Irish Times poll: Fine Gael and Labour long way off majority

Momentum has halted and FG will hope for something big to change by February 26th

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, conducted on Monday and Tuesday of this week prior to the dissolution of the Dáil, shows Fine Gael (on 28 per cent, down two points) ahead of Independents/Others (on 25 per cent, up two points). Fianna Fáil (on 21 per cent, up two points) is narrowly ahead of Sinn Féin (on 19 per cent, down two points). Labour is on 7 per cent (unchanged).

There have been some modest gains and losses, but when we examine the trend we see that, since last May, no one party has deviated more than one percentage point from its average for this period.

“Range-bound”, a financial markets term, aptly describes the current trend in party support. With three weeks to go, Fine Gael is on 28 per cent, down two points. Between December 2014 and last May Fine Gael was on a roll, recovering all of the ground lost during a period of intense protest over water charges.

This momentum has since been lost, with the party now struggling to break 30 per cent consistently.

To have any hope of returning the previous administration, Fine Gael needs something to happen in the next three weeks. A last-minute jump to safety is not unknown, and the party will hope to see a repeat of the 2007 surge that carried Fianna Fáil – then the stewards of a successful economy – into power again.

Holding Fine Gael back is a view held by some voters that the party can take only partial credit for the recovery, making the choice of an alternative government a less risky option.

Also, as recent focus groups convened by The Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI revealed, a significant proportion of the electorate do not identify with Fine Gael (an establishment party) and want an alternative government they can trust.

Fine Gael’s message of continuity rings true for many voters. Still, only 32 per cent were satisfied with the Government’s performance at the time of polling, leaving the majority at least open to the idea of change.

Logically, change should be for the better, but change for change’s sake has its own unique appeal.

Obvious bias

Fine Gael’s voter profile displays a sharp social-class bias. Support is just 14 per cent among voters on very modest incomes (the DEs), but climbs to 45 per cent among the professional and managerial classes (ABs). Such an obvious bias can be divisive.

Interestingly, despite concerns that the recovery has yet to spread substantially beyond the capital, support for Fine Gael is higher outside Dublin (30 per cent) than inside (24 per cent).

If Fine Gael has a problem with ceilings, Labour's challenge is of the floor variety. In five out the last eight Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI polls, including this election poll, Labour has registered just 7 per cent of the vote. The last time Labour achieved a poll rating in the double digits was February 2013.

Labour’s credibility has been damaged among the working classes. The party has a curious middle-class skew – it is most popular (on 13 per cent) among ABs, the most affluent grouping in our society.

The least affluent are betting on Sinn Féin, the most popular party in working-class Ireland and the party of preference for the 18-to-34 generation. Support for Sinn Féin, however, is down two points, to 19 per cent, in today’s poll.

Sinn Féin’s vote corridor appears to be between 19 per cent and 21 per cent. Delivering a vote in this range on February 26th will be an achievement in view of the party’s youthful base and potential for this segment to stay at home. The marriage referendum inspired many young people to register and to vote, a legacy Sinn Féin will hope to capitalise on.

Compete for one seat

On 21 per cent, Fianna Fáil has gained two points, setting the party up to compete for at least one seat in most constituencies. Fianna Fáil struggles in Dublin, where it registers just 11 per cent, but pips Fine Gael for the top spot rurally (30 per cent to Fine Gael’s 29 cent).

Fianna Fáil is the most class-neutral of all parties, attracting support from across the social spectrum. It may be the dark horse in this election. While neither forgotten nor forgiven, voters' understanding of the party's role in the economic crisis is perhaps more nuanced now. Strong local candidates will have less of a hill to climb this time around. In the run-in to the 2014 local elections, Fianna Fáil made steady progress. When the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI pre-election poll estimate of 25 per cent proved to be accurate, many were taken by surprise. Today's modest gain could the first indication that their 2014 local election result was not an aberration.

Independents and smaller parties have consolidated their gains of recent years, recording 25 per cent of the vote in this latest poll (up two points). The most popular grouping outside the mainstream, on 4 per cent, is the People Before Profit/ Anti-Austerity Alliance. The group has established a strong base in Dublin (10 per cent), where it closely polls with Labour (11 per cent) and Fianna Fáil (11 per cent).

Status quo upset

An apparent stagnation in party ratings begs the question: will a catalyst emerge to upset the status quo?

Now that campaigning has begun in earnest, daily policy announcements and election promises will inevitably create a fog that even the most innovative and interesting ideas will fail to penetrate.

Leaders' debates may be what voters are waiting for. To date, no leader has broken away from the pack. Satisfaction ratings for the main party leaders are clustered in the 27- 32 per cent range (Enda Kenny 32 per cent, Micheál Martin 27 per cent, Joan Burton 29 per cent, Gerry Adams 28 per cent). A strong debate showing could change all this, but let's not hold our breaths.

Ultimately, elections are about forming a government. The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll does not shed any additional light on the likely shape of the next government.

Combined support for Fine Gael and Labour, the most likely marriage, comes to 35 per cent – a considerable distance away from delivering an overall seat majority. Other combinations might deliver more seats but, in all likelihood, less stability. There is no predicting how this will end.

Damian Loscher is the managing director of Ipsos/MRBI