Beyond the Horserace: What campaign teams really take from the polls

The EU Referendum campaign is moving into the final few weeks and the nation’s attention is transfixed on the polls. Well, maybe not the whole nation, but certainly the media and campaign teams will be paying close attention.

Since last year’s General Election the polling industry has been in for some pretty testing criticism. Having wrongly forecast the results it has to be said that much of this has been warranted and over the last 12 months the polling companies have been reviewing their methods to avoid a repeat performance. The press will again look to the horserace to judge the success of the campaigns and the industry, but in reality this is only a small part of what these polls are designed to reveal and they tell us very little about the actual campaign. When you boil it down, the horserace is little more than two figures that add up to 100%. Beyond offering a sense of the scale of the task ahead or a sense of momentum, it holds little significance.

What is often lost in the coverage, but is of far greater interest to the campaign teams, is the segmentation of the population that the polls will show. A successful polling strategy will see the campaign teams identify winnable audiences, pinpoint the issues that resonate the most and will help the teams develop the messages and strategy that can change opinion. In 2015 we saw the value of polling in the Conservative’s ultimately successful campaign. With information gathered through polling they were able to devise a strategy that focused their communications on the issues that moved the dial with their winnable audiences. Specifically, targeting older voters and playing on concerns over the SNP.

So, as we approach the 23rd of June, what have the polls told us so far and what will the campaign teams and their pollsters take from this?

Polling on the EU referendum has shone a light on some interesting social divisions. They have shown that attitudes towards Europe differ quite dramatically depending on a number of factors including age, education level, region and social grade. Based on the polling, a fairly crude description of your archetypal ‘Remain-ian’ would be young, university educated, well paid, and slightly more Scottish than average.

Looking more closely at the generational difference as an example of how far these demographics can polarise attitudes. The polls show that around three quarters of those under 25 say they back Remain whereas almost three in five over 65s would back Exit. It pains me to say but recent experience tells us that the under 25s will not turnout in anywhere near the sort of numbers that the over 65s will. It is likely that the result could hinge on the turnout of these two key demographics which presents an interesting dynamic for the campaign teams, particularly the Remain camp, who face the task of not only winning their target audiences but also in getting the vote out among their core supporters.

Having identified their target audiences this leaves the campaign teams the simple task of winning votes from these people. Again, the polls will be vital here in identifying the issues that can affect opinion, developing the narratives that resonate and navigating the impact of the blunders, leaks and scandals that are sure to arise.

We can see a dividing line in the broad narratives the sides are taking. The Remain camp appear to be pushing the economic agenda and promoting ideas of power through cooperation, whereas, the Exit camp are focusing on national sovereignty over laws and borders. Of course, political communication doesn’t take place in a vacuum, the campaign teams will be continually polling the impact of these messages and it will be interesting to see how they adapt according to changing circumstances.

We won’t know until the 23rd of June which one of these campaigns has been the most effective. From now until then, as part of the daily news coverage, we will hear that the horserace is either tightening or widening and this will undoubtedly be the cause of hope as well fear in both sides. For those whose job it is to move these numbers, this will be the least of their worries.

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