Elizabeth the last queen of Scotland? Not so fast.(Read article summary)
A lot of the coverage of polls saying Scots are leaning toward independence from the UK ignores the undecideds.
A lot of the coverage of Scotland's independence referendum has described the battle over whether the nation will continue its 307-year membership of the United Kingdom as coming down to the wire.
"Opinion polls have been neck-and-neck," writes Time."Fate of United Kingdom hangs in balance," writes Reuters. ABC News writes of the "Specter of an 'Ununited' Kingdom," before the vote this Thursday.
Fair enough, the polls have been close. Most recent ones show continued union with the edge, though an ICM Research online poll sponsored by The Telegraph and released over the weekend is an outlier. It had independence favored by 49 percent to 42 percent, with 9 percent undecided.
But I think it's reasonable to expect that Scotland will end up voting "no," precisely because there are so many undecided voters in the polling. This month, all but one of about 12 polls had 7 percent of people intending to vote saying they were "undecided" on the question. The best recent example of a stable Western country facing an independence referendum – Canada and Quebec in 1995 – showed the undecideds broke hard to remain within the country at the last minute.
In 1995, the final weeks of campaigning saw a surge of support for "oui" to independence in the polls. Most of the final polls showed a healthy margin for separation – but also large numbers of "undecided" voters. When it came time to pull the lever on a status-quo-shattering decision, the undecideds carried the day for Canada – and probably a number of Quebec voters who found it one thing to proclaim support for a new state to a pollster, but quite another to do the deed.
Toronto Star columnist Alain Duboc ferreted this out ahead of the 1995 vote. "An analysis of past polls in Quebec shows that you cannot use the traditional method of breaking down the intentions of undecided voters. Opinion polls systematically overestimate sovereignist strength because a great majority of the undecided – about three-quarters of them – end up by voting against sovereignty," he wrote a few weeks before the vote.
Following the money won't be a bad way to guess on polling day. In the case of Quebec, stocks and the Canadian dollar rallied the day of the referendum, with the market out in front of journalists in calling the poll. In the UK, the benchmark FTSE stock index remains down for the week, though the pound has rallied slightly in the past few days after nearly a month of decline.
If those numbers move sharply higher on the morning of the poll, that will mean investors with money to lose have decided Scotland will remain in the Union. Some aren't waiting – UK gambling company Betfair has started paying out to punters who wagered on "no."
To be sure, Canada isn't Scotland, 1995 isn't 2014, and an enormous amount is at stake. But when the stakes are this high, voters have a tendency to shy away from an uncertain future in favor of an imperfect present.