The Yes campaign has “virtually no chance” of victory in next year’s referendum on Scottish independence, according to one of America’s most-respected polling experts.
Nate Silver, the award-winning statistician who shot to fame when he correctly predicted the outcome of all 50 states in the 2012 US presidential elections, says all the indicators point towards Scots voting to stay in the UK on 18 September next year.
Only a “major crisis” south of the Border could turn the situation in favour of independence, despite it being more than a year until polling day, he added.
In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Silver said polling data was “pretty definitive”. “There’s virtually no chance that the Yes side will win”, he said. “If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definitive really where the No side is at 60-55 per cent and Yes side is about 40 or so.
“Historically, in any Yes or No vote in a referendum, it’s actually the No side that tends to grow over time, people tend not to default to changing the status quo.
“The No side is even more dominant with the younger voters, so there’s not going to be any generational thing going on.”
Yes campaigners insisted yesterday the more people learn about independence, the more likely they are to vote for it.
But the No campaign has consistently been ahead in research carried out by the pollsters YouGov, TNS-BMRB and Ipsos Mori.
Only about a third of Scots are behind a Yes vote, while about 55-60 per cent want to stay in the Union. A poll conducted by Panelbase and published last month showed support for the Union standing at 46 per cent, up two points from May, while support for independence increased by one point to 37 per cent.
Speaking yesterday, Mr Silver said, however, that the Yes campaign could benefit if there is some kind of dramatic economic collapse south of the Border.
“If there was a major crisis in England – if the Eurozone split apart and there were ramifications economically (for the UK) – the maybe things would reconsidered a little bit.
But he added: “For the most part it looks like it’s a question of how much the No side will win by, not what the outcome might be.”
The French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada has previously rejected a vote on independence, despite sharp “cultural differences and genuine hostility” with the wider Canadian state, Mr Silver added.
“That is a case where a smaller country reads more about the economic consequences and it becomes harder to change the status quo.
“That was one where the Yes vote had been ahead, then faded down the stretch and lost.
“So on general principle, even if you took all the undecided votes, they are more likely to end up being No votes than Yes votes.”
The 35-year-old recently moved his hugely successful FiveThirtyEight blog in the US from the New York Times, which has licensed it since 2010, to ESPN, Walt Disney’s sports network.
His forecasts on the outcome of the last two elections have embarrassed pollsters and political reporters in the US.
He advocates a more scientific approach to forecasts and predictions based on layers of evidence. At ESPN, he is set to apply his model to subjects as diverse as education, the Oscars and economics.
Mr Silver is in Edinburgh to for a talk on his award-winning book The Signal and the Noise at the Book Festival,.
John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, said all the polls indicate that “the referendum is there for the no side to lose”.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for both sides to secure large shifts in the vote,” he said
But he did not rule out the kind of game-changing event set-out by Mr Silver which may yet swing it in favour of a Yes vote.
He added: “If the price of oil doubles, if we find another large enormous amount of oil in the North Sea, somebody might indeed demonstrate that wave power is economically viable or there is enormous run on sterling, a serious UK fiscal crisis repeated, then maybe Scotland will vote Yes.”
But he added: “In terms of campaigning there is only one card left for the Yes side to play in the campaign and that’s publication of the White Paper.
“If that were to narrow things from 60-40 to 55-45 and the Yes side start getting momentum, the impact of that could be felt in all sorts of way, because I have the impression there are quite a lot of people sitting in the campaign now on the basis that is isn’t going to happen.”
The SNP government is to publish the White Paper setting out its vision for the make-up of an independent Scottish state later this year.
A spokesman for the Yes Scotland campaign remained upbeat yesterday. He said: “We regularly ask audiences at public meetings how many people they know who had been intending to vote Yes but had switched to No and so far we have encountered none.
“Our research tells us that the more people learn about the benefits of independence, the more likely they are to see a Yes vote as the best path to a fairer and more prosperous country.
“That is why we’re confident of a majority voting Yes in 2014.”
A spokesman for the pro-union Better Together campaign said it is still all to play for.
“We are confident that Better Together speaks for the overwhelming majority of the people who live in Scotland,” he said.
“However, we cannot and will not be complacent. We will be fighting for every vote between now and the referendum.”
Name: Nate silver
He shot to fame in recent years as the new wunderkind of political forecasting, but it was in the world of US sport that he first gained recognition for his scientific approach to predicting outcomes.
He developed Pecota (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm), a system for forecasting the performance and career development of Major League Baseball players, which he sold to Baseball Prospectus.
Mr Silver then began to publish analyses and predictions related to the 2008 US presidential election under the pseudonym “Poblano”. In March that year Mr Silver established his own website, FiveThirtyEight.com.
By summer, after revealing his identity to readers, he began to appear as an electoral and political analyst in print and online.
The accuracy of his November 2008 presidential election predictions (he correctly predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states) gained him widespread recognition. The only state he missed was Indiana, which went for Barack Obama by one percentage point. He went one better last year, predicting the outcome of all 50 states correctly.
His book The Signal and the Noise, which he is currently promoting in Edinburgh, has attracted worldwide interest. In it Mr Silver highlights how mathematical probability and statistics can build models to predict the outcome of baseball matches, poker games, climate change and financial crashes.
In April 2009, he was named one of The World’s 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine.