Irish Polling Report

A place to discuss Irish opinion polls

Who fears to speak of ’92?

with 15 comments

As regulars will be aware, the constituency projections I posted here last week caused a somewhat hysterical reaction from some FG quarters, in particular from one Leinster House staffer whose diatribe included, inter alia, the particularly mad suggestion that LP would be hit by the “Bradley Effect”, whereby people don’t reveal they are voting against the black candidate!

Unfortunately I was away with the kids for the mid-term break in a house with no broadband and a painfully slow PC, and so I didn’t get to answer all the points made, but hopefully I’ll get the chance now.

Most of the rantings didn’t actually address the figures, maths or arguments, but claimed that even if LP are well up in the polls, this won’t/can’t translate on the day, that local factors (which are in fact, taken into account!) would uniformly count against a Labour Party unused to such dizzy heights, particularly the “rural” areas.

Well, I thought, this all seems very familiar. Very 1992. Then the LP were rising in the polls, but media commentators (and Fine Gael) said that they would be incapable of turning those polling figures into seats. Sure, they’d gain a seat here and there, it would be a good election for them, but they’d be doing very well to break 20, and high twenties was just delusional thinking.

Let’s have a look back and see what happened.

The three main polling companies at the time were MRBI/TNS who conducted surveys for the Irish Times, IMS/Millward Browne who gathered the figures for the Indo group, and Lansdowne who surveyed for the now defunct Irish Press group.

MRBI had a number of polls in the pre-Summer period, which showed LP varying between 9-11%, pretty much their rating in the previous election, and a September poll similarly showed them at 10%. However, it picked up the surge in support for LP over the course of the GE campaign (polling day was 25 November). A poll conducted over the period 9-11 November showed LP at 14%, and their last poll, conducted over the period 17-18 November showed LP at 19%. This is the best pre-election poll I could find for LP.

IMS/Millward Brown similarly showed LP at 8-11% in the April-July period, but in their poll conducted during the GE campaign in November, they detected a LP rise to 16%.

Lansdowne, who have since merged with Millward Brown, had two polls that I’ve been able to track down, one held in May/June where LP were at 9%, and the other held in November, which showed them risen to 15%.

So across all polling companies, there was remarkable unanimity regarding how LP were doing. 8-11% before the election, and rising to 15-19% during it, depending on the company you chose to believe.

Taking these figures, and using the same logic that Tommy O’Brien came out with in, LP should have been lucky to get about 13%. Local factors, local candidates, lack of LP organisation in places they couldn’t even field a candidate the last time out, the “Shy Tory Syndrome”, the “Bradley Effect” (in Clare at least!), and of course, the infamous “Tommy’s kitchen sink” syndrome would all have conspired uniquely against LP, and seen them fall short of the real polls.

History, however, records an altogether different outcome. LP got 19.5% of the vote on the day, winning 33 seats, and missing out on several others as a result of fielding too few candidates. Interestingly, IMS/MB took another poll for the Sunday Indo following the election, when the scale of the LP gains was evident, and they were at 26%, 9 points ahead of a demoralised FG.

Now, of course, no two elections are the same, and LP may well fall back from their current heights, particularly over the course of an election campaign, as has been confidently predicted by many since they hit 17% last year. But they may also continue to gain, and there are many similarities between ’92 and now. LP had a strong leader who was popular with the general public. FF were on the ropes, but were blessed to be facing a FG leader in John Bruton who was not setting the world alight, and who led a divided party. There was even talk of a LP Taoiseach, albeit of the rotating variety. However, the big difference was that there was no previous ’92 to look back at. Any suggestions that they could break the mould were dismissed as giddy talk, and the leaders debate was between FF and FG, with Spring out in the cold. We’ll never know what the outcome would have been had he been invited to that debate.

Despite this, and despite the more rural make up of Ireland then than now (which exercised Tommy to a considerable extent), LP not only did as well as the polls suggested, but did slightly better than even the best one for them. How come?

Well, there were probably a few reasons. One is that there was a momentum to LP, and the polls only picked it up as it was on its way. There was also a ‘critical mass’ effect, as people who never even considered voting LP before as they knew no-one else doing it, suddenly saw them as a party in their own right (curiously, Tommy thinks the bandwagon effect will supress the LP vote on the day, relative to the polls….) And most polls didn’t exclude Don’t Knows / Won’t Vote from party support, which means you could add 1-2% to the LP figures, making the average about 17% or so, about 2.5% short of their actual total.

But what was most interesting was that the biggest swings to LP were often in exactly the sorts of places that they would be expected to pick it up least, , and couldn’t have picked up the swing at all if you accept Tommy’s reasoning. Places like Clare, Cavan-Monaghan and Donegal NE, where LP usually couldn’t even field a candidate, were averaging nearly 10%, a slightly bigger swing than the national average and over half their national opinion polls rating. These were wastelands for the LP organisation at the time. In Clare, LP had run in the ’87 GE with Shannon Town Commissioner Tom O’Shaughnessy and received 1.27%, which saw them not even bothering in ’89. Mossy Bhamjee only agreed to put his name on the ballot paper to at least fly the flag, and was, it is said, quite shocked to hear that he had got elected (I wasn’t, by the way…). In Donegal NE, similarly LP came from a standing start, and with a candidate that was seen as an eccentric in LP circles. Sean Maloney was one of two brothers who ran a newsletter called “Labour Comment”, which was described by some as neither loony left, nor loony right, but just plain loony. Still, the man got 11.34% of the vote. In Cavan-Monaghan, a young woman called Ann Gallagher who had barely graduated from college and was practically unknown took LP from zero to 8.28%.

Remember, these are following polls showing LP on about 17%, and getting 19.5% on the day.

How did this happen? Surely, if there’s an ounce of sense in Tommy’s reasoning, they should have bombed, regardless of the polls. Well, for all the talk about “big vote getters” who would block LP’s progress, most of these are good at collecting a vote that is already there for their party. In the bigger parties, being high on the ballot paper can often be a factor (think of all the FF/FG politicians you know whose surname starts with the letters “A”, “B” or “C”), or having most of the Cumann run by “your people”. Sure, some candidates in all parties collect personal votes, but these are often overstated. The ’87 GE saw one such candidate that Tommy would be well aware of, Frankie McLoughlin, suffer a drop in the LP vote from 16% to 6% in terrible election for them, despite him being known as a prodigious constituency worker. If the tide is out, it’s out. What’s more, in the current circumstances, an anti-incumbency mood is about, to the benefit of newcomers.

But there’s other reasons that aren’t just picked up by most analysts. In places like Clare, the early polls would have been taken when there was no known LP candidate in their area. A potential LP voter being polled would have been more likely to tell a pollster they were voting LP if they were sure there was such a candidate. It’s human nature. Places like Dublin South West, they knew they were voting Mervyn Taylor, the Labour man, and would say so, but the same person in Donegal or Cavan, where they’re not even sure LP will be running a candidate – maybe they’d say LP, but maybe not. However, over the course the campaign, they see the name, they see their posters around the place, they get the flyer, and they know that it’s that Muslim Doctor, or that young woman (a solicitor, isn’t she?) or that guy with the funny look in his eyes. That makes it easier to declare, and that factor means that the swing does as well in such places as others.

But it wasn’t just there. Another FG poster, HBAP, argued that LP would fall short in Dublin as a result of lousy vote management, stopping them pulling in second seats. Now this will happen in some places (indeed, I’ve predicted it would). However, in his own constituency (Dublin SW), LP took 2 seats in ’92, despite a little known running mate for Taylor (the recently elected Cllr Eamonn Walsh), a very poor split in the vote (2/1), and a popular DL candidate in Pat Rabbite who was well placed to take advantage of slippage. Similarly, LP went from zero to two seats in Dublin North East, despite a poor split in the vote (the little known Tommy Broughan getting barely a quarter of the LP vote) and Pat McCartan being incumbent. The odds on two LP seats there tumbled during the campaign, but you could still get 8-1 against on the eve of polling.

Now, of course, there will be some local variations. But these will be variations from the norm, and that norm is what the spreadsheet it calculating. And, interestingly, recent constituency polls commissioned by FF and FG in Cork NW and Cork SC have shown results very close to those projected by the spreadsheet in the poll of polls calculations (and ahead of RedC).

FG know all this, and an unnamed FG source confirmed to the Sunday Business Post a few weeks back that on current polling, LP could take more seats than FG .

The signals of Labour’s sustained support have been there for months in newspaper polls, on the doorsteps and in private polling carried out by the parties. ‘‘If we come back with the same percentage of the vote we will lose five to seven seats,” predicted one Fine Gael source.

If we are in the region of 27 to 28 per cent in a general election we’ll be in loss-making territory.

As it is Fine Gael and Labour will be struggling to get their candidates over the line in some areas, but Labour will benefit from transfers from Sinn Fein, the Greens and the independent vote,” he said.

Whereas Fine Gael used to be the party with the greatest seat bounce at elections, next time around it will be Labour, the source predicted.

If Fine Gael dips below 30 per cent, existing seats will be lost. ‘

There is an unwillingness to believe it, but at times the numbers can be an exact science,” a Fine Gael source said.”

It is the awareness of this that led to the botched coup attempt by Bruton. But they are aware that the worst thing that could happen for them would be for this to be understood by a broader audience. In every election, there is a presidential style component to the campaign, and LP inevitably lose some votes to the larger parties as a result. An election where the choice for Taoiseach is seen as between Cowen and Kenny is perfect for FG, but where it’s evident that Cowen has no chance, and the choice is actually between Kenny and Gilmore, the reverse is likely. Some FG voters who prefer Gilmore (and polling suggests that they are numerous) would switch to LP, and some FF voters (and SF etc) would switch to LP to stop Kenny being elected. The wails of “But it was our turn!” would be heard from miles around…..

Polls have apparently shown that there is a large segment of the vote yet to finally make up their mind, particularly LP (40%) and FG (35%) showing a significant section of their support still up for grabs, but this is all parties, with 33% of voters in that category. But the last RedC poll was described in the SBP as showing very high levels of second preferences for LP. This was interesting for me, as in my simulations I assume no enormous change in their second preference support. If this is the case, LP’s seats to FPVs ratio could actually improve.

So what do I actually think will happen? Truthfully, I’m not sure. LP could of course fall from such a high vote, but they could also rise following the Budget. FF may also recover, but if they do, it’ll most likely be on the basis of making “tough decisions”, and it’s hard to see that impacting FG less than LP. The polls over the course of the campaign though will tell the story. All my projections are based on the current polls, they’re not (as I repeatedly say) a portal into the future.

But we are, as they say, where we are.

Written by Dotski

October 31, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses

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  1. I think you note something above though, a poll the Sunday after the election showing Lab on 26% even they got 19.5% on polling day. All the polls you use show that Lab had a massive surge from circa 10% to 16/17% before polling, so it is possible that an opinion poll conducted on polling day itself might have shown Lab on 23% but they only polled 19.5%. So the opinion polls might not have captured the extent of the surge but they had the trajectory.

    I’m not blind to the likelihood that Labour will show significant rises in votes and seats but I would concur with those who caution against the idea that the opinion polls must necessarily be 100% reflected in any election projections.

    My own broad projection based more on a reading of the polls in general is here

    I think that the value of transfers could be very important and I agree that any anti-incumbency trend is likely to benefit Labour most of all.

    Daniel Sullivan

    October 31, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    • Cheers Daniel,

      I think there may be partly something in that. Certainly the vote I’m getting for the likes of Clare, CavanMon etc is no greater on 27% nationally now than it was on 19.5% then, which suggests that, in those places, the swing was like one where LP were even higher nationally. I’ve speculated that this may be that they were, but as they didn’t run in a couple of places, and also didn’t maximise their vote e.g. by just running in candidate in Kilkenny and none in Carlow. Although it may just be normal deviation.

      Plus of course I don’t believe polls must necessarily be 100% realised, but they tend to be close enough for the main parties (well the last ones anyway)

      I do think though that the Sindo poll was capturing a mood that was created in part by the result/realisation that LP could aspire beyond 18 seats. I was a former member at that time but with a strong (personal/professional) interest in the outcome, but the sense of change the result created was quite palpable, so I’d not write it off – the biggest factor was I think definitely the result itself.


      October 31, 2010 at 8:41 pm

      • I’ve been doing this sort of stuff with elections since 77, when the sophisticated tools were a pencil and a calculator with a % function.
        For what it’s worth my observations are:
        1) solid opinion poll figures can’t fail to convert into seats, and this will happen in the strangest places and against all the odds if you follow the old Browne/Magill style of constituency analysis; what seemed impossible looking backwards seems very obvious when the numbers are stacked. This applies to SF if they hit 10+% as much as Labour.
        2) the national poll figures are much more important than the local candidate (in terms of swing) and way too much attention is paid to local factors (too many want a Ted Nealon mother-in-law moment); way to much attention is also paid to individual constituency projections – mostly they just showcase sophisticated software. The ROI is a small place and definitely small enough to treat it as a single constituency.
        3) If the election were held today- or in similar climate/circumstances in a years time – Labour would surpass FG in seats even with a few % less in first prefs because they would mop up on later preferences from Left and Independents but also from FF in some final seat FG/Lab contests.

        Anyway, keep it up; I enjoy the bulletins.


        Jim O'D

        October 31, 2010 at 10:40 pm

        • Jim,

          thanks very much, I think we are kindred spirits! I used to manually work it all out as a kid in the early 80s (getting the figures from the local library) and spent more time on it than I should’ve (and not enough on my homework). Mid-80s I got a home computer and wrote a programme in BASIC that made it all a bit easier. These days OpenOffice does all the heavy lifting for me.

          Glad to hear you’re enjoying it,



          October 31, 2010 at 11:11 pm

  2. Great stuff – really enjoy your posts (especially here, not having to wade through so much of the nastiness).


    November 4, 2010 at 8:38 am

    • Many thanks Dermot


      November 4, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    • Dermot,

      Really love the blog, btw, a really interesting read,



      November 5, 2010 at 1:15 am

      • Many thanks! It’s been on the road since 2002 – several ups and downs since then. I re-booted it last week following a year long hiatus – here’s the old site with archives (easier to navigate to the artwork, cartoons & such). I’m an ex-Bluth animator from the late 80s/early 90s – now going solo, making personal films, etc.


        November 5, 2010 at 2:26 am

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