A Civil Political Debate

What do the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War all have in common? Hundreds of thousands of people died in pursuit of their political freedom. Unfortunately, even today, this is not an uncommon phenomenon, as from sub-Saharan Africa to Asia we see story after story of bloodshed (figuratively) splashed across the headlines. It seems there are too many places in the world where political debate and dissention descend into calamity and death.

Fortunately, not all political grievances result in war and destruction. All too easily distracted by tragic headlines and our own political discord, most Americans are completely unaware of an astoundingly non-violent deliberation occurring in the land of many of our forefathers and mothers: the quest for Scottish independence. On September 18 of this year, 5 million Scots will go to the polls to vote on whether or not to remain a part of the United Kingdom, a 300-year old union. The last 18 months has seen a lively debate; from town hall meetings from the Highlands to Glasgow, to Twitter battles between "cybernats" and pro-unionists. Whether you are a political scientist or just a lover of democracy, the next month or so promises to be an action-packed, contentious, and civil debate over the future of a great country.

This weekend, the Scottish Parliament is hosting the Festival of Politics, a three-day event that is run concurrently with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and for the second year in a row, I am lucky enough to have been invited to participate. My involvement in this Festival is predominantly as a pollster, and as such my focus is and has been watching the spate of publicly-released polls in the lead up to the election. As an impartial observer, the data almost universally suggest a strong victory for the pro-union side, Better Together. And as a pollster, my natural instinct is to believe the overwhelming number of polls that project a solid defeat for the Yes Scotland campaign.

However, I would point out one thing for those who might despair a pro-independence defeat in six weeks' time; polls aren't always right. Turnout can be a tricky thing to predict. All political polling is based on a certain set of assumptions -- educated guesses if you will -- of what the electorate will look like on Election Day. The U.S. has had several high-profile examples of where this can lead to some campaign surprises (Mitt Romney and Eric Cantor), and an enthusiasm gap can wreck havoc on a pollster's ability to model polls based on anticipated turnout. It's only natural in a referendum for one side to care more passionately than the other, and there's nothing particularly sexy about "Keep the Status Quo!"

So as the polls continue to tighten -- albeit slowly, and slightly -- be mindful of what the chatter "on the ground" is. Who shows up on Election Day is a critical question that could -- could -- get missed in the debate around currency, EU membership, and whether Scotland will still have a Queen. And if you want to see how a proud people deliberate and ultimately decide on their own political freedom -- without the firing of a single shot -- stay tuned to the news, my Facebook and Twitter pages, or chime in yourself using the #indyref hashtag on Twitter. You won't regret it.