The most recent CEO/BOP data, a regular survey of Catalans on their political opinions, showed a decline in the support among Catalans for independence. Among the 1500 Catalans surveyed, 725 (48,3%) opposed independence and 660 (44%) were in favor, with 115 (7,7%) not sure or unwilling to answer.
The decline in support for independence attracted a great deal of media attention. News outlets which generally do not report in detail on the BOP survey published headlines about the decline in support for independence. On social networks like Twitter, pundits began the process of explaining why suppoprt for Catalan independence had fallen.
The decline in support for indepenence was abrupt: only 3 months earlier, support for independence was 48,4%, and opposition to it was 44,1%. And the number of Catalans in favor of independence has been higher than those opposed consistently since mid-2017. Given this, a reasonable person might ask: what caused this rapid decline in support for independence? Let’s dig into the data and see.
How the BOP constructs its sample
The BOP survey is, by far, the most rigorous and transparent regular survey of political attitudes among Catalans. But, like all surveys, it’s subject to potential bias introduced by sample selection, as well as a general margin of error. Since the BOP is fully transparent (ie, all of the microdata is published), we can quantify that potential bias to help us understand the extent to which large changes in results are a function of (a) changes among the population or (b) changes among the sample.
For example, let’s look at the province of survey participants over time.
You’ll note that (a) the breakdown closely reflects the true territorial distribution of Catalans and (b) it remains constant over time. That’s because the CEO controls this variable closely, making sure to sample in a way that ensures that the selected population closely reflects the true population.
The CEO also closely controls variables like municipality size, age, sex, and place of birth. That’s because (as we’ve shown previously in the column), these demographic factors play an important role in forming people’s opinions on political matters. For example, if a CEO poll included only people born in Catalonia, support for independence would appear significantly higher than true support for independence. By the same token, if a CEO poll over-sampled among Catalans born in Spain, support for the PP would appear higher than than the true support for the PP. For these reasons, when the sample differs slightly from the true population, the CEO applies a simple statistical technique called “weighting” (ponderació), which essentially gives more or less weight to individuals’ responses depending on how representative that individual’s demographic characteristcs are of the population as a whole. This technique has the effect of “cancelling out” potential sample bias.
But here’s the thing: it’s difficult - if not impossible - to know exactly which variables should be used to “adjust” the sample. And even if you control and adjust for important variables like place of birth, you may still - by pure chance alone - get a random selection which is not representative in terms of other variables.
The sudden increase in support for union with Spain, and drop in support for independence, can be interpreted in one of two ways: (1) that something has happened, politically, which has changed the minds of many pro-independence Catalans, making them now anti-indpendence, or (2) that the selected sample for the most recent BOP is a “bad draw”, ie, it does not accurately reflect Catalonia’s population. Which is it?
There is plenty of evidence for theory 1 (that people changed their minds). Perhaps the Socialists winning the April elections at the State level made some independentists change their minds. Or perhaps discord among pro-independence parties has caused some to change sides.
But an examination of the data shows that there is perhaps more evidence for theory 2 (that the most recent BOP sample is misrepresentative). Let’s examine it.
The June 2019 CEO poll
The June 2019 BOP’s sample was slightly different than previous BOP polls in 3 ways that likely affected the results in regards to support for independence:
- The poll had more than the usual number of people whose parents were born in the rest of Spain.
- The poll had more than the usual number of people who self-identified as Spanish.
- The poll had more than the usual number of people who considered Spanish, not Catalan, as their “own” language.
Parents’ place of birth
The below shows the association between parents’ place of birth and support for independence.
Catalans with 1 or more parents born in Catalonia are largely pro-independence, whereas Catalans with both parents born outside of Catalonia are largely anti-independence. Why is this relevant? Because in the most recent BOP poll, the percentage of Catalans with 1 or more parents born in Catalonia declined significantly.
Did the percentage of Catalans with two parents born in Catalonia really decline from 37 to below 32% in the space of just a few months? Probably not. This change does not reflect a change in the Catalan population, but is rather suggestive of a change in the BOP sample.
Cultural identification is closely correlated with opinions on independence. Catalans who self-identify as mostly or only Catalan are more pro-independence than Catalans who feel Spanish. Support for Catalan independence is 95% among those that feel only Catalan, but only 5% among those that feel only Spanish.
What happened in the most recent BOP poll? There were declines in the percentage of Catalans who felt more Catalan than Spanish or only Catalan, and increases in the percentage of Catalans who felt more Spanish than Catalan, or only Catalan.
Did the cultural identity of Catalonia really change this much in a few short months? Again, probably not. Rather, these changes likely have to do more with the BOP’s sample than they do with the population as a whole.
Language, like cultural identification and parents’ place of birth, is closely correlated with feelings on independence. Among Catalans who consider Spanish to be their language, only 22% favor independence; however, among Catalans who consider Catalan to be their language, 77% want independence.
What happened in the most recent BOP poll? The percentage of survey participants who considered Catalan to be their language dropped, and the percentage who considered Spanish to be their langauge increased.
Again, at the risk of being repetitive, did the percentage of Spanish speakers in Catalonia really increase significantly in the last few months? No, probably not. Rather, the BOP’s sample changed, not Catalonia’s population.
What if the sample had been different?
Did suppport for union with Spain really increase from 44% to 48% in just a few months? Most likely not. Much of the increase in support for union with Spain in the most recent BOP can be attributed to the increases in the sample of demographic groups which are generally supportive of union with Spain: those with no parents born in Catalonia, those who self-identify as Spanish, and those who consider Spanish to be their language.
One could argue that in the last few months Catalan society also underwent large changes in their ancestry, cultural identity, and linguistic preferences. But this is unlikely. What is more likely is that the BOP poll, through pure chance, slightly oversampled from a demographic that is anti-independence.
What would the most recent poll results have looked like if the demographic characteristics examined here were identical to those of the previous 4 polls (late 2017 through early 2019)? That is, what if the sample had _not_changed. Let’s see.
We can “adjust” our sample so as to make it so that the most recent BOP poll’s sample population is more similar to the previous 4. For example, we can weigh our sample by the “self-identification” variable (whether one feels more Catalan or Spanish) so that our sample is identical to the previous four BOP surveys. If we do that, the percentage in favor of independence is significantly higher than the percentage opposed.
If we instead adjust for “own language”, we get a much more even split.
And if we adjusted by parents’ place of birth, support for union is greater than support for independence (albeit with less of a gap than in the most recent survey).
What is the true support for independence in Catalonia? It’s unknowable (since Spain won’t permit a fair vote), but the yes-no split likely remains at approximately the 50-50 mark.
Did support for independence decline drastically in the last few months? And did Catalans feelings of “Spanishness” really increase so drastically in recent months? Probably not. Rather, the most recent BOP poll disproportionately represented groups that are adverse to independence (Spanish-speakers, those with no parents from Catalonia, and those who self-identify as Spanish). If we “correct” the sample to make it more in line with previous BOP polls, we find that support for independence is also more in line with previous BOP polls. In other words, there was no change in support for independence - only a chance in the demographic characteristics of the survey participants.
What will the next poll show? Given the “regression toward the mean” phenomenon, the next BOP poll will probably consist of a more normal and representative sample, and will therefore likely show support for indendence at numbers similar to previous polls.