Remain or leave? It all rests on the risk factor
What public opinion polls say about the current “score” is less important than what is influencing how and why voters make one choice over another.
At last year’s general election too many commentators were only interested in topline numbers.
They did not go behind these superficial scores to understand what was influencing voters’ choice. That is why they missed the election result, and the risk is they are on track to do the same at this referendum.
The Crosby Textor Group, of which C|T|F Partners is a member, uses polls when running campaigns – just as we did at the general election – to help inform and understand what is going on and what is influencing voters. We do not use polls to predict the outcome of an election or referendum.
The interest in this ORB poll is not what it says about the vote for Leave or Remain (with three months to go), but rather the factors that will influence how people vote, or indeed if they turn out and vote at all.
Given voters’ experience of public polling at the last general election, it would be natural for them to take a more cynical and circumspect view of opinion research in the lead up to the European referendum.
While voters want their basic questions answered, political commentary provides them with nuanced and derivative analysis of what voters’ choice means for a political elite they have never met and care little for.
Given the volume and complexity of information that voters are exposed to and forced to sift through, it is little wonder they often zone out. Yet what is obvious in this referendum is that engagement will be key. The latest ORB poll, in today’s Daily Telegraph, shows that this referendum could be won or lost on turnout.
As a whole, the country is divided. Almost half (47 per cent) support Remain while the same proportion (49 per cent) support Leave. But this does not take into account the differential between Remain and Leave supporters in their likelihood to vote.
Leave voters are more likely to say they will show up – 79 per cent say they are certain to vote if the referendum was held today – whereas 72 per cent of Remain voters say the same. Taking this into account, Leave (52 per cent) has a seven point lead over Remain (45 per cent).
The real risk for the Remain campaign is complacency. More than three-quarters (76 per cent) of Remain voters expect the country to vote to stay in. That includes nearly a quarter who are unlikely to vote but still expect the UK to vote to stay. These are currently the key voters for the Remain campaign.
It is obvious they have a preference for the UK to remain in the EU, but the outcome of the referendum is not currently important enough to them to motivate them to show up. This demonstrates the consequence of the outcome lacking personal relevance to them.
Whereas Leave has the opposite challenge. While their voters are currently more motivated, fully half (50 per cent) believe the UK is likely to remain in the EU, and this is even more true of “soft” Leave voters (those who lean towards Leave, or are likely to change their mind) where a majority (63 per cent) expect the UK to remain in the EU.
This shows that Leave voters do not believe their vote will make a difference. If as the election draws closer, Leave voters still do not believe their vote can affect the outcome, their engagement and motivation may tail off.
Poignantly, the challenge for both campaigns is the same: to raise the importance of the referendum outcome and demonstrate to their voters that there really is the potential for Leave to win.
A third (31 per cent) of voters who are undecided or likely to change their mind say their biggest hesitation in voting Remain is the potential for uncontrolled or increased immigration.
Critically, nearly a third (28 per cent) of Remain voters who are likely to change their mind are concerned about the risks of immigration.
But a similar proportion (30 per cent) of voters who are undecided or likely to change their mind say their biggest hesitation in voting Leave is the damage it might cause to the UK economy. This is almost as big a hesitation for Leave voters who are likely to change their mind, where a quarter (25 per cent) cite it, as it is for Remain voters who are likely to change their mind – where a third (36 per cent) cite it.
And a similar pattern can be seen with the way voters are thinking about using their vote.
Just under a third (31 per cent) of Remain voters are voting to secure the UK’s economic future, while just over a third (37 per cent) of leave voters are voting to secure the UK’s borders.
And it is notable that voters are thinking about this election in terms of the issues. Only 11 per cent are voting to send a message to David Cameron.
The British people are clear that this is an important vote, yet they do not feel they are getting the information they need to make a decision – nearly half (48 per cent) of voters say they do not have the information needed to make a choice.
The key framework of this campaign is risk. While much has been made of Project Fear, the reality is that voters see risk on both sides.
The risk of leaving is the damage that could be caused to the UK economy. The risk of staying is the uncontrolled immigration that could result.
This sums up the choice that voters are facing: are the economic risks of remaining in the EU bigger or smaller than the impact of uncontrolled immigration that voters believe could result?
One of the keys to winning a campaign is focusing on the strengths rather than the weaknesses that voters perceive. For the Remain campaign this means demonstrating the importance of the economy, while for the leave campaign, this means demonstrating the impact of immigration. This is largely what we have seen so far.
But this research shows that the missing element is personal relevance. Those voters who are undecided or likely to change their minds believe risks of both Leave and Remain to be real, and locked in deadlock.
So how to increase the risk for one side or the other to get ahead?
One way is to look to public services. The truth is that it is only with a strong economy that you can pay for a good NHS, better schools, and more police.
But it is also true that the more pressure you put on the NHS, schools, and the emergency services through greater use, the more they will suffer.
What is clear is that this campaign has a long way to run, and despite what voters currently believe, the outcome really is in the balance.
Read Sir Lynton Crosby's article in the Telegraph here.