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Social Desirability and Response Validity in Current Polling

[ 22 ] September 28, 2012 |

Several days ago in these very pages, discussion ensued regarding the latest conservative attempt to rewrite reality through re-weighting polls to one guy’s liking.  Of course, polling is not an exact science, but it is a science, and the latest wingnut delusion has no grounding in theory or empirical evidence.  Like any science, survey research continuously attempts to improve upon the validity and reliability of its measures and findings.  While I’m not at all concerned about some nefarious (and successful) attempt by the MSM and that paragon of power, the Democratic Party, to turn otherwise professional and reputable polling houses into duplicitous shills.

However, I have been somewhat interested (note, not concerned) if there might be something else going on that causes the polls to over estimate support for Obama.  Social desirability bias is something I’ve published on in the past (direct link to the paper here).  While that article suggests a contextual effect that causes variance in social desirability across countries (regarding accurately reported turnout in survey research), relevant here is what is colloquially known as the Bradley Effect.  It’s possible (though I consider it unlikely in the specific context of the 2012 Presidential election) that this helps explain Obama’s consistent polling advantage in an election where many if not most structural conditions suggest an incumbent defeat.

It’s difficult with the data I have available to examine this hypothesis to any satisfaction, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.

To begin with, we have the current state of the polls.

Obama Romney Advantage
RCP 28 Sep. 48.6 44.6 4.0
538 28 Sep. 52.2 46.5 5.7
538 6 Nov. 51.5 47.4 4.1

 

RCP’s running average has Obama up 4 points, Nate Silver’s “nowcast” model up 5.7, and his current prediction for election day 4.1 points.

If social desirability is at work here, a poll respondent will state that she or he supports the President because internally, our not entirely sincere respondent is seeking the socially desirable response, and not supporting the black guy might be racist.  However, this is done knowing that they will ultimately support the white guy.  Practically, this would mean that Obama’s support in these polls is inflated.

I’m approaching this from several directions.  First, I’ve averaged the final month of polls for Presidential elections going back to 1976 (an arbitrary cut off) to examine how accurate the polls were in predicting the final outcome between two white men, with 2008 to serve as a benchmark for 2012.  Shift represents how wide of the mark the final polls were, to the benefit or detriment of the incumbent party.

Poll Result Shift
2008 D 7.6 D 7.3 0.3
2004 R 1.5 R 2.4 0.9
2000 R 3.0 D 0.5 3.5
1996 D 11.0 D 8.0 -3.0
1992 D 12.0 D 6.0 -6.0
1988 R 12.0 R 7.0 -5.0
1984 R 18.5 R 18.0 -0.5
1980 R 4.0 R +10.0 -6.0
1976 D 2.0 D 2.0 0.0

 

Social desirability response bias in an election can take on many forms, not just race.  To wit, the 1992 general election in the United Kingdom is a good case study (one I lectured on here at Plymouth about six or seven years ago, shame I have no clue where those lecture notes now reside) as the polls largely predicted a narrow Labour outright victory or a hung parliament with Labour having the plurality of seats, yet the Conservatives under John Major easily won by 7.5%.  This is called the Shy Tory Factor on this island, which is simply another manifestation of social desirability.  But in 2012, I’m primarily considering race, and comparing 2008 to past elections does not support the hypothesis that this might be a problem for Obama’s numbers in 2012.

I also considered several of the primary elections in January, 2008.  This was the beginning of a primary where Obama was a somewhat unknown junior senator only four years into his Congressional career, going up against the assumed nominee.  For these data, I average all polls from the last week of the campaign in the given state (there were 20 in New Hampshire alone).

Poll Result Shift
NH Obama 35 37 2
NH Clinton 30 39 9
NV Obama 33.25 45 11.75
NV Clinton 37 51 14
SC Obama 41 55 14
SC Clinton 26 27 1

 

This evidence is more ambiguous than the examination of previous general elections.  Both Clinton and Obama received shifts in their favor, which isn’t surprising considering the undecideds presumably made a decision of some sort once voting.  However, in both New Hampshire and Nevada, the shift was stronger towards Clinton than Obama: a 7 and 2.25 point advantage respectively.  Both are dwarfed by Obama’s advantage in South Carolina.

These are the wrong data to be analysing this with, of course; ideally we’d have individual level data.  While not individual level data, the following figure, by Greenwald and Albertson, offers a more holistic view of the 2008 primaries.

The above shows that among 32 states where data were available, the “Bradley effect” was only evident in three states, yet 12 states demonstrated what has been termed (erroneously, in my opinion) the “reverse Bradley effect”: states where Obama’s support in the primaries was under, not over, estimated (see South Carolina above).  I consider this an erroneous classification because where the theoretical explanation for the Bradley effect hinges on social desirability, the reverse has been hypothesized as a function of systematic sample bias, through either the under-representation of African Americans in polling samples, or the cell-phone effect.  However, some have hypothesized that “black voters might have been reluctant to declare to pollsters their support for Obama”, and the link above does discuss that

After the Super Tuesday elections of February 5, 2008, political science researchers from the University of Washington found trends suggesting the possibility that with regard to Obama, the effect’s presence or absence may be dependent on the percentage of the electorate that is black. The researchers noted that to that point in the election season, opinion polls taken just prior to an election tended to overestimate Obama in states with a black population below eight percent, to track him within the polls’ margins of error in states with a black population between ten and twenty percent, and to underestimate him in states with a black population exceeding twenty-five percent. The first finding suggested the possibility of the Bradley effect, while the last finding suggested the possibility of a “reverse” Bradley effect in which black voters might have been reluctant to declare to pollsters their support for Obama or are under polled.

There are numerous possible explanations for the “reverse” effect, including faulty likely voter models, under sampling of blacks, sampling bias due to cell phones, to name a few.  There might be some sort of contextual effect at work here, but to ascribe it to behavioural motivations (rather than factors exogenous to the individual, such as sampling bias) such as blacks being shy to state their support for Obama fails the face validity test to me.

Ultimately, given the wide array of mediocre data presented here, I am not concerned about social desirability biasing the estimates of support for Obama in any significant, substantive manner.  However, much as I’d like to, I wouldn’t say that the Republican conspiracy is more likely, if only because that is so creatively ludicrous I initially thought it was an Onion piece.

Push Polling!

[ 0 ] March 20, 2010 |

Ten minutes ago, the wife received a call Family Research Council. The first question: “Do you have a favorable opinion of President Obama’s government run health care proposal?”

After she answered “Yes,” there were no further questions. I suspect that there would have been more than a few additional queries if the answer had been “No.”

UPDATE: IPE@UNC marshaled the mighty power of empirical science to determine the truth of my last statement:

They called the wife’s phone about 10 minutes later and she let me answer. This time when asked if I supported the Marxist take over of everything great about America I said “No”. Were there follow-ups? Why….. yes! Of course there were. The next question was some variant of “Do you support abortion?” I said “No” and then the robot lit into a 30 second rant about how Obama pledged to Planned Parenthood during the campaign that he’d do everything in his power to eliminate all restrictions on abortion (which I think is untrue, but maybe not) and strongly implied, without directly saying so, that passage of the health care bill would lead to just that outcome. Then the robot asked if I’d be willing to contact my congressman about this issue and I said “Yes”. The robot then helpfully gave me my representatives’ information.

More on British Polling and Margins of Error

[ 0 ] March 2, 2010 |

I promise that this will not be a daily habit of mine, but the Tory +2% lead poll did generate the predictable breathless excitement on these islands.

YouGov’s daily tracker indeed moved back towards +6, as anticipated, at Conservative +7. Additionally, a ComRes poll was released yesterday for The Independent which places the Tory lead at +5 (37/32/19). I want to emphasize that the +2 poll released on Sunday, while at the fringes assuming a true value of +6, is still within the margin of error. It was not an outlier in a pedantic understanding of the word, which is a case three standard deviations removed from the mean.
In other words, the findings reported in the Sunday poll were not “wrong”. 95% of samples will yield the true value within the error band of +/- 3%, as this was. This is why we have margins of error in the first place.

What we should focus on is not the point estimate itself, but the trend – and the consistent trend is clearly away from the Tories and towards Labour.

Speaking of which, the +5% Tory lead reflected in The Independent’s poll still yields a distribution of seats as Labour 287, Conservative 272, Liberal Democrat 59 — assuming a uniform national swing.

UPDATE ( 3/3/10): Again as expected, Wednesday’s YouGov tracker is rather consistent, at Conservative +5 (C 38 L 33 LD 16). Given the last seven to ten days of polling, this suggests a true value of support around + 6%, and if not precisely 6 (and it isn’t) it’s slightly below 6%.

Preliminary Colorado exit polling data

[ 0 ] November 4, 2008 |

This is weighted by affiliation but doesn’t attempt to incorporate early voting:

Obama 52

McCain 47

Senate Polling

[ 0 ] October 31, 2006 |

Some new CNN data. It still looks like 50-49-1 to me, with Tennessee looking like a write-off. The one ray of hope is Virginia–the polls are still even, and given the D.C. suburbs I can see Virginia going Democratic in a toss up race the way I can’t see Tennessee. On the other hand, MO is also still a toss-up, although I’m inclined to think the Dems will take it.

Polling Data

[ 0 ] September 17, 2004 |

Via Kos, John Zogby makes a compelling argument that telephone polling, as we know it, is obsolete:

Zogby points out that you don’t know in which area code the cell phone user lives. Nor do you know what they do. Beyond that, you miss younger people who live on cell phones. If you do a political poll on land-line phones, you miss those from 18 to 25, and there are figures all over the place that show there are 40 million between the ages of 18 and 29, one in five eligible voters.

This is pretty interesting, and does not admit an obvious solution. Zogby had moved to internet polling, which may or may not give a more accurate account. We’ll have to wait for November to clear some of this up. In any case, the huge spread of current polls is probably due to something more than the difference in likely voter methodology.

I’m not current with the legalities of polling via cell phone, although I have noted that I tend to receive very few unsolicited calls on my cell (very few solicited ones, either; I’m one hell of a loser). Myself and my roommate have gone the cellular/cable modem route, and no longer have a landline at all, meaning that we are apparently politically invisible. How will the invisibile people sort themselves out in November? Well, we’re young, which may help the Dems, and we’re probably a touch more affluent than normal (correcting for the fact that we’re young) which favors the Republicans.

Friday Links

[ 63 ] October 24, 2014 |

Those Who Fail To Learn From the Results of Nominating Shitty Candidates Are Doomed To Keep Losing

[ 76 ] October 22, 2014 |

The Titantic, the Hindenberg, the 2007 New York Mets, Martha Coakley:

National Democrats are haunted by memories of Martha Coakley’s unforced stumbles and missteps in 2010, which cost them a U.S. Senate seat in one of the country’s bluest states.

Four laters later, the Massachusetts attorney general might be about to blow another major contest: The race to succeed Deval Patrick as governor.

With two weeks left to go, a new poll by WBUR, which tracks the race weekly, found Coakley trailing for the first time against Republican Charlie Baker, a former health care CEO who served as secretary of finance and health under Gov. William Weld in the 1990s.

It’s still a close contest: Baker has 43 percent while Coakley has 42 percent, well inside the poll’s 4.4 percent margin of error.

But the troubling sign for Coakley is that Baker appears to be gaining steam down the stretch after consistently trailing throughout the campaign.

“It’s one of several polls which over the last week or so have shown a movement toward Baker,” Steve Koczela, the president of MassINC Polling Group, which conducts the polls, said. “Coakley has essentially been treading water while Baker’s been climbing.”

Coakley’s late drop-off seems eerily reminiscent of the 2010 special election against upstart Republican candidate Scott Brown, when the Democrat blew a huge lead, fell behind in the final stretch, and went on to lose.

Hopefully she’ll pull it out anyway, but it’s ridiculous that the Massachusetts bench is so shallow that someone who ran one of the worst campaigns in known human history — a bad campaign with very substantial consequences for the country, yet — could get nominated for a competitive race again.

Another Winner From Late-Period Posner

[ 46 ] October 16, 2014 |

Judge Posner’s Voter ID opinion — which, alas, came in the form of a dissent from the denial of an en banc hearing — is indeed a beauty. My favorite graf:

Voter-impersonation fraud may be a subset of “Misinformation.” If so, it is by all accounts a tiny subset, a tiny problem, and a mere fig leaf for efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote for the political party that does not control the state government. Those of us who live in Illinois are familiar with a variety of voting frauds, and no one would deny the propriety of the law’s trying to stamp out such frauds. The one form of voter fraud known to be too rare to justify limiting voters’ ability to vote by requiring them to present a photo ID at the polling place is in-person voter impersonation.

Or maybe it’s this one:

As there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials? If the Supreme Court once thought that requiring photo identification increases public confidence in elections, and experience and academic study since shows that the Court was mistaken, do we do a favor to the Court-do we increase public confidence in elections-by making the mistake a premise of our decision? Pressed to its logical extreme the panel’s interpretation of and deference to legislative facts would require upholding a photo ID voter law even if it were uncontested that the law eliminated no fraud but did depress turnout significantly.

You also have to love the appendix titled “Scrounging For Your Birth Certificate in Wisconsin” (a direct shot at Easterbrook’s embarrassing opinion.) The dissent also does a good job distinguishing the case from Crawford, although Posner and the Supreme Court were wrong then too.

I really hope that Ponsner ends up hearing a case brought by the ACA troofers; that could possibly result in the most entertaining opinion in judicial history.

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum III: Ramifications

[ 133 ] September 18, 2014 |

Unlike my previous two posts on today’s referendum in Scotland, on electoral ramifications for the remainder of the United Kingdom, and on interpreting polling data, this piece is more of a speculative nature. Here, I consider constitutional, political, and international ramifications of a yes vote, as well as the constitutional ramifications of a no vote.

A No result, which I consider likely, will have both constitutional and political ramifications throughout the United Kingdom.  Constitutionally, the devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament will be greatly enhanced.  This, of course, presents as many challenges to the constitutional order of the UK as problems it solves by retaining the union. The legendary unwritten British “constitution” encourages muddling through, and the implementation of devolution in 1997-99 makes for clearly delineated (and fair) distribution of powers as Heathrow makes for efficient air travel.  What the UK has at present is a vague form of ersatz federalism, and one that is asymmetrically distributed at that. Among its powers, Scotland’s parliament has control over health, education, and policing primary legislation, and it can vary its income tax by 3% (up or down) from the national baseline. Among things it can not touch are corporation tax. This is considerably greater power than the Welsh Assembly, and of course infinitely more than any English region.

Any increase of these powers (an excellent overview of the nature of these enhanced powers on offer and some of the pitfalls surrounding implantation was posted yesterday at the UK Constitutional Law Association) will cause resentment not only in Wales and Northern Ireland, witnessing yet more constitutional preferential treatment given to Scotland, but perhaps most of all, in England. Made famous by then MP Tam Dalyell, arguing in opposition to the devolution legislation under consideration in 1977 (which eventually went on to be referenda in both Scotland and Wales in 1979), perhaps the most stinging critique of the current implantation of devolution in the UK is known as the “West Lothian Question”, which identifies the bizarre situation: MPs representing Scottish constituencies get to vote on legislation that impacts England, while MPs representing England (as well as those MPs representing Scotland for that matter) can not vote on a range of devolved areas of policy.  This perhaps was most stark in 2004 when tuition for English and Welsh universities was raised to £3000 per year (from something around £1500 if I recall correctly, and I likely do not). Education, including higher education, is a devolved matter in Scotland and thus under the remit of the Scottish Parliament. Even to this day, Scottish universities are free for residents of Scotland. Yet, in the 2004 debate,  while Labour had a strong majority, the legislation passed by only five votes. Remove the Scottish Labour MPs from voting, the Act would have failed. Hence, Scottish MPs voted on legislation affecting only English universities (hence, students) while those same MPs can not act in that policy area for Scotland (nor can English MPs, for that matter).

With the promise of expanded devolution should No prevail, this asymmetry will only become more apparent, and English resentment is emerging:

Support in England for Scottish devolution has fallen from 57% in 1999 to 43% now; on the one hand a quarter now think Scotland should leave the Union, while on the other almost as many feel that Scotland should not have any kind of Scottish Parliament at all.  Meanwhile, although it remains the case that only a minority feel that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, the proportion that do feel that way has more than doubled from 21% in 2000 to 44% now.

That was written a year ago. The current edition of The Economist has several articles on this subject (unsurprisingly), and brings more current public opinion data to bear. In one case, a poll in April suggests that by a four to one margin, the English believe that Scotland should receive a smaller share of public expenditure. This isn’t surprising, where north of the border universities are free (as mentioned above) and so too are prescriptions. As it stands, under the Barnett formula, Scotland receives a larger share of public expenditure per capita than England. Additionally, as reported in The Economist, the Future of England Survey identifies a growing desire for Scottish MPs to not be eligible to vote on England-only issues, from 18% in 2000 to 55% in 2012.

None of the proposed methods to circumnavigate the West Lothian Question are perfect, so long as the existing unitary parliamentary structure is retained. For example, if Labour were to win in 2015, but with a majority dependent on Scottish MPs, and England-only rules were in force such that English (or English and Welsh) MPs could vote on matters not impacting Scotland, the Government’s majority suddenly becomes a minority, and the Government can’t pass legislation meant to affect the largest nation in the UK. Assuming a No victory tonight, and the implantation of Devolution Max with the beginning of the next government following the May 2015 election, calls for some sort of representational fairness will grow louder in England, and to me it seems logistically only a true federal response will ensure equitable representation combined with a workable parliamentary system.

A Yes result brings up many issues of its own, of course. The Yes campaign assumes that the admittance of an independent Scotland into the European Union will be a mere formality.  However, it might not be that easy:

First it was claimed that Scotland would automatically remain in the EU, inheriting its UK membership. Highly unlikely. Then it was asserted that Scotland would be put on a fast-track to membership under a different article in the Lisbon treaty from the one dealing with accession and the only process that has been used so far to admit new members. This is also extremely improbable.

While admitting an independent Scotland to the EU would be a smoother process than, say, Turkey, it’s not going to be automatic. Furthermore, there are several countries with regional separatist problems (smile for the camera, Spain) which would not want to set this particular precedent. It’s not difficult to imagine Spain blocking Scotland’s admittance, or at least make it extremely cumbersome. Cyrpus as well. To a lesser extent, Italy, France, Belgium, and even Germany would not want to see a precent of automatic entry to the EU for break-away nations. Remember, every one of the 28 member states has to agree on membership. While the right to self-determination should result in virtually unanimous recognition of Scotland as an independent state, admitting it to the European Union is a different issue altogether.

This neatly segues into what currency Scotland would use upon independence. The Yes campaign insists it will be the Pound Sterling in a formal currency agreement with the remaining United Kingdom. There are only two problems with this. First, all three major party leaders in Westminster reject this idea, and the governor of the Bank of England (which would remain the central bank of a “Sterling zone”) recently stated that this would be “incompatible with sovereignty”. The rUK has no interest in a formal currency union with an independent Scotland while having no control over fiscal policy; the Eurozone crisis has taught them that much. The Scottish government has since threatened to not pay any share of the accrued public debt of the United Kingdom if it is not allowed a currency union, which is, well, bonkers.

Scotland could continue to use the Pound regardless, as several minor countries use the Euro or the US Dollar as their de facto currency, but this would leave Scotland at the mercy of the Bank of England’s monetary policy, which would not be responsible for Scotland. Furthermore, financial services in Scotland, which is a significant share of the Scottish economy (12.5% of Scottish GDP according to the Economist, 7.1% of Gross Value Added according to the BBC) would flee to London.

The second problem takes us back to the European Union. As it’s likely accession negotiations with an independent Scotland would be treated like any other new member application, Scotland would be required to adopt the Euro eventually as a condition of membership.

Finally, Scottish independence would also have far-reaching ramifications in the rUK. On Tuesday I suggested that an independent Scotland would make a Labour government in the rUK less likely, and if it does happen, more fragile. This would seem to, eventually at least, give the Conservatives an opportunity to form an outright majority. The Conservatives are on record as promising a referendum on continued EU membership in 2017 for the United Kingdom. Without Scotland, the rUK becomes even more Eurosceptic, thus increasing the probability of a “British” exit from the EU.  Again, The Guardian:

If Salmond wins his vote and Cameron wins his for a second term next year, the bizarre situation may arise where a new country called Scotland is clamouring to be let in to the EU after having forfeited 41 years of membership at the same time as a shrunken UK is heading for the EU door marked Brexit.

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum II: The Polls

[ 13 ] September 17, 2014 |

As I indicated yesterday, polling on the Scottish independence referendum has tightened significantly in the past couple of weeks, perhaps best illustrated here. Not surprisingly, I’ve been asked to do a bit of local media on this issue over the past few weeks, and yesterday on air I was asked the inevitable “who will win?” question. I suggested that the current polling is overstating the estimate of the yes support, and that in the end I’m expecting at least a four point (i.e. 52% No, 48% Yes) victory for the unionists. While interpreting the accuracy of polling data in this context is atypically difficult (which could be interpreted as a shifty, thinly veiled move to hedge my bets), we do have some theoretical and empirical guidance.

There are at least three variables to consider when evaluating the accuracy of these polling data. First is the effect of turnout on the accuracy of the likely voter models employed by the various polling houses. As discussed here at UK Polling Report, estimates of likely voters based on previous elections are of less help in this referendum than for a typical election., and additionally, turnout is expected to be impressive:

A stunning 97% of the electorate has registered to vote in the referendum, meaning turnout is expected to be very high, which could also delay the vote. There will be a lot of ballots to count. Turnout in Scotland at the 2010 general election was 64%.

To add some empirical lustre to this anecdotal extrapolation (again, from UK Polling Report):

Polls aren’t very good at predicting an actual percentage for turnout – people overestimate their likelihood to vote, and the actual turnout figures they are compared to are a bit ropey because of inaccuracy and incompleteness of electoral registers – that aside, they are pretty good at predicting relative turnout, and the referendum looks set to have a much higher turnout than any recent election.

If turnout is impressively high, the negative effect of variations in the reliability of likely voter models is somewhat attenuated. Likewise, expectations that we ordinarily would have based on variance in turnout, such as a lower turnout would mean a disproportionately older and wealthier electorate, are of lesser significance. Furthermore, as I discussed yesterday, the eligible voter pool for the referendum is, well, strange:

First, the eligible electorate is an interesting question, with the primary criterion being residence in Scotland.  Any British citizen resident in Scotland can vote, as well as residents of Commonwealth countries (with “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, which is the British version of the green card), EU citizens resident in Scotland, and a few others. As a student of turnout, the voting age has been lowered to 16 for the referendum, which is intriguing. However, while a French (or German, or Polish, or Lithuanian, or Jamaican, or Canadian) citizen resident in Scotland is eligible to vote in the referendum and help determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country, Scots living in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, or New Zealand can not.

This is not an ordinary Westminster or Holyrood electorate, so extant likely voter models have to take this into account, yet there’s limited empirical experience to draw upon. This is not to say that we’re flying blind, because we’re not, but I expect polling data to be less reliable than it is for a Westminster, US Presidential, or US Congressional election.  Yet, as support for independence is stronger among the young, any decline in turnout from these super high predictions will asymmetrically reduce the Yes vote, as the young will stay at home at a higher rate than older cohorts.

Second is the social desirability factor, or to put it in British parlance, a variation on the “shy Tory” voter, what they also call “differential response”. Briefly, on average people prefer to offer what they perceive to be a socially desirable response to a polling question. The guess, given the enthusiasm and emotional appeal to nationalism and patriotism displayed by the Yes campaign, is that should social desirability have an effect in these polls, it would be a “shy No” supporter. In other words, the perception by any given respondent would be that the desirable response is pro independence, so the suspicion is that there’s a marginal, but significant, percentage of the pro Independence estimate that in reality will vote no on the day. I think this might be overstated a bit, however. The effect of social desirability is directly related to the form of the polling methodology. Not surprisingly, face-to-face interviews have the strongest impact on social desirability, as when one is confronted with a real live human being right in front of you, the desire to give the acceptable response is considerably stronger than in other polling settings. As the majority of the polls in the field are internet based, where the respondent is speaking neither to a physical presence nor a human voice at the end of a telephone line, this effect should be mitigated to a certain extent. Intriguingly, yesterday’s piece in UK Polling Report suggests a slightly different take on this phenomenon:

I think there’s more risk from the other side of the same coin – “enthusiastic yesses”. It is very clear from activity online and reported campaigning activity that YES supporters are more enthusiastic, what if that is also reflected in responses to opinion polls? What if the yes supporter, full of zeal and keen to share their view, happily agrees to do the phone interview while the less enthused No supporter doen’t want to interupt their tea? Eagerly clicks on the email when the No voter doesn’t bother?

Ultimately, while I think that social desirability could be overstated in this context, if it does have a role to play at the margins, it will be to over-estimate pro-independence support.

Additionally, while we’re in somewhat uncharted territory with the unique composition of this electorate and the difficulty in constructing likely voter models, we do have some historical precedence to draw upon, as discussed on Monday by Stephen Fisher here, with the takeaway:

So overall the evidence is mixed, but not balanced. It seems more likely that the headline poll figures are over- rather than under-estimating the vote for Scottish independence – and that this might be especially true of the final polls published between now and polling day.

Finally, Fisher highlights something that has been downplayed in both the media and in polling aggregators: the interpretation of the don’t knows:

The tendency for final polls to differ from the actual result does not necessarily mean that referendum polls are biased towards Yes responses. It might be that the Don’t Knows split disproportionately towards No, that those in favour of the proposition tend to be less likely to turnout to vote, while late swing is also a possibility. Whatever the reason, the experience of referendum polls in the UK and internationally suggests that the findings of final polls (from which the Don’t Knows have been removed) are typically flattering for the Yes camp.

We do have empirical evidence to make some reasoned, if imprecise, estimates regarding the don’t knows. As the ICM poll released yesterday still reports 14% Don’t Knows, this remains a significant chunk of the potential electorate. The literature on direct democracy, specifically referenda and initiatives in the United States (the literature about which I’m most familiar), suggests that in a yes / no dichotomous decision, the No option has some of the advantages of incumbency. I strongly suspect that of the DKs that do turn out to vote, they will break significantly to No. This makes sense. Given this is the most important and far reaching election in Scotland in a lifetime, if a voter has yet to make up their mind 48 to 96 hours before the election, the odds of them sticking with the safety of the status quo rather than the riskier unknown of independence is compelling. People tend to attempt a minimisation of maximum regret. Information about the status quo, even with the promises of “devolution max”, is readily available. Information about how an independent Scotland will operate, including basics such as the currency, the status within the European Union, the armed forces, and uncertainty of the disposition of companies currently based in Scotland is, at best, murky as hell. Hence, it’s safe to assume that those DKs that do vote will significantly favor the No side.

Considering the weight of the above, it’s safe to suggest that the extant polling data is overestimating support for Scottish independence.

 

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum I: Electoral Ramifications

[ 78 ] September 16, 2014 |

On Thursday, the Scots go to the polls to decide whether or not Scotland will leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country. This issue has been dominating British politics for the past few weeks, especially following the unexpected and rather dramatic tightening of the polls, following months of a seemingly unassailable No lead. This post briefly examines the future electoral ramifications for the remaining United Kingdom should Scotland vote for independence (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland).  I’m also writing a follow-on post that considers what we should expect on Thursday, the constitutional ramifications of both a Yes and No outcome, as well as the political and international ramifications of Scottish independence.

First, the eligible electorate is an interesting question, with the primary criterion being residence in Scotland.  Any British citizen resident in Scotland can vote, as well as residents of Commonwealth countries (with “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, which is the British version of the green card), EU citizens resident in Scotland, and a few others. As a student of turnout, the voting age has been lowered to 16 for the referendum, which is intriguing. However, while a French (or German, or Polish, or Lithuanian, or Jamaican, or Canadian) citizen resident in Scotland is eligible to vote in the referendum and help determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country, Scots living in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, or New Zealand can not.

For the rest of Britain, an independence vote has the potential for a significant electoral ramification. For the past two years, aggregate polling has suggested that the Westminster election in May 2015 will result in a clear Labour majority. Today, assuming a uniform swing (which isn’t a safe assumption), Labour stands to enjoy an outright 44 seat majority, based on polling numbers of 32% Conservative, 36% Labour, 8% Liberal Democrat, 15% UKIP, and 5% Green. Note, the swingometer UK Polling Report uses is crude, and lumps in the UKIP support with “others” (including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Respect, et al.) hence might underestimate UKIP’s seat share resulting from the election. Furthermore, I suspect that the resulting majority will be smaller than 44 seats, more along the lines of 20-30 (which is where it has been estimated for most of 2014). Nevertheless, those numbers are available, so let’s use them: out of 650 MPs, the Tories would win 256, Labour 347, LibDems 21, Others, 8, and Northern Ireland distribute their 18 seats across four or five parties.  Eliminating Scotland’s 59 MPs, and extrapolating using the 2010 seat distribution north of the border, a resulting House of Commons would have 255 Tories, 306 Labour, with 10, 2, and 18 remaining for the other three categories. Given a majority in a 591 seat Commons would require 296 MPs, Labour would still retain a thin, yet outright, majority.

Since 1974, Scotland has only marginally swung an election three times, but the feeling amongst Labour Party members is that independence would be a significant impediment to a working majority following the 2015 election.  The table blow lists the Labour governing majority (if one existed), the seats in Scotland and their percentage of the House of Commons, the number of Scottish seats that went Labour and the number that went Conservative.  The only elections where eliminating the Scottish seats would have changed the outcome were both 1974 elections, and  2010. In the first 1974 election, the Labour government that formed was a minority government (indeed, while the Conservatives “won” the popular vote, they had four seats more than the Conservatives. Take away Scotland’s 71 seats, of which 40 were Labour, the Conservatives end up not with an outright majority (only seven seats short) but with 15 more seats than Labour. Encouraged by strong polling numbers later in 1974, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called a snap election, which resulted in an outright Labour majority of three entire seats. Again, remove Scotland from the equation, Labour have 278 seats to the Conservative’s 261, which would have resulted in a minority Labour government. Finally, the results of the 2010 election, minus Scotland, would have resulted in an outright Conservative majority: the Tories only lose the one seat, while Labour loses 41 and the Liberal Democrats 11, resulting in 306 Tories, 217 Labour, and 46 LibDems. This would have saved both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats the ignominy of serving together in a coalition.


Election Labour Maj. Scotland Seats / PCT Labour Scot Tory Scot
2010 -39** 59 / 9.1% 41 1 (+11 LD)
2005 67 59 / 9.1% 41 1
2001 167 59 / 9.1% 56 1
1997 179 72 / 10.9% 56 0
1992 -21 72 / 11.1% 49 11
1987 -102 72 / 11.1% 50 10
1983 -144 72 / 11.1% 41 21
1979 -44 72 / 11.1% 44 22
1974oct 3 71 / 11.3% 41 16
1974feb -17* 71 / 11.3% 40 21

 

While Scottish influence on Westminster elections since 1974 have been marginal (February 1974 would have resulted in a minority Tory rather than minority Labour government, October 1974 results in a minority rather than slim majority Labour government, and 2010 becomes an outright Conservative rather than Con-Lib coalition government) Labour are justifiably concerned. Losing Scotland and the safe 40-odd seats there comprises roughly 13% of the MPs that Labour require to form a majority in the Commons. That’s roughly equivalent to the blow the Republican Party would face should Texas finally secede from the Union: the 38 Electoral College votes that Texas faithfully delivers to the GOP represents 14% of the 270 that they need for a presidential victory.

Eliminating Scotland from the future House of Commons electoral calculous might result in a marginal effect on the size and stability of any resulting Labour government. Should Labour only win 2015 with a 20 seat majority, once the elected Scottish MPs become unemployed and pack their bags to go live in their newly independent country, the extant Labour government becomes based on a fragile minority which can’t be expected to long survive a vote of confidence.

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