Devolution promises and TV debates had little impact on Scottish referendum outcome, new research claims

New analysis of web search data from the run up to the Scottish independence referendum has shown that neither the Vow by the three main Westminster parties, which promised to devolve further powers to Scotland if it voted to stay part of the UK, nor the last TV debate, had any substantial impact on the final voting results.

The study also showed that the more information that people searched for online, the less likely they were to vote for independence. The YouGov poll published on 5th September, which put the Yes campaign 2 points ahead of Better Together, did have a significant positive impact on the Yes vote, but no effect on online search activities.

Other key results reveal that the key element in pushing the ‘Yes’ vote to 45% in the final weeks of the campaign was the ‘grassroots effect’ of pro-independence voters on swing voters.

The study was undertaken by economists from the University of Glasgow using data obtained from Google Trends Big Data, a real time online search volume service.

All the data analysed in this study was sampled in real time and none of the results in the paper are drawn with the benefit of hindsight. Researchers believe that that the accuracy of these results show using internet search data may prove an increasingly valuable way of accurately analysing future election results as they happen.

Ronald MacDonald, Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy at the University of Glasgow, said: “Using Google Trends allowed us to make accurate prediction on the support for both sides of the campaign using data telling us what internet searches were taking place.

“Over the course of the referendum we were able to compare what was happening online with the various poll results to get a relatively accurate fix on the referendum outcome.

“Our evaluation also is capable of telling us why certain swings in support are taking place. Over the course of the campaign, it appeared that the more information people searched for online, the less likely they were to vote ‘Yes’. After certain events, such as the rejection of the potential currency union by George Osborne, those identifying as Yes voters were more likely to be driven by short-term emotion than long-term rationality.”

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The research featured on BBC Scotland 2015 on (10 February 2015):


First published: 11 February 2015