The youth vote, when it turns up, can make a decisive difference to political campaigns. According to the exit poll, housing was a massive issue for younger voters, allied to concerns around health, jobs and climate change.
But how did these concerns play out in support for two “change parties”, Sinn Féin and the Green Party?
Analysis of tracking and exit poll data suggests both were able to attract significant levels of support among under-35s. Exit polls and tracking polls are different categories of polling, so there is an element of apples and oranges here. Nonetheless, the data in the Ipsos MRBI exit poll for The Irish Times, RTÉ, TG4 and UCD suggests definite trends.
For the two youngest age cohorts, 18-24 and 25-34, this analysis compares the parties’ long-term average support, defined by the 15 polls since July 2016, with its more recent average, which takes in the last five polls, and also to its exit poll number.
SINN FÉIN SUPPORT
For Sinn Féin, the first poll after the 2016 general election showed support for the party at 16 per cent among people aged 18-24. The exit poll from Saturday evening shows support in this category for Sinn Féin was 31.8 per cent.
The 15 polls between July 2016 and February 2020 showed average support of 30.1 per cent.
So, the exit polling data suggests a small increase in support for the party in this cohort compared with long-term trends. It is interesting to note that in line with headline figures, support for Sinn Féin in this cohort appeared to temporarily fall away, before rushing back. Between April 2018 and March 2019, it averaged 41.33 per cent. That fell away in the last two polls of 2019, averaging just 19 per cent.
In the five most recent polls, the average support level was 27.4 per cent, and the Ipsos MRBI poll for The Irish Times on February 3rd was in keeping with that, at 27 per cent.
The exit poll number of 31.8 per cent suggests that this cohort rallied to Sinn Féin in the final days, but to a level that was in keeping with its long-term average – even if the party outperformed this number a little bit, according to the exit polls.
It's a more dramatic story among people aged 25-34, where the party recorded 31.7 per cent in exit polling, compared with a July 2016 figure of just 25 per cent. The support level over the entire period among this cohort averaged 26.7 per cent, and that had been accelerating in the last five polls, coming in at 27.6 per cent. The February 3rd poll picked up this trend, showing 32 per cent support for the party, roughly the same as the exit poll. So it seems that significant numbers may have come over in the final week of the campaign.
What is perhaps most surprising is how Sinn Féin performed among voters aged 35-49 – not usually considered a youth cohort. It was the most popular party among these voters, according to exit poll data, at 22 per cent. Its long-term average was 20.3 per cent, climbing slightly in more recent polls to 20.4 per cent, and then leaping to 30 per cent in the final pre-election poll. The strength of this performance suggests the February 3rd poll may have picked up a last-minute rush among these voters, which drove its stronger-than usual performance here.
GREEN PARTY SUPPORT
While the Greens arguably stumbled during the election campaign, it is clearly vastly more popular than it was in 2016. In July that year, support for the party among people aged 18-24 was 9 per cent. By the final pre-election poll, that had actually dropped to 7 per cent, with this decline coming after two strong polls.
The exit poll shows support of 14.4 per cent among voters aged 18-24, well ahead of its long-term average (6.2 per cent) and its recent average (9.8 per cent), as well as the weak 7 per cent in the February 3rd poll. While it is a strong result overall, it is worth noting that support seems to have seeped away both in the exit poll and the final pre-election poll from an average level of 16.5 per cent in October and January’s tracking polls. It seems the final poll captured something slipping away from the Greens, even if it overstated the outcome.
Among people aged 25-34, support was at 12 per cent in the final pre-election poll, up from just 4 per cent in July 2016. In the exit poll this declined to 9.1 per cent, comfortably ahead of its long-term average of 6.2 per cent but down on the recent average (of five polls during 2019 and 2020) of 9.8 per cent.
The Greens did undeniably well in both age cohorts. However, there is evidence of a softening in support too: namely, the underperformance relative to October 2019 and January 2020 figures for people aged 18-24, and the decline from the recent average figure and the February 3rd figure for those aged 25-34.