Interview with Matt Singh, founder of Number Cruncher Politics, a non-partisan polling and psephology site: www.ncpolitics.uk, @mattsingh_, @NCPoliticsEU
As founder of Number Cruncher Politics, a non-partisan polling and psephology site, Matt Singh can be quite smug when reflecting back on May. His site predicted the polling disaster of the election, and is now running much detailed analysis behind the referendum polls.
In an exclusive interview with Shout Out UK, Matt Singh tells me that the NCP model ‘has the probability of Brexit at 24 per cent’. It is the highest it has been with the NCP model. Surprising? Amid much talk about narrowing polls he admitted that, ‘the prediction is lower than the betting markets suggest (which was closer to predicting a Tory majority than the pollster in May) and that ‘the reaction to small moves in one or two polls has been excessive’.
For an industry that was used as the ‘punch bag’ for losing politicians and embarrassed experts after the general election last May, it seems to be taking a surprisingly bigger role than you’d expect after its worst polling error. But who would have thought otherwise? Newspapers launch from their headlines detailing dramatic swings towards either side, and polling is used by many experts to asses which messages are making a difference, and who is persuading which parts of the public.
Matt Singh explained how the pollsters have done a lot of work to find the problem and fix it. ‘Their samples weren’t representative of the population, so the first task has been to try to put that right’. From the assembly elections a month ago the pollsters performed well, but he says that it is a worry with such a gap emerging between the phone and online referendum polls.
In the wake of YouGov, an online polling industry, scoring Brexit much more highly than other phone polls, I ask him which one we can trust. ‘I don’t think there’s a a single answer to that for every situation, and often they get the same results. It’s useful to have both models. But in this case I think the phone polls are closer to the truth than online — online panels (those who answer the polls) seem to have attitudinal biases that correlate strongly with being Pro-Brexit’.
Matt Singh seems to suggest that the best answer if the polls are working, is the one that comes on June 23rd. A lot of credibility and pride could be earned back or lost by the industry. Some experts are calling it, the pollsters’ last stance. I highly doubt that.
I have talked a lot about how turnout will affect the result, in a much bigger way than during an election. Eurosceptics will hope for a small youth turnout, as they are the most likely group to vote to remain. Although, polling stations are reportedly preparing for an exceptionally high turnout of 80 per cent based on the numbers who have registered — this one’s hard to predict and will come down to the day.
Matt also explains how it’s challenging for pollsters to incorporate the impact of turnout into their polls. ‘Pollsters factor it (turnout) in, though not always in the best way … They ask people their likelihood to vote (out of 10). The problem is that people aren’t very good at predicting how likely they are to vote. Matt confirms: ‘From what people are telling pollsters, it seems there is a small turnout advantage for the leavers compared with looking at adults’. Reflecting on the unpredictability of all these polls and the level of turnout he adds, ‘But that could all change …’
Labour blamed the polls for setting the agenda of post hung Parliament deals with the SNP they might have had to make. Some leading Labour figures suggest this affected the result. Matt Says: ‘I’m sure they have an impact (on the debate), but what and how much is hard to say’.
We then talked about the upcoming televised debates, and how David Cameron had a slight advantage when compared with Nigel Farage in ITV’s Tuesday question and answer show. Matt said that: ‘Farage is one of the more decisive figures in British politics. He will energise the base support [and] yet, it is a risk to swing votes’. I do think, though, that many voters will forget about these clashes and swing voters will decide during the more popular televised debates on the BBC and ITV, at peak time. He also argued that: ‘as for the debates affecting the polls, they did in 2010 and didn’t in 2015. This time they’re more likely too affect which way people vote, because voters don’t have a “party I normally vote for”, so many will need to make up their minds’.
Matt Singh explained to me how confusing the polls are, and how changeable they can be too. Possibly reflecting the confusion among the public as we near the referendum date. Matt tells me: ‘the most important issues are immigration and the economy’. Will this decision be made then based on the issue that’s more important? Is the ballot paper not really a choice between Leave or Remain, but a choice between a ‘controlled border’, or a ‘stronger economy’? Let’s see …