Fianna Fail experienced a significant loss in support in the recent Donegal South West by-election relative to their support level in that constituency, with their support down by 12,792 votes and percentage share of the vote down by 29.2%. But the recent history of the party has shown a tendency for the party to poll poorly in by elections only for party support levels to recover in a subsequent general election. During the lifetime of the present government (1997-2010), eleven by-elections have been held with eight of these taking place prior to the 2007 General Election.
Fianna Fail’s average support level in these constituencies stood at 41.5% (for the 1997-2010 period: support levels stood at 40.2% when jhust looking at the constituencies where by-elections were held over the 1997-2007 period).
Fianna Fail’s average support levels in the subsequent by-elections held in these constituencies stood at 24.8%, marking a decline of 16.7% in the party’s percentage share of the vote. Just looking at constituencies where by-elections were held over the 1997-2007 period, we see that Fianna Fail average by-election support levels in these constituencies stood at 27.8%, marking a decline of 12.4% in the party’s percentage share of the vote in these eight constituencies relative to their support in the earlier general election.
The interesting angle here is to look at Fianna Fail support in the general elections held following a by-election. The trend over the 1997-2007 has been for party support in the constituencies affected to not just return to the levels experienced in the previous general election, but for these support levels to be actually surpassed! In the eight constituencies where by-elections were contested over this period, Fianna Fail’s average support levels stood at 41.5%, marking a 13.6% increase in party support levels relative to their by-election performances but also marking, on average, a slight increase of 1.3% on their support levels in the previous general elections held in those constituencies. Furthermore, the party were to make significant seat gains in a number of these constituencies in the follow-up general election, including Kildare North (2007) and Meath East/Meath West (2007), and always won back any seat lost to the party in a by-election.
These trends are in keeping with the second order election model, which suggest that voter behaviour in elections perceived to be of “less importance” to voters than first-order elections (i.e. general elections) will be noticeably different than that for the first-order contests. By-elections are a classic example of second-order electoral contests…and the recent Donegal South West by-election even more given the particular context that this election took place in. One noticeable aspect is that voter turnout levels will usually be lower in a second order election, and this tends to be the case for by-elections and especially for by-elections fought in urban constituencies. The other major trend that emerges is for support levels for government parties to be lower than those normally registered for those parties in general elections. Second-order elections, such as by-elections, allow an opportunity for government party supporters to register a protest against aspects of their party’s performance in government that they are unhappy with, either by opting not to vote at all or by voting for another party or an independent candidate, before usually returning to their normal voting preferences at the following general election. There is also an artificial dimension to support changes for Fianna Fail, which tends to run two or more candidates in all Dail constituencies, as lower support in a by-election can in part be explained by the party just running one candidate in this instance as opposed to general elections where the party would be running multiple candidates in the same constituency. The fact that popular incumbents would not be contesting by-elections is another factor that can account for the depressed Fianna Fail support levels in by elections. (It is also worth noting that the party’s support levels also declined in by-elections held over the 1995-96 period when the party was not in government, even though they did win two of these by-election contests: Brian Lenihan’s win in Dublin West (1996) and Cecilia Keaveney’s win in Donegal North East (1996).)
What lessons can be gleaned relating to the by-elections held in 2009 and 2010. Trends over the 1990s and 2000s as discussed here suggest that Fianna Fail support will be significantly, or at least somewhat, higher in the constituencies involved in the next (2011) general election. However, the average level of support decline in these constituecies far outstrips the level of declined observed for by-elections carried out during the first two periods during which the current Fianna Fail government has been in power (1997-2007); Fianna Fail support dropped by an average of 12.4% for by-elections held over the 1997-2007 period but dropped by an average of 26.6% for the three by-elections held in 2009 and 2010, the most noticeable drop in support being registered in the 2009 Dublin Central (down by 32.2%) by-election. Such has been the extent of Fianna Fail’s support decline in these constituencies that the prospects of party support rebounding back to, or even surpassing, their 2007 support levels looks highly unlikely.
The basic data underpinning the figures used in this post may be viewed by visiting the new Irish General Election 2011 Facts and Figures blog, or else by visiting the always excellent electionsireland.org website.