Scottish elections 2021: What was the story of the polls over the election campaign?

Barring a significant and unforeseeable collapse in SNP at the ballot box, Nicola Sturgeon will emerge on Saturday evening re-elected as the First Minister of Scotland.

Voters queue at a polling station in Gorgie Dalry on Thursday SCOTTISH ELECTION POLLING DAY - SCOTTISH ELECTION POLLING DAY - que at Gorgie Dalry Stenhouse CHurch of Scotland, Gorgie Rd, polling station

Pollsters have been predicting this for months with the dominant party of contemporary Scotland and the result of the Holyrood elections are, in this respect, almost guaranteed.

But the story of the Holyrood election is one of a clear downward trend for the SNP amid controversy, renewed pressure around independence, and the potential resurgence of the former dominant party in Scotland.

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In the latter stages of 2020, the SNP were riding high in the polls, averaging just below 55 per cent of the constituency vote with a gap of around 10 points to 45 per cent on the regional list.

Since that point, there has been a steady decline in SNP support, with the Scotsman’s final poll conducted by Savanta ComRes pre-election putting the SNP on a contextually low figure of 42 per cent on the constituency and just 34 per cent on the regional list.

A reminder, should the SNP need it, of their 2016 experience when polls registered support as high as 60 per cent two months prior to the election before a result of 46.5 per cent on polling day.

Throughout the campaign and prior to it, Nicola Sturgeon’s success as a politician has been clearly tied to her personal favourability ratings and simultaneously the Scottish Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

She is therefore unlucky, in a way, to have approached this election at a time when Covid-19 remained the most pressing day-to-day issue but is no longer dominating political news to the same extent as pre-Christmas.

The second national lockdown – for Scotland at least – came as the heat on the First Minister cranked up around the Salmond Inquiry.

A damaging three months from the start of the year saw the SNP’s dirty laundry aired in the full glare of the public and in the space of three months, the SNP went from polling an average of 54 per cent on the constituency to 49 per cent.

Simultaneously, the SNP was forced into a debate about the speed of independence it did not want to have following the emergence of Alex Salmond’s new venture, Alba.

Opposition parties smelled blood and began to press the SNP on how independence would be delivered, answers Ms Sturgeon roundly failed to answer.

Her leadership on Covid-19 put the SNP into a clear lead, but as the election came ever nearer, support for independence ebbed away as did the SNP’s support.

Despite a resurgence early on during the April campaign when the SNP’s average polling nudged back over the 50 per cent mark, the downward trend continued to a low of 46.6 per cent in mid-April.

The final average, of 48.8 per cent, would remain an astonishing result for a party of 14 years in government, but there will be some within the SNP that may be disappointed should the result not reach 50 per cent.

Should the party return an overall majority after all the votes are counted on Saturday, it will only have been possible due to its performance on the constituencies and will require an effective clean-sweep of all the first-past-the-post seats available to them.

The SNP’s list performance – on which so much rides in places such as South Scotland – consistently sat at around 10 per cent lower than the constituency vote share.

This is mostly due to an exceptional few months for the Scottish Greens.

Overall, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater’s party has averaged around nine per cent solidly since August.

It is an understatement to say that the party would be overjoyed to get into double figures in terms of MSPs even if there was premature talk of beating Labour into third place.

Despite suggestions their vote could collapse with the emergence of Alba, the Green vote instead became more resilient and rose to a high of 10.4 per cent before polling day.

The newest pro-independence party on the block has seen pollsters essentially guessing at their true level of support, but with six per cent the benchmark for success on the list, average polling puts Alba no higher than 3.6 per cent during the campaign.

Alex Salmond and one or two of his colleagues may well get elected – their support is likely to be strongest in the North East, the Highlands and parts of the West of Scotland in areas where four to six per cent of the vote may be enough – but the electorate’s view of the former first minister was always an issue.

Savanta ComRes polled Scots four times on whether the former SNP leader was fit for office. At the start of April the figure viewing him as unfit was 63 per cent, by May 5 it was 72 per cent.

The battle for second place is too close to call and while the Scottish Conservatives are looking the most likely to retain their place as the official opposition, the polls indicate it may be closer than Douglas Ross would hope.

The election of Anas Sarwar – now the country’s second most popular politician on a net favourability rating of +11, just three points below Nicola Sturgeon on +14 – has stopped the rot for Scottish Labour.

From average lows of 16 per cent on both ballots, the party is set to return 20 per cent of the constituency vote and 18 per cent of the regional list which would be a successful result for the party.

Douglas Ross has failed to make any major inroads into Labour support despite a rock hard stance on independence.

It would be an unmitigated disaster for the party should it lose second, but the polls suggest the strategy of appealing to pro-union list voters may have saved the party from an embarrassing result.

Many within the party would have hoped to knock Labour below 15 per cent; a clear possibility before Sarwar’s election.

Anything towards 25 per cent would be a success for Tories provided Labour stay below 20 per cent will be viewed as a success.

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