Great Scot! Look at all this polling!
Tomorrow, Scotland faces an independence referendum to break from the rest of the United Kingdom. Pro-union forces have been thrown into panic by a poll from the UK polling agency YouGov on September 6th that put the “Yes” campaign at 47 percent, two points ahead of the opposition.
The importance of public polling in the Scottish referendum is symptomatic of a shift in the place of polling in the UK, driven by the increased number of broader national votes.
UK election coverage has traditionally not been nearly as obsessed with polls as election coverage in the US. This is at least in part because the voting system makes polling incredibly difficult and not terribly accurate. Imagine trying to work out the winner of a U.S. election where instead of 50 states there were 650, each of which was made up of an average of less than 100,000 voters. The Lake County School Board in Florida has a larger potential electorate than any single UK parliamentary race.
Because of the complex voting system, polls are treated differently in the UK general election. They predict what the overall electorate and turnout could look like, a picture that is then modeled to the individual seats for the members of parliament. If a Conservative member has a small majority in his district, then it is likely that if a poll shows a national swing of 3 percent to Labour the Conservative MP will lose.
Typical election coverage, featuring the instrument of British election forecasting (and election night staple) the “Swingometer,” exemplifies the failings of trying to apply observations about the national electorate on a local level.
The Scottish referendum is different, less messy. A simple “Yes” / “No” question across a large region can be polled relatively easily, and it has unleashed a new wave of enthusiasm for polling and pollsters. The website WhatScotlandThinks.org shows 91 different polls from nine different polling organizations since February of last year.
Unlike in national elections, polls are driving election coverage (my favorite referendum headline in the Telegraph was the Buzzfeed-esque: Five Scottish referendum polls that could move the pound over the next week). This has been encapsulated in the reaction to the YouGov poll showing independence creeping ahead. The pound plummeted, business leaders penned letters, politicians pleaded, and the Scottish flag was even (eventually) raised above the Prime Minister’s London residence (HT to John Oliver).
The Scottish referendum is just one of a growing number of poll-able questions in British politics. Between 1979 and 1997 there were no national referenda (including Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish national votes). Since 1997 there have been seven.
Whatever the result tomorrow, with a growing number of nation and city-wide ballots, the United Kingdom has never seen polls as more important.