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7 June 2016

How important are the TV debates in deciding the EU referendum?

Marcus Roberts on the referendum's undecideds.

By Marcus Roberts

With the polls suggesting that the EU referendum is too close to call at the moment, much of Britain’s European fate lies in the hands of the voters who still haven’t firmly made up their minds. 

Recent estimates suggest that there are as many as four million voters are still undecided on Brexit. To get a better sense of the fence-sitters we have looked deep into YouGov’s Profiles data to assess who they are, who they trust and how they might be swayed.

First, we looked at the responses of those who have recently said they thought they would vote on 23 June but don’t know which way. We then compared these voters – their views, behaviours and attitudes – with the country as a whole so we could see what sets them apart from the population at large and therefore how they might be persuaded by either side in the referendum debate.

On the surface, the Brexit undecideds are similar to the population as a whole – being evenly spread across the UK and split pretty evenly among male and female voters. However, when it comes to certain attitudes, some notable fissures emerge.

Politically, the undecideds are more likely to vote Conservative and dislike Nigel Farage. This is largely because the people who like Farage most are pro-Brexiters and the one thing they are not is undecided. Those who are either in favour of remaining in the EU or are still making up their minds tend to actively dislike the Ukip leader, meaning he is more likely to turn off swing voters than bring them into the Leave camp.

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The undecideds’ pro-Conservative, anti-Farage viewpoint helps explain why the Prime Minister was so keen for tonight’s ITV referendum showdown to be between him and the Ukip leader and not another leading Conservative. Furthermore, it adds a further insight into why Vote Leave were so angry about David Cameron not being on the programme with someone from the official campaign to break from the EU.

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However, it’s not just that undecided voters are more likely to not like Nigel Farage. They also have a slightly more positive view of the Prime Minister. Recent YouGov research showed David Cameron’s net trust score declining to -53 but among undecided voters it is a slightly better at -45. While these scores might not be something to shout about, it is worth noting that Nigel Farage’s net trust score is worse among Brexit undecideds at -54.

In tonight’s ITV grilling, such margins matter. The programme will provide the first real opportunity for many voters to engage with the referendum issue. While most of the Westminster bubble has been obsessing about the referendum for the past six months, the truth is that a lot of voters will only properly start to pay attention this week, when the debate transfers from rolling news channels to primetime TV.

And this matters a great deal in terms of wooing the undecideds because they watch TV. A lot of TV – the leading terrestrial channels of BBC1 and ITV1 in particular. Given the next two weeks is where numerous debates, discussions, and interviews will dominate the mainstream channels it is in events like tonight’s showcase where the undecideds will start to make up their minds.

What the two men say (or, more precisely, what they don’t want to get drawn into) is also important in wooing the undecideds. Many of them think immigration is an important area but are less likely to consider it a “top issue.” The Leave campaign may want the Ukip leader to move away from his main topic tonight.

Similarly, the Prime Minister may well look to tar the Leave campaign with allusions to them being the British version of Donald Trump. Such an assertion is backed up by the numbers: undecideds are notably less likely than the population at large to like the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.

The EU campaigns’ move to primetime, mainstream TV represents the moment when undecideds switch on and tune into the referendum for real. Often the messenger is as important as the medium and the message. Thus the different combinations of Remainers and Leavers taking part in BBC and ITV programmes over the next fortnight will speak to the various distinct groups that will decide Britain’s fate in Europe.