2020 in Review – Independence Polling

Following on from the reviews of Council By-Elections and Parliamentary Polling, this year has a new addition – Independence Polling. I didn’t do this in either 2018 (when the situation was very status quo 2014) or last year (when polling narrowed but remained favourable to the Union), because there wasn’t enough to hang a whole article on on. “Things are still the same” is important to know, but difficult to write about.

This year however, with support for Independence taking a consistent lead for the first time in history, I felt it would be remiss to let it pass by. In true BBS style however, now I’ve started doing this I’m probably going to have to keep doing it every year now regardless of what twists and turns polling may take!

The first thing to do is look at the raw polling figures. Although it’s common to remove Don’t Knows, on a question like Independence that removes a key part of the story. It probably wouldn’t be the case that undecided voters split between options in the same proportion as the decided voters. Especially on a major constitutional issue, the status quo might prove more appealing for any voter remaining unsure right up to the vote. So, knowing how many such voters there are is important.

That caveat firmly in mind, per this measure polling flipped from favouring the Union to Independence in February. The end date for the poll which was the tipping point was rather on the nose for those on either side of the debate who use the “divorce” metaphor – the 14th of February. A very narrow lead then prevailed over the next few polls, before a much wider gap opened up during the summer, which has since held rather steady.

As we did with the parliamentary polling, we can look at the overall average for Q4 of the year (changes are vs Q4 2019):

Yes - 49.0% (+4.5)
No - 40.5% (-7.3)
Don't Know - 9.8% (+3.1)
(Note that the figures here don't sum to 100% / net 0 changes due to differences between pollsters in reporting refusals)

Although support for Independence has seen a sizeable increase, it’s still a little bit short of a majority overall. Much larger has been the decrease in support for the Union, which now isn’t far off dropping below the 40% mark. That means the balance has been made up by a notable rise in the number of folk saying they don’t know how they’d vote. These averages are being driven by some record highs and lows for each side.

Four of the eight polls making up the quarterly average did see Independence on an outright majority, and the October Ipsos MORI found a record setting high of 55% support under this measure. On the other hand, support for the Union hit a record low in that same poll of 39%, which was followed by December’s ComRes of 38%. Apart from one outlier TNS poll ahead of the 2014 referendum which had a massive 23% undecided, No had never dipped below 40% until this year.

Overall, across the quarter Yes has averaged just 1% shy of that majority mark, and 8.5% ahead of No across this quarter’s polls. If these figures held until any future referendum, the pro-Independence camp would be the likely victor. Even with the “don’t knows may be more favourable to the status quo” caveat above, the pro-Union side would need that favourability to be upwards of a whopping 9 in 10 such voters, which seems a stretch.

Excluding Don't Knows

Having raised the important warning about looking at polling without the undecided figures, let’s now do exactly that. For better or worse, this is primarily how Independence polling is reported in the media and discussed online, so it’s worth looking at it this way too.

This obviously follows the same broad pattern as the other measure, of the lead swapping from Union to Independence in February, things remaining neck and neck until summer, widening, and then roughly settling for the rest of the year.

Yes - 54.7% (+6.7 / +10.0)
No - 45.3% (-6.7 / -10.0)

This doesn’t quite flip the 2014 result on its head, but it’s very close. Rounding up (as polling normally does – I only break out the decimals for averages) would give that surface level 55 vs 45. Whatever your position on the constitutional question, this has been a remarkable period. Though leads for Independence in polls haven’t been unheard of, they have been infrequent.

From the 2011 election to the 2014 referendum, only four polls put Yes ahead. From then until the end of 2019, there were 13 such leads out of around 100 polls, and those were pretty scattered. We’d never until now seen that kind of lead sustained for any period of time. There have now been as many polls (17) in 2020 that BBS has tracked showing Independence ahead as there had been in total in the roughly 9 years beforehand, including two (Ipsos MORI in October, ComRes in December) with all-time highs of 58%.

That said, some caution for those who support Independence and comfort for those who support the Union. I’ve noted for a while in my polling and projection pieces that we’ve settled into something of a new normal – but if there’s one thing that’s true of politics globally, it’s that it doesn’t stay settled for long. Who knows what 2021 and the (hopeful) recovery from the pandemic will bring to our politics?

Council Area Projection

Please see this page for how projections work and important caveats.

The last little thing to do with this data is to feed it into the usual projection. Even more so than the parliamentary version this has a massive “JUST FOR FUN” stamp all over it – it’s indicative, not authoritative. 

On a simple Uniform Swing versus 2014, this might put a total of 22 Councils in the Yes column, an increase on the 4 in 2014. That’d leave 10 for No, down from 28 at the referendum.

And that brings us to the end of 2020! I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say I’ll be glad to see the back of this year – though for me it did perk up a bit towards the end with a very enjoyable new job after lengthy unemployment. Not only does 2021 offer the prospect of happier times (I really miss being able to see and hug my friends) but it’ll also be the biggest year since Ballot Box Scotland launched, as we steam full-pelt towards the Scottish Parliament election. 

I remain extremely grateful for all the support this project continues to receive, especially from the immensely generous folk who’ve donated to support my work. I hope everyone gets to relax a bit over the rest of the holiday season, and has a very happy New Year!

If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.
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