The 2011 Presidential Election: A Geographical Overview

Adrian Kavanagh, 11th October 2018

There is always a “geography” to electoral support and turnout patterns and this was very much the case with the 2011 Presidential Election. This post will briefly review the geography of candidate support and voter turnout at this contest, with a look ahead to the upcoming presidential election contest on 26th October 2018.

Voter Turnout: Turnout levels at Irish presidential elections tend to lower than those for general election turnouts. The geography of voter turnout patterns can, however, vary from contest to contest, as well as the overall national average,

Reflecting the trends observed at general and local elections, there were quite defined rural-urban variations in the 1997 Presidential Election turnout rates with the average turnout level in Dublin (43.0%) being somewhat lower than the national average (46.7%). The lowest turnouts were registered in the more working class constituencies of Dublin Central (34.5%), Dublin South West (34.6%) and Dublin North West (39.7%).

The overall/national turnout level was, however, almost ten percent higher at the next presidential election contest in 2011. In this contest, the turnout level in Dublin (56.8%) was actually slightly higher than the average level for rural Ireland (56.0%), although the fact that a Dáil by-election in Dublin West took place on the same day would have had an impact here. The turnout geography for the 2011 contest did again reflect elements of the turnout geographies usually associated with general and local election contests, but also reflected the trends associated with referendum elections (Table 1). Figuring among the high turnout areas in 2011 were constituencies that tend to have high local and general election turnout levels (e.g. Tipperary North, Cork North-West), but also constituencies that tend to have high referendum turnouts (e.g. Dublin North-Central, Dublin South, Dún Laoghaire). This same trend was also evident in terms of the low turnout constituencies – the low turnout constituencies included areas that tend to have low general and local election turnouts (e.g. Dublin Central, Dublin North -West), but also the (old) Donegal constituencies, which tended to have the lowest referendum turnouts nationally.

Highest Turnout Levels Lowest Turnout Levels
1. Dublin North-Central (64.0%) 1. Donegal South-West (48.4%)
2. Dublin South (61.9%) 2. Donegal North-East (48.8%)
3. Wicklow (61.7%) 3. Dublin North-West (50.3%)
4. Tipperary North (61.3%) 4. Dublin Central (51.8%)
5. Cork North-West (60.8%) 5. Limerick City (52.3%)

Table 1: Constituencies with the highest and lowest turnout levels at the 2011 Presidential Election


Higgins support: Michael D. Higgins won 701,101 first preference votes in the 2011 election – amounting to almost two hundred thousand more first preference votes than the number won by his closest rival, Sean Gallagher. He won just under forty percent of the first preference votes (39.6%), but his share of the vote varied quite notably across the forty three Dáil constituencies that were being contested at this election. As well as faring strongly in his home constituency of Galway West, Michael D. Higgins tended to poll stronger in the more urban parts of the state, including Dublin, and he especially polled well in the more middle class Dublin constituencies. He came fairly close to winning half of all the valid votes cast in the urban constituencies (Dublin, other cities, Dublin commuter belt) – winning 44.0% of the first preference votes across these constituencies (Table 2). With the exception of the neighbouring constituency of Galway East (46.2%), he did not fare as well in the more rural constituencies and his lowest support levels tended to come in the Border constituencies, where both Sean Gallagher and Martin McGuinness polled well. On average, Michael D. Higgins won 45.5% of the vote in Dublin and 39.6% in the Dublin commuter-belt constituencies, while he won 34.7% of the vote in the rural constituencies. In the Ulster constituencies, he won just 21.4% of the first preference votes.

Highest Higgins support levels Lowest Higgins support levels
1. Galway West (57.6%) 1. Cavan-Monaghan (19.8%)
2. Dublin South-East (53.5%) 2. Donegal North-East (23.1%)
3. Dún Laoghaire (52.5%) 3. Donegal South-West (23.1%)
4. Dublin South (51.1%) 4. Roscommon-South Leitrim (31.8%)
5. Limerick City (49.3%) 5. Laois-Offaly (31.8%)

Table 2: Constituencies with the highest and lowest support levels for Michael D. Higgins at the 2011 Presidential Election


Gallagher support: Although he ultimately trailed Michael D. Higgins on the first count by almost two hundred thousand first preference votes, Sean Gallagher still won over half a million first preference votes in the 2011 election (504,964 votes) and he managed to win over one third of the first preference votes in thirteen of the forty three constituencies being contest in that election.  By contrast, he won less than one fifth of the first preference votes in five of the constituencies, namely those identified in Table 3 below. His support pattern at this election was almost the exact opposite of the Higgins geography of support. He fared relatively weakly in Dublin and the other major urban centres (but Galway in particular) and accounted for less than one fifth of all the first preference votes cast in Dublin (19.9%). By contrast, he polled strongly in the more rural constituencies. While he won only 23.8% of the first preference votes, on average, in the more urban constituencies, Gallagher won over one third of all the first preference votes (33.6%) in the more rural constituencies and his share of the vote in rural Ireland was very close to the share of the vote won by Higgins (34.7%) in these same constituencies. Gallagher’s strongest region was Higgins’ weakest region – Ulster, where he won 37.7% of the first preference vote. His strongest constituency was his home constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, again illustrating a strong “friends and neighbours” dimension to the presidential election vote patterns.

Highest Gallagher support levels Lowest Gallagher support levels
1. Cavan-Monaghan (45.1%) 1. Dublin South-East (13.7%)
2. Cork North-West (38.4%) 2. Dublin South-Central (15.0%)
3. Laois-Offaly (37.6%) 3. Dublin Central (16.0%)
4. Roscommon-South Leitrim (36.0%) 4. Dún Laoghaire (17.0%)
5. Tipperary North (35.6%) 5. Galway West (31.8%)

Table 3: Constituencies with the highest and lowest support levels for Sean Gallagher at the 2011 Presidential Election


McGuinness support: The overall share of the first preference votes (13.7%) won by Martin McGuinness at the 2011 election would ultimate be similar to that won by Sinn Féin at the 2016 General Election and the geography of Sinn Féin support at general and local elections. As with Higgins and Gallagher, there was a “friends and neighbours” voting dimension to the McGuinness support pattern, as his strongest support levels came in the two Donegal constituencies, but especially the Donegal North-Eest constituency which bordered on his home base in Derry City and his home/political bases in the counties of Tyrone and Derry. The strongest McGuinness support levels were recorded in the Border region – he won an average support level of 23.7% across the Ulster constituencies and Louth. He also fared well in the most working class urban constituencies. In addition to a strong showing in Cork North-Central (see Table 4 below), he also won an average of 15.6% of the first preference votes in the most working class constituencies in Dublin (contrasting with a much lower average of 8.2% for the most middle class Dublin constituencies).  Despite his strength in the working class urban areas, McGuinness, on average, fared slightly better in the more rural constituencies (14.6%) than he did in the more urban constituencies (12.9%), while his overall share of the vote in Dublin (12.0%) was lower than his national vote share.

Highest McGuinness support levels Lowest McGuinness support levels
1. Donegal North-East (32.2%) 1. Dublin South (6.5%)
2. Donegal South-West (28.4%) 2. Dún Laoghaire (15.0%)
3. Cavan-Monaghan (20.6%) 3. Dublin South-East (7.5%)
4. Louth (20.0%) 4. Kildare North (8.8%)
5. Cork North-Central (20.0%) 5. Galway East (10.4%)

Table 4: Constituencies with the highest and lowest support levels for Martin McGuinness at the 2011 Presidential Election






About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer at the Maynooth University Department of Geography. Email:
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