Photo credit: Sinn Féin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0

Why the latest SF surge shouldn’t be believed, yet

After sticking with the party through Covid, Brexit, the national children’s hospital fiasco, the national broadband plan fiasco, rampant inflation, a decade long housing crisis, record immigration, and at least thirty seven thousand insufferable Simon Harris TikTok videos, the public finally gave up on Fine Gael last month.

Or at least, that was the verdict of the Sunday Times Behaviour and Attitudes poll published in that august paper yesterday. The party’s support, says the poll, fell from an anaemic 23% to a disastrous 15%, while Sinn Fein surged five points in the opposite direction, arriving at the dizzying heights of 37% support.

If those figures are true, then an election held tomorrow would be a massacre, and Sinn Fein (who will benefit from transfers from smaller left parties in a way that FG or FF never do) will be approaching overall majority territory. They will win at least two seats in every constituency. And the country will finally be able to witness the great wonder of a “left Government”, which will, within three months, hear themselves being denounced as right wing sell outs by Paul Murphy.

And yet there are more reasons to doubt the poll than to believe it.

To be sure, those who really want to believe such a poll will find all the reasons they need to get to a point where the figures they see are close to infallible: The eviction ban changed things, they’ll say; the public has finally had enough; Sinn Fein showed this month that they can lead and propose serious solutions; and so on, and so on. All of those are arguments for why people might suddenly have shifted in large numbers, and if you want to believe them, you will.

But the problem is that such dramatic shifts are almost unheard of in Irish polling: Since the election of 2020, in fact, despite all the things I listed in the opening paragraph, the fact is that the opinion polling has barely shifted an inch. If a person has stuck with Fine Gael through all of that, is it really credible that they suddenly decided “feck this, it’s Mary Lou for me”?

Opinion polling is a statistical discipline, and in statistics, you do get what are known as “outliers”. This is where an opinion poll or some other random selection of data will present a result that is significantly at odds with other polls or samples of the same data which produce a more common result. In layman’s terms, it’s when the luck of the draw means that you, by random chance, just happen to interview more Sinn Fein supporters than usual this month. It happens in all polling, and there’s no implication of either malfeasance or incompetence on behalf of the pollster.

The other thing that can happen is that political events influence a pollster’s response rate, rather than reflect the public’s true opinions: In simple terms, think about supporters of Liverpool Football Club and Manchester United, and ask yourself, which group was more likely to wear their team’s shirt to the pub the night after one team beat the other 7-0? This is an observed phenomenon in polling too, and is increasingly seen in the United States where much of the modern political culture war emerged. Put simply, when your “team” is doing well, you are more likely to talk to a pollster because you’re gagging to tell people how you are voting.

In any case, the sensible thing to do when an opinion poll produces such a shocking result is to wait, rather than to assume it is true. For example, if the poll was indeed an outlier, than we would expect a reversion to the mean next month, and for Fine Gael to gain support in the poll at Sinn Fein’s expense. Such a result would not mean that Fine Gael had an excellent month and Sinn Fein fumbled the ball – it would simply mean that yesterday’s poll was a bit of a dud, as sometimes happens.

If on the other hand the results of this poll are not an outlier, and are real, we will not have to wait long to find out: We should see the same or very similar patterns in the next polls from Red C, Ipsos MRBI, and Ireland Thinks. If we do not see similar results, then that will again suggest that yesterday’s Sunday Times figures were a bit of an abberation.

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