for Remain since that poll was last conducted. However, in some cases that was no more than a week ago, while in others it was the middle of last month. To provide a consistent basis for comparison we also show for all of this week’s polls how their most recent figure compares with that in the equivalent poll a month ago.

Table. Polls published in week commencing 16 May

20 May table

There are a few details to bear in mind. The first concerns timing. The oldest poll, from TNS, was largely completed before Mark Carney’s warning on 12 May and that of Christine Lagarde on 13 May. It thus could not have picked up any impact their comments may have had.  ORB’s interviewing began before both pronouncements but was not completed until their headlines had hit the air waves. It may thus be at risk of underestimating any impact they may have had. All of the remaining interviewing was conducted after Mr Carney’s intervention and in nearly all cases, Ms Largarde’s too, though of course we may wonder whether those who were completing ICM’s surveys over the weekend had necessarily processed the information that their pronouncements contained.

The second concerns methodology. In the poll that ComRes released last night, the company changed the basis on which they quoted their headline figure. Hitherto this has been the reported vote of all respondents, though this has always been published alongside ComRes’ estimate of what the outcome would be after taking into expected demographic differences in turnout. (Those expected differences are not just based on voters’ reported likelihood of voting, as in the practice of many other polling companies, but on an analysis of turnout in previous ballots. In contrast to weighting schemes based on reported likelihood of voting, ComRes’ scheme anticipates that voters who support Remain will be more likely to vote than those who back Leave, adding two points to the Remain tally.) The figures for the change in the Remain vote for their latest poll in our table are thus the changes on the company’s turnout-weighted figure in their last poll rather than the headline figures that were published at the time.

Meanwhile, YouGov have also implemented a change in their weighting methodology, drawing a distinction between those who identify with an ‘established’ party such as the Conservatives or Labour, and those who identify with a ‘challenger’ party such as UKIP. The change has been made in reaction to the company’s estimate of UKIP support in the elections on May 5th. Its effect was to add one point to the Remain tally – and thus effectively more or less accounts for the small increase in Remain support registered by that poll.

These details aside, one things is clear. The substantial movements identified by ORB and Ipsos MORI have not been identified by any of the other polls this week, including two (from ComRes and YouGov) that were conducted well after the dust from Mr Carney and Ms Largarde had had some time to settle. Moreover, it is not simply the case that those polls conducted by phone consistently have identified a substantial swing that internet polls have failed to identify. Neither ICM’s phone poll nor that from ComRes have replicated that finding – both say that there has not been any significant change. But of course what is true is that, after a dearth of phone polls, the psychology of the week has been affected by the appearance of four phone polls that all certainly affirm the message of previous phone polling that the race does not look anything like as close as suggested by those polls done over the internet (and it is their appearance that has moved our Poll of Polls to Remain 55%, Leave 45%).

Meanwhile, there are two other findings in this week’s polls that are inconsistent with the thesis that the two interventions might have made a difference. First, if they had done so, we might have anticipated that the Remain side would have made particular progress in persuading voters of the merits of their economic case. Yet this is not what ORB found. True, they do report a four point increase on their previous poll in the proportion who think that remaining is more likely ‘to create a stronger economy’. But they also report an equally big switch in favour of Remain on the issue of immigration too.

Second, one of the striking findings in ComRes’ recent poll is that the proportion who say that the economy is one of the three key issues that will be important to them in deciding how to vote has increased from 38%, when they last asked the question in February, to 55% now. That would seem to signal a success by the Remain side in getting voters to focus on an issue on which they are inclined to believe that Remain has the stronger argument. Yet this has not been translated into a marked increase in support for Remain. (If reported on the same basis as last night’s poll, Remain stood at 58% in February). In part the increase in the proportion saying that the economy is important may simply reflect a greater polarisation between Remain and Leave supporters in their perception of the importance of the economy. While it was already the case in February that Remain voters (47%) were more likely than Leave supporters (29%) to say that the economy was an important issue, that gap has now widened to Remain voters, 68%, Leave supporters, 39%.

So, given that it is not clear that the interventions by Mr Carney and Ms Lagarde have made much, if any difference, what does the pattern of change look like if we take into account all of the polls published this week irrespective of when they were conducted – and compare them consistently with that they were saying a month ago. The answer is to be found in the bottom right hand corner of our table. On average the change in the level of support for Remain is zero!

Of course, it may be that concerns about the economic consequences of leaving the EU will be a slow burning issue for Remain that eventually moves public opinion in its direction. Perhaps the substantial swing to Leave reported by TNS will prove to a bit of a ‘rogue’. But for now what we do have to conclude is that collectively the latest round of polling does not provide clear evidence that a swing to Remain is in motion. The lesson of this week is that, as polling day begins to approach, it will become increasingly important to read the polls with a cool head and an open mind.

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.

48 thoughts on “Time for a Cool Head and an Open Mind?

      1. Making predictions without inside know-how is known to be bad for one’s health and pocket. Working with long established facts is not perfect either as it just lowers risk. Risking a whole country’s future on severely flawed political ideology is insanity or, someone has a bigger than declared agenda. Racism based perhaps ?Report

  1. I find the Bremainers an arrogant, self important and, at heart, laughably timid breed, but then maybe I’m showing my ‘British superiority’, whatever that might be? On the other hand there is a breed of Brexiters who are rather aggressive and scared, and even possibly a few genuine racists amongst them. All in all, this referendum seems to be entirely based on FEAR (did that make you jump, you nervous little man?), neither side are currently sounding anything more than laughable with their ridiculous, overblown claims. Talking about ‘British superiority’ where is our much vaunted ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘Dunkirk spirit’, or are we now nothing more than a nation of craven bed wetters?

    The bottom line is that the sky won’t fall on our heads whether we vote ‘out’ or ‘in’, and life will continue afterwards, with minimal to no change, regardless of the result, you can bet your life on it. Report

    1. Actually life will continue afterwards with minimal to no change only if you vote for the status quo. Voting to leave is a vote for change. If the result is to leave things will change. Report

  2. You’re making the wrong assumptions about others there Jon. Some of us post opinions based on our experiences of living and working in the EU for decades and, not only having a second language at our fingertips but also an astute awareness of cultural differences.

    Most of my postings are based upon economic trends, embedded political traits and observed behaviour. Try and remember, some of us have been walking and talking at many different levels of society in a variety of circumstances. Tip of the day, avoid letting British superiority show in your writing. Humility is an honourable characteristic in all humans.Report

    1. Tip of the day: Your patronising attitude (typical of the remain camp) shines far brighter than any point you are trying to make for remain. People recognise when they are being patronised and they don’t like it. You may be doing more for the Brexit side if you keep it up.Report

      1. You’re right Peter. The sky will not fall on our heads if we leave, that will happen fairly slowly over the course of a generation. Therefore forget it, your kids/grand-kids can keep Britain’s head out of the water. Not your fault mate so off you go and book your fortnight in Benidorm.Report

        1. Apologies for my misplaced posting, it found its way to a ‘reply’ under “philip” when it should be located under “Peter” @ 12:52 today.Report

        2. Guppy why Benidorm ? I was in Switzerland at the beginning of the year and they seem to be
          doing very nicely thank you.Report

      1. I just told the truth according to my personal experience. What underpins your experience to comment on this subject? Oh…yes…nearly forgot…Ukip’s warped ideology. Report

  3. People love to make predictions, and while in business a bad prediction will cost you money, on the Internet you can predict away all day and it will cost you nothing. So some people predict a Sterling crash and a stock market crash.

    But if you look at the numbers, you find that there is a slow motion crash going on, just not in the UK. It turns out that money has been flowing out of European stock ETFs to the tune of $50bn since March. And European stock markets are down 10% this year, and European Banks are doing even worse, down 20%. But worst of all is European Bonds, which have seen private investor outflows of about $400bn a month last year and $500bn a month this year. As the ECB has been buying bonds up, private investors have been dumping them. In effect, the ECB is now supporting the euro area bond market.

    So if you think of Europe doing well and the UK on the brink of disaster, think again.Report

  4. Just as an overall comment, I find that a lot of what Remainers post isn’t really about the EU. They aren’t posting coherent arguments in favour of staying in, and they don’t appear to know any more about the EU than the average Joe.

    Most of what they post is what’s called Virtue Signalling. They are really posting about themselves and what they think to be their superior characteristics. Being in favour of Remaining is supposed to convince you that they are more sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and of course more sober and thoughtful than the common herd.

    That’s why their postings are so patronizing and why they are so quick to insult anyone who has different concerns. To Remainers, anyone who exhibits patriotism, concern for country or a desire to retain sovereignty must be an unsophisticated and somewhat old fashioned person who just hasn’t caught up to the modern World and the post-national way they imagine it works.

    Now, it’s a free World, and if people want to broadcast their imagined self-image on the Internet, they are free to do so, but beating your chest and telling the World how clever and clued in you are, really isn’t the point of the Referendum.Report

    1. I was just wondering how best to puncture the puffed-up patronising tone of the Remainers, Guppy in particular, and you have put it perfectly. Well done Jon.Report

  5. The “dire” predictions being made by the Remain side are sometimes not all that dire at all. Today Cameron predicted a 12% drop in Sterling, and said that would raise food prices.

    It would, but another way to look at it is that investment flow balance would improve by 12%, and that would improve the current account deficit. Also, in the longer term, exporter would welcome a smallish drop in Sterling.

    So what looks like bad news has another side to it. And of course, Sterling actually isn’t falling, so predictions of a Sterling “crash” are currently being totally ignored by the professionals who trade Sterling.Report

    1. Catch a bit of education. This guy isn’t joking and he’s got 27 other elected national leaders behind him.


      If it’s sovereignty your worried about, stop listening to people who have nothing more than 2 weeks on the costa ? for knowledge of Europe


  6. The range of positives and negatives coming from whichever campaign is really pretty irrelevant. For my part I am so dismayed with the arguments from the key personalities promoting stay in the EU, it seems that the only course to take at the election is to vote for change! We have seen what the EU is like, now it is time to be masters of our own destiny, it can’t possibly worse.

    Risk, what risk? The risk is giving 28 EU countries the power to control our future potential and just look at the state that has got them into? A currency that simply could not work for every country! And an inability to create trading agreements, not to mention migrants and terrorism! By not taking control of our lives and circumstances we will permanently end up in the grip of the EU Bureaucracy feeding a cause that they failed to properly plan and are now trying to hold together with threats designed to create fear in the people of the UK. I can’t believe that the Brits won’t their own judgements despite all the remain in and EU propaganda. Report

    1. Nice summary. And I would add that not only would we be controlled by the EU, but we would be controlled by bureaucrats who have ignored one warning after another about the bed effects their policies would have, and which have been correct.Report

  7. When people talk about the economic arguments for remaining in the EU, I think they make two serious mistakes. There are strong arguments for continuing to trade with the EU, and free trade if possible, but that has nothing to do with the EU’s political ambitions. It ought to be possible to leave the EU’s political institutions and continue to trade, since that is in the best interests of both sides. If someone insists that we have to be in the EU’s political institutions in order to trade, that very much invites the question why? It’s not true of the 55% of our trade that is with markets outside the EU.

    The beauty of trade is that it allows two or more countries to exchange value, and exploit their competitive advantages *without* them interfering in one anothers’ internal affairs. Agreed standards promote trade, but these days trade standards are settled at the international level, and the EU just passes them down to its members. The onus is on Remain to explain why we have to receive international trade standards via the EU, rather than being represented directly at the WTO and various trade rounds.

    The second serious mistake they make is that if thinking of the EU as it was several decades ago. The EU today is not a successful economy. Its GDP has only just regained its 2008 level. But it has had such a slow recovery that unemployment has remained above ten percent for eight years. If that was the case in the UK, we would regard it as a national emergency, but the EU’s fans talk as if everything in the EU outside the UK is just fine, when it is anything but.

    And the EU isn’t just going to get back to normal automatically. It may return to growth, but it has lost a decade, and during that decade youth unemployment has been very high and investment and infrastructure has been very low. That means that the economy has been to some extent hollowed out, with loss of skills and investment. It will be very difficult to catch up the eight year gap and return to anything like the growth rate of the early 2000’s. And that in turn means that more and more of the UK’s future trade will be with the fast browing parts of the World economy, and not with Europe. One percent growth in the EU can’t compete with 6 or 7% growth in India and China.

    Add to that, the euro area’s austerity policies, which have been dragging down countries like Greece, Spain and Italy, and even to an extent France, and it’s not a pretty picture. Greece’s GDP is about a quarter lower than in 2008, but Italy is about ten percent lower, Spain fifteen, and France two or three. Negative growth over an eight year period is quite serious.

    A lot of the Remain case has been to try to persuade us that the UK is weak and helpless and that we need the support of the dynamic and fast-growing EU, but that’s a bluff. We have always given financial support to the rest of the EU, and if we remain we will continue to do so, but the EU itself will be a less valuable partner than it was in the past. It’s just that we *remember* when the EU was fast-growing market, and we can’t quite shake that off.Report

  8. All propaganda aside David Cameron’s claims of championing E.U. reform have no basis in reality. The reforms he ‘fought’ to push through were incredibly minor and vague; the only real major issues, that of immigration laws being set by the U.K. parliament, restriction of benefits and council housing to migrants, and an opposition veto to EU legislation were compromised thoroughly.
    The legislation that benefits the whole of Europe is not in sync with our own interests, just look at E.U. steel tariffs that stifle our industry, fishing allowances that favour the mainland and trade deals that only strengthen the German cartels.

    The E.U. is fast becoming a mirror image of the Holy Roman Empire of old, with Merkel as Empress. We simply don’t need it in our modern era of peace, especially when the great powers and economies around us such as Russia, China and the USA are increasingly promoting their national interests on the global stage.

    We are fortunate to have an opportunity to leave before a serious economic crisis in Europe and it is merely inertia that will most likely keep us in. Our partnership only benefits the wealthiest with access to cheap labour and lopsided trade agreements.

    It is an incredibly short-sighted proposition for an overpopulated country with an inflated economy to remain in a union that benefits those who seek to exploit our membership and undermine our national interests. Report

    1. Scaremongering nonsense without a shred of supporting evidence and you know it. If it’s not scaremongering, it’s paranoia on a grand scale.Report

  9. Complacency is not one of remain’s biggest problem’s – it’s having a credible argument as why we should surrender our sovereignty and future prosperity in order to stay shackled to a crumbling, un-elected and unaccountable organisation which is deeply unpopular with many ordinary people. Report

  10. If anyone ever rang me in one of these polls I’d undoubtedly say I was voting Leave, although I’m 100% Remain and can hardly sleep any more at the prospect that Brexit might happen.

    The reason is that I’m concerned about complacency on the Remain side. The Leave side already have the passion of the swivel-eyed on their side. For me I hope (despite my nerves) that the polls don’t suggest an easy victory for Remain as we get near the Fateful Day. If I could contribute to the sense that the living-dead Brexiters had a good chance of winning, I’d do it!

    Above all I’m furious the thing ever happened… but now I just want it to be OVER! Before then I’m currently planning to stake about £4000 on Leave … losing this sum would be fine by me as long as we get the right result!

    Finally, I’m not sure that all this polling analysis by the likes of John Curtice and many others is necessarily morally neutral or desirable. If their analysis increases complacency about a crucial political choice this hardly makes polling analysis “just for academic interest”, does it?Report

    1. I have a theory that, should Brexit happen, the effects on 24 June will be far worse than anyone’s predicting… investors often develop a herd mentality… and many of them are of course not human, but cold-hearted algorithms.

      My theory then goes: the pound plummets by 25% or more and the FTSE by 1000 points (I have already converted all my investment funds to cash until the 23 June) … the Parliamentary Conservative Party goes into crisis mode, and essentially quakingly implore Cameron to just “get us out of this sh1tstorm – however you can!”.

      The only way to do so would involve sending a clear message to the markets and financial institutions across the planet that the UK will settle for a Norway-style solution: free movement, annual fee payable, and of course no seat at the top table.

      This could be the way Brexit aspirations for “sovereignty” end: with less of it!Report

      1. Meanwhile, back in the real World, Sterling has been recovering against the Dollar since March, and the FTSE is trading close to an all-time high.

        So your “theory” is that professional investors and money managers are completely clueless and don’t have the sense to sell now, before the referendum, but luckily for us, people posting here are far more expert.Report

  11. The economic case for remaining in the EU is now beyond doubt. The political case for remaining in the EU is also made provided you don’t mind doing the same as the other 27 EU States and sharing sovereignty. Most of which would have little effect on Britain anyway after Mr Cameron’s recent negotiations. e.g. no further political integration, joining the euro and an ’emergency brake’ on immigration but nobody really knows how that could be made to work.

    Everything else is just personal opinion based on ignorance, racism and various versions of ‘little-englander’ syndrome.Report

    1. I am not ignorant or racist. I believe in both a big England and a Great Britain. I reject your accusation against me.

      The economic case is far from beyond doubt.

      The EU is hell bent on arriving at a political united Europe – Clause 1 of the Treaty of Rome – ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. By definition they REQUIRE us to comply. It is in the Treaty. The word is DETERMINED.

      To claim we have an opt out of Political Union is a nonsense when EVERY other nation in Europe – which is at least 57 based on the membership of the Council of Europe – is nonsense. When the EU reaches its destination we will be a third class citizen if our opt-outs work, with zero influence. So what is the point. And if they don’t work the political end is clear.

      Either way we lose. As Boris said, since the fall of the Roman Empire many have tried to get European Sovereignty ‘pooled’. Napoleon was one. Wars have been fought because nations and peoples did NOT wish to pool their sovereignty. The SNP knows this – they don’t want pooled sovereignty with the English – they want independence.

      OK – they also want to be in the EU – but that is a logical conflict as no nation state within the EU nation will have independence. One can only presume that it’s the EU gravy train that attracts the politicians and the people are fooled by the lies. Report

      1. Nothing personal to anyone, just fact. It’s also fact that Mr Cameron negotiated Britain never becoming part of an “ever closer union”.

        Part of preventing future wars is exactly that, pooled sovereignty. It ties all the hands of potential conflict. Trade goes some way but is only a small part in the bigger picture.

        I’ll just put you down as a slightly touchy little englander if that’s okay with you.Report

        1. Wrong, as highlighted by Mr Juncker last week, the little that Cameron asked for is NOT LEGALLY binding and requires a vote from the EU parliament without any changes, caveats. Mr Schultz has even said its unlikely to be accepted as it breaks their doctrinal beliefs.Report

      2. Jeremy your long post is absolutely full of the wild overwrought statement we now associate with Brexiters.
        For example that the EU is ‘hell bent on a political united Europe’ when (a) they are not, show me evidence and (b) even if they were, we have an opt out.

        As for ‘misguided fools’ , if BREXIT wins it will be because people with (according to opinion polls far less education as it seems BREXIT is massively favoured by the less educated while Remain is the opposite) are being utterly duped by the outright and proven lies of newspaper owners who are not even residents or citizens of this country. They will be the winners, they already employ the probable post-BREXIT leaders– Gove and Johnson– and they will call the shots. It is a truly horrifying prospect.

        1. Correct. There is an unhealthy community of elite financiers, wealthy ex-pats and various city people who are actively opposing Remain. They are resisting further EU legislation that will close down tax havens, money laundering and LIBOR rigging.


        2. If you are so well educated could you not put your brackets in the correct place?
          All of the ‘opt outs’ will be overruled by the other 27 nations (or a majority of them) as soon as those nations need our support in whatever way they see fit. We will be used, abused and destroyed then discarded just like Greece. They show no mercy for those they bring to their knees. God help our future generations.Report

        3. Frankie you dont find the idea of Cameron calling the shots disturbing?Personallt I find it

          very worrying .I must have been mad to vote for him and I am now leaning towards Brexit because of him.Report

      3. You are correct. The EU has its own legal personality, so an agreement between member states *cannot* bind the EU. Cameron’s “concessions” are not enforceable. They are not even enforceable on future Governments of the member states that signed the agreement.Report

    2. The economic case for *trading* with the EU is beyond doubt. That has little or nothing to do with the case of remaining in the EU’s political institutions.Report

  12. John’s tall, isn’t he ? And rugged, like Clint Eastwood. I don’t know who the recipients of the phone polls are but virtually everyone in my home town of Burry Port is a Brexiter, barring one small crossbred terrier that looks a bit like George Osborne. I’m not sure if he has fleas, I didn’t get close enough.Report

  13. If collectively the latest round of polling suggests that there is no clear evidence that a swing to Remain has occurred, that implies there is clear evidence that there was no stalemate as you asserted in your previous commentary.Report

  14. OK Curtice but are you agreeing or disagreeing with those distinguished pollsters like Peter Kellner who are now calling it (barring a major crisis) for Remain? Your last ‘stalemate’ article gave the distinct impression you thought the polls were in a tie. I thought then you were making fear too much of ana overall picture that was static yes but far from stalemate with a pretty evident and fairly unchanging lead for Remain. Do you even have a view on the internet versus phone debate that is again fairly persuasively argued by Kellner.?I think we deserve to be told! Report

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