A year in opinion polls: bad news for government, independents winning

ipi_2014

Irish Polling Indicator 2014. Shaded areas display 95% uncertainty estimates; line represents ‘best estimate’.

Support for Fine Gael and Labour has declined from a combined 38% early this year to 27.5% now. This represents the (joint) largest loss for the government parties in a calendar year since the coalition took office in 2011. In 2011 the coalition lost 10% of the vote, in 2012 7.5% and in 2013 1.5%. Fine Gael is now estimated at 22% (+/- 2% uncertainty margin), while Labour is just at 5.5% (+/- 1.5% uncertainty margin).

These figures are obtained from the Irish Polling Indicator, which combines four major Irish opinion polls into arguably the ‘best estimate’ of current parties’ support among the electorate. By combining polls we can better distinguish between real changes and random ‘noise’ due to the fact that opinion polls only survey a small sample of the population.

Independents and others currently top the polls at 29%, which represents a 9.5% increase from early this year. Most of these votes are for independents (smaller parties included usually poll only one or two per cent). This makes the independents the big winners of 2014.

Joint second

Sinn Féin also increased their support in the polls by about 5%. They are now polled at 23% (+/- 2% uncertainty margin). Fianna Faíl, however, lost part of their support in 2014 (-3.5%) and is now at 19% (+/- 1.5% uncertainty margin). This makes Michal Martin’s party the fourth strongest force in the State, with Independents/others first, and Fine Gael and Sinn Féin joint second.

Arguably the most stable political force in Ireland is the Green Party, which polled around 2% the whole year. This is, however, a very low level of support that would make it very difficult for the party to win seats, although they might of course do well a few constituencies.

House effects

The Irish Polling Indicator highlights structural differences between pollsters, so-called ‘house effects’. Sinn Féin is estimated at higher levels of support by Ipsos and Millward Brown, while Red C and Behaviour & Attitudes usually have them at lower levels than the ‘average pollster’. Millward Brown have higher scores than average for Fianna Faíl, with B&A estimating them lower. Labour is estimated higher by Red C than the other pollsters. Millward Brown is least positive about the chances of Independents/others, while B&A have them higher than average.

Besides structural differences, the Irish Polling Indicator shows that any single poll should be treated with some caution. Take the example of a Millward Brown poll in October/November, which showed an increase for Sinn Féin from 22% to 26% (see the figure below, in which the green dots are Millward Brown polls and the yellow line is the Polling Indicator estimate). A month later, the party lost again in the Millward Brown poll, and was estimated on 21%, which led the Independent to conclude that this was due to the Mairia Cahill affair. None of the other pollsters observed this pattern, which makes it likely that this was entirely ‘random noise’ coming from the fact that pollsters interview a sample of citizens: there was no increase in support in November, nor a decrease in December. Of course, the Cahill affair might have dissuaded some people from voting for SF, while other factors might have increased the party’s appeal, but the net result was one of stability, not change in the past few months.

In order to avoid overly confident and incorrect conclusions based on an incorrect reading of the polls, journalists as well as citizens would better look at the long-term trends in polls. Those are obviously bad news for the Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

ipi_sf_2014-II

Support for Sinn Féin in Irish Polling Indicator (yellow line, plus shaded uncertainty area) and individual polls (coloured dots).

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