Has the Referendum Race Really Narrowed?

Posted on 9 December 2015 by John Curtice

Followers of our Poll of Polls will be aware that it has been suggesting that the referendum race has narrowed somewhat during the course of the autumn. At the end of September it stood briefly at Remain 54% Leave 46%, for most of October it read, Remain 53% Leave 47%, but since the middle of November it has suggested that the Remain camp are on just 51% and Leave on 49%.

However a glance at the list of individual polls that have been included in our Poll of Polls calculation reveals that while most have put Remain narrowly ahead (though no more than that) two have suggested that Remain are in fact quite comfortably ahead. The first was a poll conducted by ComRes towards the end of September, the other one undertaken by Ipsos MORI in the middle of October. ComRes estimated that (once Don’t Knows were excluded) Remain were on 60%, Leave on 40%, while Ipsos MORI reckoned Remain were on 59%, Leave on 41%.

‘So what?’, you might say. After all there have also been five polls that have given Leave a small lead. Given that all polls are subject to a degree of random fluctuation, are not both sets of departures from the general picture no more than the kind of variation we might well anticipate to find purely by chance?

However, these two ComRes and Ipsos MORI polls also share another characteristic that distinguishes them from every other poll of referendum voting intentions that has been published so far – they were conducted over the phone rather than via the internet. Their findings might be an indication that the picture of the referendum race that a poll paints depends on how it is conducted. If so, we would not know which picture was right and which wrong, but it would mean we could not be sure how close the referendum race is after all.

Still, you might not unreasonably feel that two polls (one of which in fact administered the question that will appear on the ballot paper to only half its sample) constitute too thin a reed on which to rest such an argument. However, if we look at the polling that was done during the summer in which respondents were asked how they would vote in response to the question that the government was originally minded to include on the ballot paper (viz. Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?) two phone polls again stand out. The first of these, conducted by ComRes, suggested that 65% would vote Yes (after Don’t Knows were left to one side), while the second, undertaken by Ipsos MORI, put the figure as high as 75%. No other poll (all of them conducted online) reported a Yes vote of more than 59%.

In short, although only a few telephone polls of referendum voting intentions have been conducted, the findings of the handful that have been undertaken have consistently been more favourable to the Remain side than those conducted online. That must leave an air of uncertainty about how close the race is. Indeed, one academic analysis that attempted to take systematically into account the differences in the estimates of referendum vote intentions produced by the different companies has suggested that Remain may be as much as ten points ahead of Leave.

Which brings us back to the Poll of Polls and the apparent narrowing of the referendum race. As we warned on launching the feature, if there are systematic differences in the results of polls conducted by different companies (and/or polls undertaken using different methods) the figure that it reports at any one point in time may well depend on which particular polls are included in the calculation – that indeed is why which polls are included is displayed as you move along the Poll of Polls timeline. Because no telephone poll has been conducted since the middle of October, all the more recent figures for the Poll of Polls are based entirely on polls conducted via the internet- and perhaps it is this that more or less accounts for the apparent narrowing of the race.

One way of checking whether the race has indeed got closer is to see whether there is any discernible trend in the results reported by the same company (deploying the same method) over time. The company that has conducted by far the most polls of referendum vote intention is ICM, who have been publishing an estimate on a weekly basis (the most recent of which was released yesterday). And as our first figure below shows these polls do not suggest there has been any discernible trend over time. Between them the 14 readings have on average put Remain on 53.5%, Leave on 46.5%, and the more recent readings have been as closely anchored to that pair of numbers as were much earlier ones.

Figure 1


The other company that has conducted more than just the occasional poll is YouGov. Its readings, as our second figure shows, have tended to suggest that the race is rather narrower than ICM have suggested. Even so there is again little consistent evidence that the picture has changed over time. YouGov actually put Leave slightly ahead in the middle of September, while the company’s most recent reading has the two sides on 50:50 each.

Figure 2

Note that in this figure we have excluded the two polls that YouGov conducted for (and were weighted by) an academic consortium at Kent and the LSE, but included the monthly polls undertaken as part of YouGov’s Eurotrack series where the question asked is slightly (but only slightly) different from that which will appear on the ballot paper.


Anyone who relied on the polls during the general election is doubtless already inclined to view the figures they are producing for the EU referendum with caution. In truth we would all be wise to do so. At the moment we cannot be sure just how close the race really is, while it appears that we may all too easily form the impression that the race has narrowed when perhaps it has not. But then polls are always better taken than inhaled.

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By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

44 thoughts on “Has the Referendum Race Really Narrowed?

  1. I don’t get it. After asking around 50 to 60 people only 3 have said they would vote remain. Is it because I’m not asking rich folk as they seem to be the ones who want to remain?Report

  2. Myself and residents have just delivered 3,000 Leave leaflets, we have only found a handful of residents who want to Remain. EU is a mess completely unaccountable to ordinary people. A vote to Leave will be the end of this old boys club. Report

  3. Good article – insightful and helpful to understand what is really going on polling wise. As for the comments – well a shame 90% are essentially just anti euro dogma. Do people ever think if you are strongly pro or anti you will get the responses that reflect your own?

    I’m mildly pro remain but find the dogma of both sides unhelpful and saddened by the general paucity of decent leadership on either side. As for the idea that BBC and Sky are biased that is just laughable – I take it that you got that from the fair and impartial Sun, Mail and Express!

    Completely unscientifically from asking a few people I know I got a vote to remain 12-9. Without exception every one under 30 was a remain, all but one leave was over 50 – seems to match the pollsters – but then again it also reflects my views – oops.Report

    1. Those persons of over 50 years of age equate to roughly 22 million votes that’s nearly half of the electorate (46,204,700 in 2015)

      Don’t underestimate them – they have experienced 40 plus years of European incompetence.Report

  4. It is really odd, In my business I meet quite a lot of people on a daily basis and I have yet to find someone who is voting to remain. You may well think I am lying but it is true. I would almost be happier to have found one or two people who intend to vote remain but not a single one. What on earth is happening with the polls, or are they only taken within Government and the BBCReport

  5. Yes, my experience (35 years in Europe) is that the EU is going down the tube and beyond help. EU leadership is desperate to bolster a flagging economy and a flawed political system and currency. Albania, Turkey, and Montenegro (?!) and a few other minor economies are cited as evidence that countries are queuing up to join. Those that joined before found a perfect way to sweep their economic woes (or rampant corruption) under the Carpet. Tate and Lyle were in the news because
    the EU taxes their sugar production (Cane sugar) to support EU sugar Beet producers. Soon,Tate and Lyle may fold. EU is out to destroy Britain – it’s car industry, Electronics and Engineering, wipe out the SME’s and kill London as a financial centre. Honestly, they are deeply fearful of Britain’s position in the world and the best way to hold us back is with our hands tied in red tape. Remaining is playing into their hands – and really dumb.


  6. How refreshing to hear from the silent majority – I speak of the OUT voters. It seems to me we are being bludgeoned by the BBC and SKY News with endless subtle (and not so subtle) propaganda to force us to vote IN. All the ‘luvvies’ in the media seem to be remain-ers, regardless of the consequences to Britain afterwards.
    I would be voting out but David Cameron took our vote away as we live in France. In spite of saying he would repeal this unjust legislation, he hasn’t.
    Most of my friends are outers, the rest undecided. Let’s all pray they see sense and KEEP Britain safe from Brussels dictatorship.Report

  7. Is there an ongoing internet poll somewhere where everyone/anyone can vote (once only of course) to remain or leave – Could show an up to date assessment on what peoples intentions are or is this a stupid idea ?Report

  8. I do not understand why the Leave campaign have not sidelined all the discussions so far employed and concentrated on what I believe must surely be the most vital criteria for anyone to consider when making their decision to remain or leave and that is ‘freedom of choice at the ballot box’.
    If we are absorbed into Europe we will no longer have this privilege. The issue could not be clearer. There is no choice to make. We must leave that which we only entered by a deception. Bereft of the freedom to choose whom we have to govern our country represents a precursor to a mild form of dictatorship to which I can only passionately echo the words of another politician who was never my flavour of the month – Never, never, never !Report

  9. The majority of migrants coming to this country are young men, it is never mentioned that in 10 to 15yrs time they will have settled with young families where are they all going to be housed or schooled. I worry for my grand-children and great grand-children. I hope the country votes OUT.Report

  10. what is so special about the EU it has i think around 300 mp,s from various selected EU countries they just agree with what they think is right then apparently each month go all the way to strasburg taking all office with them at enormous expense just to initialize their new agreed rules, how amateurish. We do not need migrants whom dont agree with our ethmic living, fair enough their are proffesional people from europe that wish to work here, they still can after brexit, we can still do business with our existing partners and possibly much more. we can still belong to nato, why on earth is our PM trying to make us stay in a sinking ship. Report

  11. So far Cameron has forecast everything except plague, earthquake, astoride strikes and a tsunami. I am still waiting for the for the announcement! Report

  12. my whole family will be voting out, and yes I was not born in the uk ,but my children and grandchildren are british and I rather have a few years of uncertainty than be under the thumbs of unelected eu officialsReport

  13. All these messages have lifted my spirits. How disloyal of the remainers to think we need Europe to keep going. How on earth did we manage before the EU! Millions in Europe are waiting for our lead. Let’s get OutReport

    1. We’ve only been in the EU for 43 years, presumably we survived before then, and I’m certain that if the UK vote to leave many more will follow.Report

  14. Interesting that the more and more outlandish the claims of Cameron and Osbourne, the more we see them for what they are, barefaced, slimy liars, most people I know see through the smokescreen and are voting out, so much for the polls. We’ll only get this one chance so I sincerely urge the undecided, let’s seize this opportunity to leave this undemocratic, unaccountable, blinkered, corrupt club .Report

  15. We have a once in a life time chance I run a village pub and most customers are voting out ,hopefully this will be the end of the European experiment . Denmark next in November Report

  16. Noting the BBC news this morning, the Greek is unable to manage its finances and there is mounting pressure on the EU to accommodative Greece debt. Add to this the situation in Spain who are being pressured to sustain austerity. The immigrant situation is not going away and it is undoubtedly impacting on the lifestyles of people within most EU countries. Greece is going to have to be let off the financial hook as it can’t meet the demands placed on it by Brussels and to top all this there is no attempt to curtail Brussels excessive budget. The inevitable failure of the EU will probably only be recognised after the German coffers have run out. Unsurprisingly, Brussels and other EU institutions are desperate to retain the UK contribution to the EU in support of the ever increasing budget and they are doing everything possible to support Cameron in his attempt to remain in the EU. The crunch may come if or when the UK leaves but EU failure looks almost inevitable anyway. Report

  17. Each home 4300 pounds less well off, poorer security, a third world war, reduced value of property, more expensive mortgages, unable to trade abroad. Enough lies. Why offer the country a referendum. Cameron RESIGN !!!, Report

  18. Britain is not such a big fish as you think. Brexit will hurt Britain more than any other European country. Britain is a civilized & one of the most advanced democracies. One should not use Donald Trump style attacks to support the Brexit case.Report

  19. What seems to be completely ignored is the likelihood that the EU will collapse regardless of whether we vote in or out! It may struggle on for a while but the challenges it faces are massive and in the main uncontrollable. It appears judging by the efforts being promoted and applied to support Cameron by external parties and institutions, that this is well recognised. Brussels and their cohorts are demonstrating desperate measures to maintain their position (not to mention their expenses and salaries!) by trying to influence the UK electorate! “me thinks the in campaign protest too much”!


  20. My own personal feeling is that the European union is already moribund and in an advanced state of decay and no amount of Prime ministers or heads of state trying to resuscitate it will bring it back to life, whether we stay or leave will make no difference to the EU breaking apart at the seams, so lets leave now when the going is good so we can set up our own deals around the world, free from the EU millstone around our necks, it’s only the captain ( Cameron ) that should go down with the ship not the passengers and crew.Report

    1. u forgot to mention his mouse[Osbourne] he needs to go with him
      I call Cameron [tom ]and Osbourne[jerry] cause there are a joke Report

    2. Yes Gordon, I agree, the EU is a failing project, we either vote to leave now or we will be forced to leave 10 years down the line when the EU falls apart.Report

  21. You are a mile wide of the mark! Everyone I talk to will be voting out, furthermore so are their friends and families, they are all voting OUT!!!Report

  22. I am inclined to the view that the’ leave’ vote is not realistically indicated ,as was the similar case at the last general election . My ‘gut’ feeling [not very scientific! ] is that the leave % is about 5 points ahead of the remain camp. I further believe that the high % of ‘don’t knows’ will translate eventually into a higher level of ‘leaves’ than ‘remains’ and will be the determining factor in what will,hopefully, be a definite margin to leave the discredited EU. Report

  23. If your employer tells you .You support staying in the EU or lose your job.you then receive a phonecall asking you in or out .To protect your job you will say stay in . I have NEVER been polled .None of my family and friends have either.Except for 1 person who ageed to remain purely because he feared losing his job.Even on his emails he as to be very careful even showing support for UKIP could lose him his job .I want OUT .so do my family and all my friends .Report

    1. Tell your employer that your vote is between you and the ballot box and if he fires you take him to a tribunal for unfair dismissal
      agree with your employer and keep your job – and put your cross where ever you want on the 23rd

  24. John
    Could you please give your view as to whether telephone polls tend to be more accurate than internet polls or vice versa? Presumably there is some evidence in relation to past polls where the actual result can be compared with the previous poll estimates – whether internet or telephone. Report

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