ICM’s instant poll of those who had watched the leaders’ debate on Tuesday was not exactly comfortable reading for the Yes side. But at least it held out the prospect that perhaps Mr Salmond’s seemingly disappointing performance would not cost it many votes.
However that poll’s headline figure – that Mr Darling was adjudged the winner of the debate by 56% to 44% – together with the widespread judgement of the commentariat that the former Chancellor has done rather well, has ensured that Mr Salmond’s performance has been reported in less than flattering terms in recent days. And the potential impact of a leaders’ debate on public opinion does not simply lie in the immediate impact on those who watched, but on how the event is reported thereafter.
So it perhaps should not come as a surprise that the first regular poll to be conducted since the debate – by Survation for today’s Daily Mail – suggests that the debate has in fact had an adverse impact on Yes support after all. Conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, the poll puts Yes on 37%, down four points on the company’s previous poll just a week ago, while No are on 50%, up four. Once the 13% who say they are undecided are left aside, this equates to Yes 43%, No 57%, representing a four point swing from Yes to No. This is the lowest Yes tally to be recorded by Survation since the company’s first poll of voting intentions conducted at the end of January.
Of those who claim to have watched at least some of the television debate either live or subsequently (some 65% of the sample, a seemingly rather high figure given that audience research suggests that the peak audience for the programme represented no more than a quarter of the population) no less than 53% reckon that Mr Darling won, while only 28% said that Mr Salmond did. Leaving aside the Don’t Knows, those figures put Mr Darling ahead by 65% to 35%, a much clearer lead than in ICM’s instant poll. Here too Yes and No supporters are inclined to believe that their own man won, but as the instant poll suggested might be the case, No supporters (85%) are more inclined to believe that Mr Darling won than Yes supporters are that Mr Salmond did (63%). Meanwhile, in contrast to the instant poll, in this poll the (small number of) undecideds give the verdict to Mr Darling by 44% to 10%.
Viewers’ reviews of the First Minister’s performance are not very kind either. As many as 35% thought he was weak, while 26% reckoned he was uninformed. In sharp contrast no less than 42% thought Mr Darling was knowledgeable, while 32% believe he was strong. Evidently the former Chancellor was regarded as the more persuasive speaker.
Voters’ own self-reports of the impact of the debate on their voting intentions are also consistent with the claim that the debate has cost the Yes side votes. While 13% of those who watched the debate said the occasion made them more likely to vote Yes, 22% say it has made them more likely to vote No. While the responses to such questions have to be regarded carefully – in some cases partisans for one side or the other are simply saying that their existing preference was reinforced – the gap between the two figures is consistent with the 4% swing to No in the overall voting intention numbers.
So, all in all, it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that this poll strongly suggests that Tuesday’s debate did the Yes side no good at all. Our poll of polls has now puts the Yes vote back down from 45% to 44%.
It is widely accepted that the part of the debate in which Mr Darling scored most points was in his interrogation of Mr Salmond on the currency issue. Yet curiously this poll’s numbers still suggest that the issue is not as straightforward a winner for the No side as might be imagined. First, it remains the case that at least as many voters (40%) think that the Westminster parties are bluffing on the issue as think they are not (39%), much as was the case when Survation last addressed the issue in April. Second, Yes and No voters hold almost identical views on the desirability of an independent Scotland keeping the pound as part of a monetary union; 52% of No voters prefer that option as do 49% of Yes supporters (which figure is actually up from 41% in February!). Evidently there are still plenty of people willing to vote Yes even though they want to keep the pound as part of a currency union – presumably in part at least because they think Westminster really is bluffing.
This suggests not so much that the Yes side’s position is indefensible in the eyes of voters as that it was not thought to have been particularly well defended on Tuesday. One particular difficulty that Mr Salmond faced was that he appeared evasive when asked what his Plan B on the currency would be. This clearly does not go down well with voters. In February 65% said that the Scottish Government should draw up alternative plans in case monetary union is indeed not possible and now 69% (including 56% of Yes voters) do so.
Mr Salmond’s performance on Tuesday has inevitably raised suggestions that perhaps Nicola Sturgeon might make a better fist of presenting the Yes side’s case. After all she is widely thought to have got the better of two Secretaries of State in previous STV debates. It seems that there is some sympathy for that view amongst Yes supporters. No less than 45% of them think Ms Sturgeon should represent the Yes side in the next debate while only 42% want Mr Salmond to do so. However, Mr Salmond is still ahead when voters are asked which of the two is the better representative of the Yes campaign (by 51% to 30% amongst Yes supporters). But if Mr Salmond does not do better next time around, perhaps the muttering will begin to grow in his own ranks?