June 1, 2016

Ignore the Brexit Polling Puzzle: Youth Votes are the Answer

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (R) makes a joint appearance with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (2nd L) as they launch the Britain Stronger in Europe guarantee card at Roehampton University in West London, Britain May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Facundo Arrizabalaga/Pool

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron makes a joint appearance with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan as they launch the Britain Stronger in Europe guarantee card at Roehampton University in West London, Britain May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Facundo Arrizabalaga/Pool

By Kelhan Martin

Whether or not Great Britain votes to Remain or Leave in the upcoming European Union referendum may fall squarely on the shoulders of British youths. Despite plenty of polling—21 polls in March, 26 in April and 21 in May—the EU referendum outcome remains in doubt. One surefire way for the Remain campaign to shore up support is to invigorate widely perceived apathetic youth. Just half of those aged 18-34 are certain to vote in the upcoming EU referendum being held in the UK on June 23rd. Remain should not neglect this potential support base, and youths must realize that it is they who will feel the impacts of a Brexit in years to come.  

Confusion around Brexit polling data stems from a consistent and significant discrepancy between telephone and online polling numbers. Telephone polls suggest a clear Remain victory (Survation; Ipsos MORI; Comres), whereas online polls show a much tighter race with Leave often coming out victorious (ICM; TNS; YouGov). A number of useful write-ups (here; here; here) have attempted to break down the reasoning behind this significant discrepancy. Reasoning has included, but is not limited to: weighting, or the lack thereof based upon propensity to vote; online polls offering “don’t know” as an option while telephone polls do not; respondents fear appearing politically incorrect in telephone polling; and the sample composition, whereby certain groups are overrepresented. Ultimately, at this point it is impossible to discern which polling method and numbers accurately determine developments in British public opinion.

A recent mode test conducted by ICM attempted to solve Brexit polling disparities between telephone and online Brexit polling data, but only added to the muddle. In the experiment, ICM fielded a poll via telephone and online with precisely the same questions and precisely the same weighting adjustments. Nonetheless, the data showed opposing outcomes. The telephone poll produced a plurality in favor of Remain (47%; versus 39% Leave; 14% don’t know). The online poll produced a slight plurality in favor of Leave (47% versus 43% Remain; 10% don’t know). Whatever the reasoning might be, the discrepancy persists. As Martin Boon of ICM concluded, “Bemused? You have every right to be.”

With uncertainties surrounding polling data both the Remain and Leave campaigns should move forward assuming a tight race. However, Remain holds a potentially powerful chip: the youth vote.

One consistency in the puzzling Brexit polling data is the correlation between support for European Union membership and age, with younger Brits more likely to trust the EU (and vote Remain). An online ICM poll fielded May 6-8, shows 64 percent of 18-25 year olds who were certain to vote would vote Remain versus 25 percent Leave. Another online poll conducted by TNS and fielded April 26-28 shows that 58 percent of those aged 18-25 who intend on voting in the referendum will vote Remain versus 21 percent Leave. Similarly, a Survation telephone poll conducted April 26-28, showed that 50 percent of those aged 18-34 and are likely to vote would vote Remain, compared to 34 percent who would vote Leave.

For the Remain campaign, the challenge will be getting young Britons to turn out on voting day, June 23rd. A Parliamentary report on voter engagement published in November 2014, found that in Britain the sense of a ‘duty to vote’ fell from 76 percent in 1987, to 62 percent in 2011. The report goes on to suggest that one of the main reasons for the decline is that, “young people were less likely than older people to vote.”

Brexit polling data corroborates this. An online ICM poll shows only 45 percent of those aged 18-24 are certain to vote, compared to 80 percent of those aged 65-74. Similarly a Survation telephone poll shows that only 52 percent of voters aged 18-34 say they are certain to vote, compared to 72 percent of voters 55+. Consequentially, as The Guardian recently reported, “the central problem for the Remain side is that its support for staying in the EU is strongest among young people.”

While Remain has a potentially valuable commodity in young voters, can it invigorate those individuals from apathy which has prevented high turnout numbers in the past? Hope of attracting the youth out to the polls may be supplemented by the recent results from London’s mayoral elections. Prior to the election it was widely reported that Remain sympathizer Sadiq Khan, despite leading in polls, would underperform those polls on election day because his base was largely composed of the youth vote. But it seems that young voters did turn out for Khan. While exit polling in the UK does not actually include demographics of those who cast their votes, Khan ultimately went to on a resounding victory, winning 44% to Zac Goldsmith’s 35% in the first round, and an ultimate 57% to 43% win in the runoff. 

Remain are all too aware of the importance of stimulating youth interest in the referendum. One way to provide greater impetus is to remind youths that this is a rare opportunity. The last time a referendum was held was in 1975, meaning that only those who are currently 58 years old or older would have been able to vote. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan spoke of the gravity of the situation for young Britons stating, “It’s clear that if Britain leaves Europe it will be young people who suffer the most, left in limbo while we struggle to find and then negotiate an alternative model.”  Leading up to June 23rd, the BBC will host three televised debates. The first of the three, held last Thursday, May 26, was specifically designated for young voters (18-30 years old). The Remain campaign will certainly hope that these debates will encourage youths to express their opinions, ultimately translating into meaningful political engagement on June 23rd

Not only would Britain’s youths be the longest affected by a Brexit, they also hold the key to a Remain victory.

The deadline for voter registration is Tuesday June 7. 

About the Author

Kelhan Martin is a public opinion research intern at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has a Master’s in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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