Adrian Kavanagh, 17th October 2015
Going somewhat against the grain of the latest Red C and Ipsos MRBI, the latest Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes opinion poll sees a three percentage point drop in support levels for Fine Gael, although coalition partners, Labour, enjoy a two percentage point increase in their support levels. The trends in this poll are virtually the opposite of those evident in the last Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes opinion poll in August, in which Fine Gael wee seen to gain some notable ground in that poll while Labour lost two percentage points in terms of their estimated support levels. The big winners in the poll are obviously the Independent and Others grouping, whose combined support levels leave them as the best supported political grouping in the state. The breakdown of these numbers is especially positive for the new Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit grouping, whose combined support levels are estimated to stand at 7% in this latest poll. This Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll estimates party support levels as follows (and relative to the previous such Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll): Independents and Others 29% (up 1%), Fine Gael 24% (down 3%), Fianna Fail 19% (down 1%), Sinn Fein 19% (NC), Labour Party 8% (up 2%). My constituency-level analysis of these poll figures estimates that party seat levels, should such national support trends be replicated in an actual general election, would be as follows: Fianna Fail 32, Fine Gael 46, Sinn Fein 25, Labour Party 9, Independents and Others 46.
Support levels for the Independents and Others grouping stand at an exceptionally high level in this poll, even though support levels for this grouping are somewhat lower in this poll than they were in the July 2015 Behaviour & Attitudes poll. It is worth noting that seat levels for the Independents grouping can be notably harder to glean than would be the case for the larger political parties. First of all, opinion polls usually measure support for Independents and Others and not just Independent candidates. A number of smaller parties and alliances, including the Independent Alliance, Renua Ireland, the Social Democrats, the Workers Party, the newly formed Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit Alliance grouping and the Green Party, are included within this very large and diverse grouping. The nature of this grouping means that support levels do not usually translate as neatly into seat gains as would be the case with parties such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Vote transfer levels across this grouping will generally not prove to be as strong as the extent of intra-party vote transfer levels enjoyed by the larger political parties, who in turn often enjoy a “seat bonus” at most general election contests. Votes for Independents located in the centre-right of the political spectrum (such as the Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael “gene pool” independents) are probably more likely to be transferred to the two main parties (or else be shaped by local candidate factors) than they are to go to left-leaning independent candidates. In a similar vein, Renua Ireland and the centre-right independents are probably less likely to draw large numbers of vote transfers from left-wing independents than candidates from Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats or the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit groupinh are. Furthermore, votes won by the Independents and Others grouping tend to be shared across a larger number of candidates than would be the case with the larger political parties, with a significant number of these candidates also having little or no chance of winning seats. For instance, candidates from the Independents and Others grouping won 20.4% of the vote in Laois-Offaly at the 2011 General Election, but, with this constituency being contested by eleven candidates from this grouping, none of these went on to win a seat here. (By contrast, Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley won a seat there with 10.8% of the vote.) At this year’s local elections, 583 independent candidates and 139 candidates from the “Others” (smaller parties/alliances) grouping combined to win 26.6% of the national vote, emerging as the largest political grouping in terms of vote share. But, with this vote being divided up between a much larger number of candidates than Fine Gael (468) and especially Fianna Fáil (415), this grouping accounted for a smaller number of Council seats (225) than the number won by Fianna Fáil (267) or Fine Gael (235).
The main issue when it comes to sustaining current support levels for the Independents and Others grouping into the next general election relates to how the electorate tends to become increasingly focused on the composition of the next government in the months leading up to this contest. The precedent in recent electoral contests shows that significant changes in public opinion can occur in the months leading up to a general election. In the past, such changing support trends have often seen this grouping becoming increasingly marginalised, or “squeezed out”, the closer one gets to polling day, especially when election contests are perceived to be close, as was the case with the 2007 General Election. However, the Independents and Others grouping includes a number of alliances or groupings that could possibly command five, or more, seats in Dáil Eireann after the next election. Such alliances/groupings could be in a position to play a significant role within the next government. Falling into this category on the left of the political spectrum would be the Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit grouping and the Social Democrats, while Renua Ireland and the Independent Alliance could also challenge for a number of seats at the next general election. If these groupings can portray themselves as potentially being strong actors within the next government, then they are less like to get “squeezed out” in the run up to the next election when decisions as regards government formation weigh heavier on political choice.
Sinn Féin support levels still remain well in excess of the levels won at the 2011 General Election, but a major concern for the party focuses on the need to maintain their relatively high support levels in the remaining months up to the next general election. But the party also faces concerns that Sinn Fein support levels measured in opinion polls does not convert neatly into similar support levels in actual electoral contests, as evidenced in the City and County Council elections of May 2014 where the national average support level for Sinn Fein was a few percent lower than that registered in opinion polls around the time of those contests. The remaining evidence of transfer toxicity also poses concerns for Sinn Fein and the fact that Sinn Fein candidates can struggle to win vote transfers off candidates from other political groupings could prove costly in tight electoral contests, as evidenced in the Dublin West and Dublin South-West by-elections of 2014. That being said, Kathleen Funchion did fare notably stronger in terms of attracting vote transfers at the 2015 Carlow-Kilkenny by-election contest. Moreover, if Sinn Fein were to win 19% nationally in the next general election, quite a number of their potential gains would probably be in a position where they would not be requiring transfers in order to win seats, as suggested in this analysis. As Sinn Fein did not contest some constituencies in 2011 (e.g. Clare, Dublin North, Dun Laoghaire, Kerry South, Limerick (County)), the estimates for these constituencies are undoubtedly under-estimated here. Indeed the results in these areas in the May local elections suggest Sinn Fein are probably in a much stronger position in these areas than would be suggested by the results of this analysis.
Fianna Fáil support levels in this poll are only slightly higher than the level of support won by that party at the 2011 General Election. However, as most electoral contests held since 2011 have shown, Fianna Fail have tended to perform better in actual elections than they have been performing in opinion polls. They did of course win the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election of 22nd May 2015, although the party was admittedly better placed to win this contest than would have been the case with the six previous by-elections held during the lifetime of the current Dail. Furthermore, the Fianna Fail performance in the 2014 Local Elections exceeded expectations based on the opinion polls leading up to that contest (and indeed the exit poll taken on the day of that contest). Could it be the case that voters are more inclined to support Fianna Fail candidates than they are to support Fianna Fail, the party? In any case, despite the party’s disappointing poll standings, this analysis suggests that Fianna Fail would be well placed to make a number of gains at the next election (even with the overall reduction of Dail seat numbers from 166 to 158), with the increasingly fractured political landscape and the declining fortunes of Fine Gael and Labour creating an opportunity space for Fianna Fail seat gains (or, rather, regains). The party are also helped by the impact of the changed electoral boundaries arising from the 2012 Constituency Commission report (as discussed below).
Given the Labour Party’s geography of support, but also given the increased level of opposition the party faces on the left of the political spectrum from Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats, the People Before Profit Alliance, the Anti-Austerity Alliance/Socialist Party and other left-wing groupings/independent candidates, Labour will struggle to convert votes into seats if their national support levels fall below this 10% level, as evidenced in this analysis and as discussed in greater detail in the concluding section to this post. At 8% of the national vote, as in this poll, the party would face a struggle to win seats even in their strongest constituencies. Should the party’s national support level reach into the double figures, then they stand poised to win a solid enough level of Dail seats – maybe even enough, should they gain some further percentage points in support levels between now and the general election, to put them in a position to help keep the current coalition government in power, even if it as a minority administration.
Constituency support estimates for different parties and groupings form the basis of the general approach taken with this analysis. This seeks to ask the following question in relation to different opinion poll results – what do these poll figures mean in terms of the likely number of Dail seats that could be won by the different parties and groupings on those national support levels? Although the Irish electoral system is classified as a proportional electoral system, the proportion of seats won by parties will not measure up exactly to their actual share of the first preference votes, mainly because geography has a very significant impact here. First preference votes need to be filtered through the system of Irish electoral constituencies (and the different numbers of seats that are apportioned to these). In order to address this question, I estimate what the party first preference votes would be in the different constituencies, assuming similar (proportional) changes in party vote shares in all constituencies to those that are being suggested by a particular opinion poll. This of course is a very rough model and the constituency support estimates cannot take appropriate account of the fact that changing support levels between elections tend to vary geographically, while it also fails to take account of the local particularities of the different regions in cases where no regional figures are produced in association with different national opinion polls meaning that there is no scope to carry out separate regional analyses based on these poll figures.
Thus constituency support estimates for different parties/groupings will be over-estimated in some constituencies and under-estimated in others, but the expectation would be that the overall national seat figures figures estimated will be relatively close to the true level, given that over-estimates in certain constituencies will be offset by under-estimates in others. These constituency estimates are not meant to be accurate predictions of party support levels in individual constituencies, but are merely serving the purpose of this model. Based on these estimated constituency support figures, I proceed to estimate the destination of seats in the different constituencies. The constituency level analysis involves the assigning seat levels to different parties and political groupings on the basis of constituency support estimates and simply using a d’Hondt method to determine which party wins the seats, while also taking account of the factors of vote transfers and vote splitting/management (based on vote transfer/management patterns observed in the February 2011 election). Due to unusually high/low support levels for some parties or political groupings in certain constituencies in the previous election, the model may throw up occasional constituency predictions that are unlikely to pan out in a “real election”, but of course the estimates here cannot be seen as highly accurate estimates of support levels at the constituency level as in a “real election” party support changes will vary significantly across constituency given uneven geographical shifts in support levels.
The point to remember here – once again – is that the ultimate aim of this model is to get an overall, national-level, estimate of seat numbers and these are based, as noted earlier, on the proviso that an over-prediction in one constituency may be offset by an under-prediction in another constituency. Based on such an analysis and using the new constituency units (as defined in the 2012 Constituency Commission report), these analyses estimates what party seat levels would be, should such national support trends be replicated in an actual general election. For a variety of reasons (including the impact of high levels of undecided voters in a specific poll), the actual result of an election may vary from the figures suggested by an opinion poll, even if the poll is carried out relatively close to election day, or on election day itself as in the case of exit polls, but the likelihood of such variation is not something that can be factored into this model. Vote transfer patterns of course cannot be accounted for in the constituency support estimate figures, but I do try to control for these somewhat in my set of amended seat allocations.
I have made some further corrections to the base support figures for the different parties for this analysis to take better account of the impacts on support of the 2012 Constituency Commission report boundary changes with especial reference to the Dublin constituencies. For instance, these figures better reflect the weaker positions of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in Dublin Central after the moving out of the Ashtown area to Dublin West and the Botanic/Drumcondra area to Dublin North West, but also their stronger positions in Dublin West and Dublin North West. Fine Gael are assigned an extra seat in Dun Laoghaire on the basis that the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, will be automatically returned at the next general election (unless he decides to retire from politics before this) and this constituency will effectively be rendered a three-seat contest at the next general election. (Changes in constituency boundaries as outlined in the 2012 Constituency Commisison report have been factored in to this analysis. An overview of the political impacts of these changes (carried out in an earlier post) suggests that Fianna Fail would seem to be the party most likely to be positively effected by the redrawing of the constituency boundaries, with the Labour Party being the party likely to be the most adversely effected by these changes.)
Note that the approach used in this analysis is different to those of the constituency level analyses of the 2011-13 in that it now takes account of defections/changing party affiliations for people who were candidates in the 2011 General Election, as will be outlined in greater detail later in this post (and as such the seat estimates for this, and later posts, cannot be directly compared with those for the 2011, 2012 and Early 2013 analyses of post-General Election 2011 opinion polls). In cases where a General Election 2011 candidate has definitely left a party (or the independents ranks) to join another party or to become an independent, a portion of their 2011 will be taken away from the constituency base figures for their former party/grouping and added to those of their new party/grouping. The approach taken in the run up to the 2011 General Election was to assign all of the votes won by that candidate to their new grouping, but the actual 2011 results showed that this was an over-estimation of the likely impact of such changes. For instance the Labour Party constituency estimates for Mayo and Roscommon-South Leitrim following the moves of Jerry Cowley and John Kelly into the Labour Party ranks were well in excess of the actual votes won by that party in those constituencies. In this approach, half of the votes won by a candidate in the 2011 contest will be assigned to their new party/grouping while the rest of the votes will remain assigned to their old party/grouping. Where a constituency boundary change is involved, meaning that part(s) of a candidate’s old constituency is now moved into another constituency/other constituencies, the base figures for all these constituencies will be recalculated to take account of this. For instance, the impact of Peter Mathews leaving the Fine Gael ranks means that the Fine Gael and Non Party base figures are altered in Dublin Rathdown, but also in the Dublin South-West and Dun Laoghaire constituencies. Note that this approach will not take account of candidates who have lost the party whip but who may ultimately return to the party at a later date or who have been temporarily suspended from their party, as in the cases of Brian Walsh (Fine Gael, Galway West) or Peadar Toibin (Sinn Fein, Meath West). This approach also takes account of those candidates who did not win Dail seats at the 2011 contest, including people like David McGuinness (Dublin West), Fidelma Healy-Eames (Galway West), Eddie Fitzpatrick (Offaly), James Heffernan (Limerick), Jenny McHugh (Meath West) and Tom Fortune (Wicklow). In the wake of Patrick Nulty’s resignation from the Dáil, the correction made in Dublin West to the Labour and Independent/Non Party bases figures has now been reversed there. In the case of David McGuinness, his 2011 vote is undoubtedly a significant under-estimate of his potential vote (given that he was an obvious sweeper candidate for the late Brian Lenihan) while his by-election performances would probably over-estimate where his support levels would stand if accompanied by a running mate, such as Jack Chambers. An estimate lying midway between these two extremes has been applied (with some degree of caution!) in this analysis. As with the case of Patrick Nulty, this correction will be reversed in subsequent polls should it transpire that David McGuinness decides not to contest the next general election as an independent candidate (or indeed as a candidate for another party or grouping).
The constituency support estimates based on the Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll (18th October 2015), when using the new constituency units (as to be used at the next general election), are as follows:
|Cork North Central||17%||19%||11%||27%||26%|
|Cork North West||31%||38%||7%||16%||8%|
|Cork South Central||33%||25%||9%||16%||17%|
|Cork South West||29%||38%||7%||15%||11%|
|Dublin Mid West||14%||23%||15%||24%||24%|
|Dublin Bay North||11%||18%||10%||16%||45%|
|Dublin North West||12%||11%||12%||37%||29%|
|Dublin South Central||11%||15%||16%||28%||30%|
|Dublin Bay South||6%||18%||10%||15%||51%|
|Dublin South West||12%||21%||15%||25%||28%|
Based on these constituency estimates and using a d’Hondt method to determine which party wins the seats in a constituency, the party seat levels are estimated as follows:
|Cork North Central||1||1||0||1||1|
|Cork North West||1||2||0||0||0|
|Cork South Central||1||1||0||1||1|
|Cork South West||1||2||0||0||0|
|Dublin Mid West||0||1||1||1||1|
|Dublin Bay North||0||1||0||1||3|
|Dublin North West||0||0||0||2||1|
|Dublin South Central||0||1||1||1||1|
|Dublin Bay South||0||1||0||0||3|
|Dublin South West||0||1||1||1||2|
These estimates also need to take account of the candidate and competition trends unique to the different constituency. Amending the model to account for seats that may be won or lost on the basis of estimates here being based on support levels derived due to a large/small number of candidates contesting the election in 2011 (as in the large number of independent candidates competing in constituencies such as Wicklow or Laois-Offaly in 2011) or one candidate polling especially well in that election (e.g. the Shane Ross vote in Dublin South/Mick Wallace vote in Wexford) in a manner that would not amount to an extra seat for another member of the same party/grouping. Vote transfer patterns and vote management issues (e.g. discrepancies between votes won by party front runners and their running mates which would see potential seat wins fall out of a party’s hands) also need to be accounted for. Taking these concerns into account, the amended seat allocations across the constituencies would look more like this:
|Cork North Central||1||1||0||1||1|
|Cork North West||1||2||0||0||0|
|Cork South Central||2||1||0||1||0|
|Cork South West||1||2||0||0||0|
|Dublin Mid West||0||1||1||1||1|
|Dublin Bay North||0||1||0||1||3|
|Dublin North West||0||0||0||2||1|
|Dublin South Central||0||1||1||1||1|
|Dublin Bay South||0||1||1||0||2|
|Dublin South West||1||1||1||1||1|
There are, of course, quite a number of constituencies where – on the basis of the constituency estimates calculated – the final seat, or final seats, would be very close to call. For instance, in the case of Dublin West – especially in the wake of the David McGuinness defection – the final two seats here look like being a toss up between Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Labour and the Independents and Others grouping (with Fine Gael and the Anti-Austerity Alliance probably looking well placed to take the first two seats there). In a similar vein, in Dublin South-West, good vote management or a bit of luck with vote transfers could edge a second seat to Sinn Fein at expense of Labour or Fianna Fail.
Based on these seat estimates, a Fine Gael-Labour (combined seat level of 55 seats) would fall a good distance short of the number of seats required to form a government (79 seats). However, it is worth noting that an agreed transfer pact between these parties could well ensure that their combined seat levels would be some degree in excess of this 55-seat level – especially if the support levels for Opposition parties and candidates in different constituencies proved to be especially fractured across a number of different parties and independent candidates. A potential Sinn Fein-Fianna Fail alliance (combined seat level of 57 seats) would also be a considerable distance short of this 79-seat target. A Fine Gael and Sinn Fein pairing would, on these estimates, would fall a few seats short of number of seats required to form a government (combined seat level of 71 seats), but such an alliance looks highly unlikely in the present political climate, in any case. A potential Fine Gael-Fianna Fail alliance would amount to the only other two-party alliance capable of mustering almost enough seats to form a two-party coalition government without needing the support of other Dail deputies (with a combined seat level of 78 seats). Two-party coalitions are proving to be difficult to form in this analysis (as with most of the poll analyses engaged in since Summer 2o14) due to the very strong support levels for the Independents and Others grouping that is especially evident in this poll.
Given the dramatically improved support levels for Sinn Fein relative to the 2011 General Election, as especially evident in this analysis, the seat estimates based on these constituency-level analyses suggest a significant improvement in that party’s seat levels relative to those won by the party at the 2011 contest (especially given that the fact that the eight fewer seats in the next Dail has been factored into this analysis), effectively pointing to significant gains on the part of the main Dail Opposition parties since 2011. It is worth noting that, on the basis of this analysis, Sinn Fein would also be competing strongly for other seats in constituencies such as Cork South-West, Dublin West and Kildare North. Fianna Fail support levels in this poll are seen to be just a few percentage points higher than their 2011 support levels, but the favourable changes made (in their perspective) in the 2012 Constituency Commssion report, in addition to the impact of the loss of support for the government parties, means that the party would be almost doubling their Dail seat numbers if these support levels were to be replicated at the next general election. The same trend very applies very much to the Independents and Others grouping, but it is worth noting that, as opposed to the parties, the Independents and Others grouping is a very broad church and includes a range of parties, groups and individuals with very different ideological perspectives, including the Social Democrats, the Workers Party and the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, as well as a number of left-leaning independents, but also politicians located in the centre-right of the political spectrum, including Renua Ireland and a significant number of Fianna Fail/Fine Gael-gene pool independents. There is also the Independent Alliance grouping. Looking at the constituencies where this grouping is predicted to win seats in this model, it can be seen that left-leaning parties and independents would take at least 46 of the 46 seats being assigned to this grouping with this Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll.
The seat level estimates in all of the recent poll analyses for the Labour Party have been stark (highlighting the fact that the PR-STV system is proportional, but only to a limited extent), although this Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll (as with the latest Red C and Ipsos-MRBI polls) does offer somewhat better news for that party. Previous analyses have, moreover, suggested that, especially given the increased competition on the Left from Sinn Fein, other smaller left of centre parties and left-leaning independents, that it will be a struggle for Labour to win seats in most, if not all, constituencies if the party’s national support levels fall below the ten percent level, as has been shown in similar analyses of most recent polls. The further the party falls below this ten percent level, the more problems Labour faces in terms of winning seats. Labour would be in serious trouble if their national support levels fall below ten percent as the party is also facing a “perfect storm” from electoral geography and changed competition levels. These factors include the reduction in Dail seat numbers (from 166 to 158) and other changes made to general election boundaries by the 2012 Constituency Commission (which militated against Labour while seeming to advantage other parties, but notably Fianna Fail) as well as the increased competition the party now faces on the Left from Sinn Fein, other smaller left-wing parties and left-of-centre independents, as well as from Fianna Fail. When Labour support levels fell to similarly low levels in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, the party was in a position to be helped (as in the 1997, 2002 and 2007 General Elections) by transfers from lower placed candidates from the smaller left-wing parties. But on these constituency-estimate figures outlined in these analyses Labour Party candidates would find themselves polling below candidates from Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group or the People Before Profit Alliance, or left-leaning independents, in a number of constituencies. Instead of being in a position to possibly benefit from vote transfers (which themselves would be likely to dry up in any case), the Labour candidates would now in a number of cases be eliminated before the final count and would be providing the transfers to see candidates from other left-of-centre political groupings over the line. (If we look at the 1987 case study – we see Labour won 6.5% of the vote in the 1987 General Election and won 12 seats, but it is also worth noting that they did not contest nine constituencies in that election, whereas their 7% national vote is being distributed across all forty constituencies in this analysis, as with the most recent general elections in which Labour has contested all constituencies. In two of the twelve constituencies in 1987 where Labour won seats – Dublin South-Central, Dublin South-West, Galway West and Wexford – vote transfers were crucial in ensuring Labour won these these seats – i.e. Labour candidates were outside the seat positions on the first count but overtook candidates with higher first preference votes as counts progressed due to transfers from other candidates.
|Constituency||FPV||Total Poll||Quota||% FPV||Lab/quota|
Voting statistics for constituencies in which Labour won seats at the 1987 General Election. The table above shows that there was no constituency in 1987 in which a Labour candidate exceeded the quota and indeed successful Labour candidates, Ruairi Quinn and Michael D. Higgins won seats in their constituencies despite winning less than half of the quota in their first preference votes. In addition, Dick Spring came within a handful of votes of losing his seat in Kerry North.)