Brexit: The Polling Illusion

by Andrew Stuttaford

Rupert Darwall has a very fine article over on the home page on the way in which David Cameron’s handling of the referendum campaign opened the door to Brexit. It’s worth reading in full, but this, in particular,  caught my eye:

Cameron and the Remain campaign made a final mistake. At one point, Cameron’s pollster tweeted that virtually every intelligent person thought leaving the EU a stupid idea. After the horrible murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, “Stronger In” became “Kinder In.” The implication was that people concerned about immigration or just not happy being governed from Brussels were narrow-minded, xenophobic, or worse.

 When you try to delegitimize somebody’s vote, you don’t change his mind, only his willingness to talk about it. The effect was to understate Leave in the polls. Of the nine final polls, seven showed Remain in the lead, with Remain’s pollster showing a ten-point lead. The same effect was present in exit polls commissioned by hedge funds, which led to Brexit campaigners prematurely conceding the result of the referendum and to markets confidently pricing in a Remain win. There was a spiral of silence at work which deceived the Remain camp about where it stood and the campaign it should have fought.

No less importantly, perhaps, those polls deceived voters about where they stood. One of the striking feature of the polls published during the campaign was the way that they consistently showed both Remainers and Leavers believing that the Remain camp would win. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible not to wonder how many Leave voters thought they were casting a protest vote rather than, so to speak, the real thing (look over on Twitter and you’ll find plenty of talk on this topic). And how many Remainers felt it safe to stay at home?

Tough luck, you may say, but it will be food for thought by any new British government trying to weigh up the domestic support for the next steps that it is going to take in its dealings with the EU, steps that will not be straightforward.

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