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Random?-Only God & YouGov Knows

What the polls really mean for the future of Scotland

Is Scotland about to leave the UK?

 

Two opinion polls published this week show that the “yes” campaign has

 

breached the 50 per cent barrier and could be on track to win the Scottish

 

independence referendum, due to be held next Thursday. But headlines apart,

 

polling stats suggest either side could come out on top.

 

Opinion polls are typically based on a random sample of 1000 people, which

 

means that even if everything is perfectly random, statistical theories say the

 

margin for error is 3 per cent. In other words, a 50-50 split could actually emerge

 

as 47-53.

 

And most polls, while close to random samples, don’t meet the strict

 

mathematical definition as there may be biases in the people polled – meaning the

 

error bar could be even higher

 

“If someone asks us for a margin of error we’ll say 3 per cent, but it is more of a

 

rule of thumb than anything that’s got scientific validity behind it,” says Anthony

 

Wells of polling firm YouGov, which published the first yes-leading poll on

 

Saturday with a 51-49 split.

 

The margin of error isn’t even the biggest cause of uncertainty, adds Wells. While

 

statistical models for general election polls in the UK are well established, with

 

years of historical data to draw on and tweak the samples, the same isn’t true for

 

this referendum. “It’s our first time polling a referendum on Scottish

 

independence so we haven’t done it before and we haven’t learned those

 

lessons,” says Wells.

 

Undecided voters are also an important factor missing from the headlines.

 

YouGov’s poll actually shows “yes” on 47 per cent, “no” on 45 per cent and “don’t

 

know” on 8 per cent. A TNS poll published today shows a 50-50 split with “don’t

 

knows” excluded, but the firm places them at 23 per cent. These undecided voters

 

don’t usually make it into the headlines but will play a crucial role in determining

 

the outcome. International precedent suggests undecided voters in a referendum

 

swing towards the status quo, but things may be different when it comes to

 

Scotland.

 

Further surveys conducted before the referendum could show whether the boost

 

in confidence for the “yes” side will translate into more support, but it looks as if

 

the final vote on 18 September will be balanced on a knife-edge. “We don’t know

 

who’s ahead, but we can be confident in saying things have got a lot narrower,”

 

says Wells.

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