Brexit: The Out Camp Takes Control
In mid-May, every reputable poll had the In camp ahead — some by a small margin, others by as much as 10 percentage points. Assets sensitive to shifts in momentum around the Brexit campaign, jittery in the weeks following the announcement of the referendum on February 20, had stabilized; the markets appeared relatively complacent about the odds of Britain voting to leave the EU. Historically, independence referendums have an exceptionally low rate of success: in mid-May, the polls and the betting markets all suggested that the seemingly inevitable would happen and British voters would choose to stick with the EU.
On May 22, I wrote: “While the In camp dominated the middle of the digital campaign, the Out camp has begun to gain momentum since the beginning of May. Today the polls and the betting markets still favor a victory for Remain. Analysis of Predata’s Brexit signals suggests something different — that the Out camp is finally starting to get a foothold in the debate online and gain traction with its official messaging, which translates to a tighter, not weaker, contest.”
At the time no poll had the Out camp ahead. In the last week, however, the picture has become much murkier, with several polls putting Leave in front: The Observer today gives the Brexiters a lead of three percentage points. Just as Predata’s monitoring of the digital campaign suggested two weeks ago, the contest has suddenly become much closer. Shifts in momentum in the online campaign have led, not lagged, the polls.
There’s now a fresh urgency to the campaign, on both sides. Last week both David Cameron and Michael Gove, representing the cases for staying and leaving respectively, appeared on Sky New for the first major TV event of the campaign. The results, before a combative audience, were not pretty. Nigel Farage announced he will lead a flotilla of 60 fishing trawlers up the Thames in support of Brexit. Gordon Brown walked through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and made an emotional plea for Britain to stay.
The Tory-on-Tory sniping grew more violent, with many of the party’s former leaders joining the battle as the Conservatives’ long-suppressed divisions over Europe came hissing to the surface: Iain Duncan Smith accused Cameron of “deceiving” the British public on immigration, while former PM John Major said the Leave campaign is “dishonest” and “verging on the squalid.” “I am angry at the way British people are being misled,” Major told the BBC’s Andrew Marr. Given that John Major never seems angry about anything, this qualifies as a major event. The referendum is destroying the Conservative Party: according to this report in The Guardian, “there were ugly scenes last week in the Commons tea room as two Tory MPs exchanged insults over breakfast.” Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, continues to present a bafflingly peripheral figure in the campaign, plugging away with his “Labour case for staying” even as he criticizes the efforts of those nominally on the same side as him.
The Out camp, having lost the economic argument earlier in the campaign, is now convincingly winning the argument on immigration and security. Indeed that’s pretty much all the Brexiters are campaigning on these days, mixing fear-mongering with more proactive policy positions, such as last week’s proposal for an Australian-style points-based immigration system. The strategy is working: analysis of Predata’s three Brexit signals — “Brexit,” an overview signal for the referendum as a whole, “Britain In” and “Britain Out” — shows that most of the online interest in the campaign over the last week was driven by material advertising the Out camp’s position. (More information on Predata’s Brexit signals can be found here.) The official campaign launch speeches of both Gove and Boris Johnson were two of the top drivers of interest in Brexit online last week, along with the video of a TV appearance by UK Independence Party MP Douglas Carswell. (The signals for these sources are shown in the visualization below, along with the overall Brexit signal.)
Videos of Nigel Farage, once the primary driver of interest in Leave online, are becoming a less decisive influence on the digital campaign. Farage was in many respects responsible for forcing a shift in Vote Leave’s strategy to focus more strongly on immigration, but he himself is now less important to the official Out campaign. This represents a victory of sorts for Johnson and Gove, who have worked strenuously to keep the UKIP leader at a distance while not-so-subtly coopting his core message. After a rocky start, the two leaders of Vote Leave are now comfortably established as the Out camp’s most influential figures.
This more aggressive focus on immigration has allowed Leave to build a significant lead over Remain in the digital campaign. The chart below shows the history of month-long rolling correlations, since David Cameron announced the referendum on February 20, of both Britain In and Britain Out to the overall Predata Brexit signal. What emerges from this is a visualization of the shifts in the relationship between each camp’s digital footprint and overall interest online in Brexit; the stronger the correlation, the greater the respective campaign’s share of online interest in Brexit as a whole. (Note that for the last three points on the x-axis, the correlations are computed over a shorter time span.)
From the chart, one thing is clear: in just over a month, the digital campaign has gone from being a relatively close contest to a blowout in Leave’s favor. This does not mean the British public will vote to leave the EU on June 23. But shifts in digital momentum, we now know, can offer a useful early clue to the direction of polling. If the pattern of the last few weeks is any indication, the Brexiters’ surge to digital dominance suggests more polls should turn in their favor in the coming days. Either way, momentum is now firmly with the case for leaving.
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