‘Irish Times’ poll: Yes side must work hard to retain lead

Analysis: Margin in Irish referendums always contracts as campaign proceeds

Eight days from polling day, and the anticipated tightening of the referendum campaign has duly arrived. In the three weeks since the last Irish Times poll, the Yes lead has shrunk – considerably but not enormously – as next Friday's decision day approaches.

Among all voters, 44 per cent now say they will vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment tomorrow week, down by three points from last month’s figure. The No side now has 32 per cent, up four points. Undecided voters are at 17 per cent (down three points) while 5 per cent say they will not vote and 2 per cent refused to answer.

Strip out those who say they are undecided (obviously, you can’t vote undecided on the day) and those who won’t vote, and the lead for the Yes side among declared voters is 58 per cent to 42 per cent.

Last month the lead among declared likely voters was 26 points; today it is down to 16 points. That’s significant drop, for sure. But it is still a 16-point lead, barely a week from polling.


A reduction in the Yes lead is what we expected; the margins in the contest were always likely to contract as the campaign proceeded. That is the history of referendums in Ireland.

On course to pass

But what that tightening means is that the outcome of the referendum is less certain than it appeared three weeks ago. It is still on course to pass: there is no other meaning you can take from these numbers. But while that is the most likely outcome, it is by no means the only possible one. A win for the Yes side is likely; it is not certain.

The question that will decide the fate of the referendum is whether the Yes vote is just slipping, as expected, or whether it is in freefall.

One statistic that will alarm supporters of the repeal movement is the fact that the Yes side in the same-sex marriage referendum fell by eight points in the last 10 days; if that was repeated in this campaign, we would be looking at a dead heat; even a fall of half that magnitude would cast huge doubt on the result. And that is a possibility. But there is reason to think some of that slippage is already factored into today’s numbers.

We would be wise, always, to realise what polls cannot tell us, as much as what they can. Today’s numbers cannot tell us with certainty what will happen next week; the best they can do it describe the landscape as it exists now. The poll tells us that if the referendum were held tomorrow, it would pass comfortably.

Solid votes

But it also tells us things about the solidity of each side’s vote. Both sides are firming up: their voters are coming home. Today’s numbers show that two-thirds (66 per cent) of Yes voters say they will “absolutely not change” their minds no matter what they hear or see; last month that was 53 per cent. A further 23 per cent say they are “extremely unlikely” to change their minds.

It is clear – and this is a point of real opportunity for the No campaign – that a significant minority (34 per cent) of professed Yes voters think the Government proposals for abortion on request up to 12 weeks goes too far. That number was similar last month. But those doubts are not causing voters to abandon the Yes side in droves; it’s only a trickle.

And that’s because whatever doubts soft Yes voters have about 12 weeks, they still believe that the status quo is undesirable.

There is a big majority – and there has been for a long time – in favour of liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws to a greater or lesser extent. That is the biggest fact in this campaign, and it is the biggest advantage for the Yes side.

For the No side to win, the Yes side has to go into freefall in the final week; the No side has to double the rate at which it is winning votes.

That’s unlikely, but not impossible. A fierce No effort to target Yes waverers can be anticipated, concentrating on the 12 weeks proposal, and the untrustworthiness of politicians.

But so far, the Yes campaign has managed to keep most of its supporters on board with a simple message: if you don’t want the status quo, you must vote Yes.

Victory is still in the hands of the Yes side; if they manage the final week well, they will win. If they don’t, they might not.