Thursday, February 6, 2014

YouGov's 'phantom poll' comes in from the cold - but serious unanswered questions remain

Thanks to Calum Findlay for pointing out that YouGov have furtively released the datasets for their 'phantom' referendum poll from the other day, which means that we can start to take it a bit more seriously, and I can feel confident enough to use it for a Poll of Polls update.  However, the format of the datasets is far from satisfactory, and serious unanswered questions about the methodology of the poll still remain.  Instead of following the standard YouGov practice of giving the full text of the questions asked, the file simply summarises what each set of numbers refers to, eg. 'Holyrood regional vote'.  So when we arrive at the independence figures and we see that the referendum question is listed in unadorned form, that should not be taken to mean that there wasn't a preamble.  We know that YouGov regard it as unthinkable to pose the question without at least using a preamble asking people to assume they are voting in a hypothetical referendum tomorrow.  So there are two basic possibilities of what the preamble was -

1) The original biased preamble (which is ominously still listed in the tracking table as part of the question) of : "If there was a referendum tomorrow on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom..."

2) The more neutrally-worded "If there was a referendum tomorrow on Scotland's future..."

We know that YouGov have, for reasons known only to themselves (and perhaps also to their clients in the anti-independence campaign), been switching back and forth between the two preambles, so there's absolutely no way of knowing which one was used in this case.  I was originally convinced that the biased preamble must have been used, due to the appearance of that wording on the tracker table, from which the 6-9 Dec poll (that used the neutral preamble) was excluded.  But the waters have since been muddied by an update of the tracker to include the December poll.

If the neutral preamble was used this time around, then the results of this poll are directly comparable with the last published YouGov poll, in which case there has been no change in the headline numbers.  If on the other hand the biased preamble was used, it may well be that the last directly comparable poll is the other mysterious 'phantom' poll conducted in late November/early December, in which case the No lead has slumped by 5%.  At this stage we simply have no way of knowing which of those possibilities is the more likely.

There's no sign in the datasets that this was a poll conducted on behalf of the anti-independence campaign - in fact no client is listed at all, which would suggest that the poll was conducted by YouGov on its own initiative, making all the layers of mystery even harder to understand.  Given the lack of transparency, I wouldn't completely exclude the possibility of there being a bashful No-flavoured client lurking behind these figures.

Some interesting nuggets of information from the datasets - once again young voters prove to be the most favourable to independence, so I'm afraid the media will have to forget their beloved narrative about the SNP shooting themselves in the foot by giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote (although YouGov are still maintaining their indefensible practice of failing to interview under-18s).  The gap between the voting intentions of higher and lower income groups is suspiciously low (34% of voters from social grades C2, D and E are supposedly voting Yes, compared to 32% from A, B and C1), which may be a clue as to why YouGov continue to paint a more pessimistic picture for the Yes campaign than most other pollsters.  It could be that they're not as good at getting a representative sample of lower-income voters, which if true would be magnified by the weighting procedure (421 lower-income respondents are upweighted to count as 632). And a healthy 21% of both Labour and Liberal Democrat voters from 2011 are in the Yes column - only fractionally lower than the 22% of 2011 SNP voters who are voting No.  SNP voters are also by some distance the most likely to say they don't know how they will vote in the referendum, which constitutes a potentially sympathetic section of the electorate for the Yes campaign to target for new converts.

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This is going to be easily the dullest Poll of Polls update thus far, because there is literally no change in the numbers at all.  However, it needs to be borne in mind that of the seven updates since the Poll of Polls started, no fewer than five have shown a swing to Yes, and just one has shown a swing to No.  This is the first update to show an unchanged position - and if YouGov have switched back to the biased preamble it may not be a meaningful reflection of the true trend.

MEAN AVERAGE (not excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 33.9% (n/c)
No 48.7% (n/c)

MEAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 41.0% (n/c)
No 59.0% (n/c)

MEDIAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 40.8% (n/c)
No 59.2% (n/c)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each of the pollsters that have been active in the referendum campaign, and that adhere to British Polling Council rules. At present, there are seven - Angus Reid, YouGov, TNS-BMRB, Survation, Panelbase, Ipsos-Mori and ICM. Whenever a new poll is published, it replaces the last poll from the same company in the sample.)

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