What A Contrast! Phone Polls Put Remain Well Ahead

Posted on 16 December 2015 by John Curtice

The uncertainty surrounding just how close the referendum race really is has grown today with the publication of two further polls of referendum vote intention, one from ComRes for the Open Europe think tank, the other from Ipsos MORI for the Evening Standard. In contrast to the picture of a very tight race painted by two online polls from ICM and Survation released yesterday, both of today’s polls – conducted in each case by phone – put Remain well ahead. Once Don’t Knows are left to one side, ComRes put Remain on 62%, Leave on 38%, while Ipsos MORI’s estimate is Remain  64%, Leave 36%.

This contrast starkly confirms the warning that we issued last week – that polls of EU referendum vote intention conducted by phone are securing markedly higher levels of support for remaining in the EU than those conducted via the internet. That original observation was based on just two previous polls of referendum vote intention that had been conducted by phone, one each from ComRes and Ipsos MORI, and thus to some degree had to be regarded as tentative. But the fact that today both these pollsters have again put Remain much further ahead means we have now have to conclude that the two different methodological approaches are indeed securing very different results. Alas, we cannot be sure which approach is right and which is wrong (if either); the divergence simply means that we are left with very considerable uncertainty about just how close the referendum race really is.

Still, today’s polls do provide some further clarification on whether the balance of opinion has been changing. First, neither poll provides any evidence that the race has been narrowing since the ballot paper question was settled at the beginning of September. Both polls in fact put Remain somewhat further ahead than they did when they polled previously; back in September ComRes put Remain on 60% (two points less than now) while in October Ipsos MORI reckoned Remain were at 59% (five points less than now). Neither of these shifts is big enough to rule out the possibility that it might have occurred by chance, but the fact that neither poll has identified any movement in favour of Leave strongly supports our previous contention that the race has not narrowed since the beginning of September. Certainly, just as we warned that not too much notice should be taken of the fact that our Poll of Polls had narrowed somewhat during the course of the autumn to Remain 51%, Leave 49%, equally the fact that it now stands at Remain 55% Leave 45% cannot be taken as evidence of a material shift in the other direction.

That said, today’s Ipsos MORI poll does provide additional evidence (further to that noted in my previous blog) that the race has been tighter throughout the autumn than it was during the summer. As in their previous poll in October, Ipsos MORI only asked the ballot paper question of half their sample (which is why even a swing to Remain of as much as five points could still simply have occurred by chance). The other half were asked a question on whether people would vote to ‘stay in’ or ‘get out’ of the EU that the company has asked on an occasional basis ever since 1977. As in the case of the referendum ballot paper question, the pattern of responses to this question in Ipsos MORI’s latest poll is much the same as it was in October, with 53% saying they would vote to stay in (up one point), 36% that they would back getting out (down three points), while 11% said Don’t Know (up two). However, at the same time these figures are markedly less favourable to Remain than they were in June, when 61% said that they would vote to stay and just 27% that they would opt to get out. This represents the third straw in the wind, further to those provided by yesterday’s Survation poll and YouGov’s Eurotrack series, that the referendum race has indeed been tighter throughout the autumn than it was during the summer, and that the contrast between those two seasons is not simply a consequence of the change in the wording of the referendum question at the beginning of September.

Today’s polls have also tried to provide further evidence on how the public view the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership. Much like other polls, ComRes’ poll finds that denying recent EU migrants access to welfare benefits is the most likely of Mr Cameron’s objective to be regarded as ‘very important’ (48%), though in contrast to other polls it was almost matched in importance by that of ensuring the UK is not ‘disadvantaged’ by decisions taken by the Eurozone states (46%). The explanation may well lie in the use of that word ‘disadvantaged’; it is doubtful whether any electorate would be willing to accept a possible disadvantage of any kind.

The poll goes on to suggest (as YouGov have previously done) that the Remain side will win quite easily if Mr Cameron is perceived to have been successful in the renegotiations, but that equally it could still face a tight contest if the Prime Minister is thought to have failed to have delivered any of his four objectives (and especially so in the case of the welfare benefits for EU migrants issue and being disadvantaged by decisions of the Eurozone). But there is an obvious risk that such hypothetical questions exaggerate the degree to which the public will react to the outcome of the renegotiations. The real question is how many people end up coming to the conclusion for themselves that Mr Cameron has ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’, and the answer to that question will only become apparent in the weeks (and months) ahead.

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.

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