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Getting to yes: What to watch for on Scottish referendum night

Paul Fairie is a political science instructor at the University of Calgary, where he recently completed his PhD on Canadian voter behaviour.

Since the beginning of September, polling for Thursday's Scottish Independence referendum has shown a very tight race between the Yes side, which favours Scottish separation, and the No side, which would prefer Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Polls released Tuesday suggest a narrow 52-48 margin for the No side, but a handful of others have shown the Yes side with a narrow lead. Either way, the result is likely to be decided by a small margin. With such high stakes, watching the referendum results roll in will prove exciting, and especially so if you know what to watch for.

A young woman waves a Saltire flag as Yes activists gather in George Square on September 17, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Getty Images)

Support for nationalism varies throughout Scotland

On referendum night, voting ends at 22:00 BST (5 p.m. ET) and, once the ballots are counted and the totals certified by Scottish election officials, voting numbers will be released one-by-one by each of 32 local authority areas. (Click here for a map of the areas.) If history is a guide, results from the local authorities are expected to start trickling in somewhat after midnight local time, and for up to six hours after that. In other words, for keen referendum results watchers, the wait will be excruciating.

To deal with the agony, we can examine data from past elections and can determine that it will be crucial to note where results are coming from during the evening because nationalist sentiment is not evenly distributed across Scotland. In order to estimate levels of nationalist support across the 32 Scottish local authorities, we can use recent European Council elections as a benchmark.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. (Reuters)

In particular, we can use levels of support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in these elections as a way to estimate the differences in support for Scottish independence between different areas. In votes held in May 2014, the SNP received 29 per cent of the vote in Scotland, consistent with their usual performance. Their best result was in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, where they won 45 per cent.

We know, for instance, that areas closer to England (Dumfries and Galloway, and the Scottish Borders region) tend to run more than 8 percentage points lower in terms of support for the SNP than the Scottish average, while areas more north (like Angus or Dundee) tend to be much higher than the average.

The pattern isn’t purely a matter of proximity to England, either: working-class Glasgow tends to be more supportive of the SNP than more middle-class Edinburgh (though both are lower than Scotland as whole), whereas the islands to the North of the Scottish mainland vary from considerably more nationalist than average (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) to considerably less so (Orkney).

In terms of partisan voting patterns, Scotland seems to have three broad regions: towards the north, the SNP receives its highest levels of support; in the middle (which contains the largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh) Labour tends to perform well; and, towards the south on the border with England, the Conservatives see their strongest results.

Of course, this model is a very simple one. The Yes vote isn’t going to be coming only from traditional SNP voters – to get anywhere near 50 per cent, it must win over voters who traditionally support other parties as well. Polls have shown that approximately a third of Labour Party supporters are planning to vote Yes. However, using regional levels of support for the pro-independence SNP is the most straightforward way of estimating regional support for Scottish independence.

What to look for

The table below lists the 32 local authorities that will be reporting voting results on Thursday as well as an estimate for what that specific local authority would need to report for the result Scotland-wide to be a Yes. It is calculated by comparing the 2009 and 2014 European Council election results by local area to Scotland as a whole. For instance, Glasgow ran 0.5 per cent lower than Scottish average in its support for the SNP in the last two European elections. If this carried over to the referendum on Thursday, Glasgow would need to vote at least 49.5 per cent Yes for me to expect that Scotland as a whole has also voted 50 per cent Yes. Similarly, Dundee has voted for the SNP at a rate 11.6 per cent higher than the rest of Scotland, so if the Yes vote nationwide was going to be 50 per cent, the vote in Dundee would likely be hovering somewhere near 62 per cent.

Of course, these estimates are not necessarily predictions, but benchmarks for a 50 per cent Yes vote. If, on referendum night, most local authorities are above this benchmark, it is likely (though not certain) that a Yes vote will be the final result. If the Yes side is consistently trending lower than these benchmarks, the result will probably be a No. However, if the results are all quite close or are varying both above and below these benchmarks, I can only suggest ordering in some food since it will likely be a long night of obsessively clicking refresh.

Local authority, 50% Yes benchmark

Aberdeen, 50.9%

Aberdeenshire, 54.4%

Angus, 60.5%

Argyll & Bute, 49.6%

Clackmannanshire, 54.4%

Comhairle Nan Eilean Star, 64.2%

Dumfries & Galloway, 42.0%

Dundee, 61.6%

East Ayrshire, 54.5%

East Dunbartonshire, 46.3%

East Lothian, 45.9%

East Renfrewshire, 43.7%

Edinburgh, 43.2%

Falkirk, 55.7%

Fife, 48.3%

Glasgow, 49.5%

Highland, 49.8%

Inverclyde, 49.5%

Midlothian, 50.4%

Moray, 56.2%

North Ayrshire, 54.8%

North Lanarkshire, 51.9%

Orkney, 39.5%

Perth & Kinross, 54.6%

Renfrewshire, 51.3%

Scottish Borders, 40.7%

Shetland, 38.6%

South Ayrshire, 47.4%

South Lanarkshire, 50.7%

Stirling, 49.4%

West Dunbartonshire, 53.1%

West Lothian, 54.4%

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