The likely sharp uptick in support for Sinn Féin and the possible decline in support for both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should pose a few questions for Irish political scientists, not least… Why did no one see the Sinn Féin rise come?
The bad answer is that we’re not in the business of prediction. The get-out-of-jail-free answer is that neither did Sinn Féin, who seem to have failed to field enough candidates. The self-serving (but not unreasonable) answer is that we don’t have enough data, and only a standing election study would give us enough data to spot trends. We’ve been living off scraps for the last ten years, in a time that has seen unprecedented social and political change. Some surveys, such as the European Social Survey are useful, but they’re not focused on politics and don’t have modules that someone interested in specifically Irish questions might want to ask.
We might also point to the fact that Sinn Féin did very poorly in the local and European elections last summer, and in the few opinion polls around in the autumn they did poorly. And there was no obvious change in tack from Sinn Féin or event to point to its rise (which makes me think that it’s a rejection of the other parties rather than a demand for Sinn Féin). Only in the B&A poll in December was the party doing well, just a few points behind FF and FG before its adjustments. The first B&A poll of the campaign (fieldwork just before the campaign started) showed Fianna Fáil with a bigger lead.
What we do know, however, is that this is not as new as people think. Labour was the second largest party in 2011, and the combined FF/ FG vote was about 53%, down from almost 70% in 2007. While FF and FG were back to being the top two in 2016, their combined vote share went below 50%. Voters have been drifting away from the big two for some time. This is not new. It’s something that has been ongoing for at least ten years, and probably since the 1980s.
I say since the 1980s because electorate is much more volatile. Voters are much less attached to parties now, a trend that’s been ongoing since the late 1970s. So big swings are possible in short periods of time. They may have stayed with FF, but not because they were dyed-in-the-wool FFers.
The last two elections have been among the most volatile (in terms of changes in vote shares, measured by the Pederson Index) not just in Irish history, but in western European history. The 2011 election was talked down in terms of importance by many of us, perhaps wrongly, mainly on the basis that the government formed was fairly mainstream. Thus the late Peter Mair said it had done ‘little to disturb the fundamentals’. But the voters reaction to Labour in government, even when there were clear signs of economic recovery and competent management of the economy, should have indicated to us that they may not have been interested in ‘same as you were’. Perhaps we should have done better.
Seeing as we’re talking about predictions, some are suggesting that the Sinn Féin surge will dissipate because their polling numbers have tended to overstate their support when it matters, on election day. I think that’ll be wrong. The two referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion revealed that young people had higher tendencies to vote than in general elections. A lot of young people have been mobilised by those campaigns, are on the electoral register, and have experience of voting. They will vote, and after Sinn Féin, this should benefit SocDems, Greens, PBP, independents, and maybe Labour. But it’s going to be very hard to predict seats in constituencies, even after the first preference votes are known, because I suspect there will be more TDs elected who don’reach a quota, and many who weren’t in the top 3, 4 or 5 on first preference.