Voter volatility has finally arrived in Northern Ireland, but which boats will it float?

There’s lots to digest in the latest University of Liverpool poll for the simple reason that some of its questions dig a little more beneath the surface than we’re accustomed. None of it is entirely surprising to those of us who’ve been paying attention.

Jon Tonge had the headline figures on Twitter yesterday (NB he later amended the DUP’s rounded figure to 19% with the caveat that the SF lead over the DUP is now 3.8%):

Our own David McCann honed in on the most significant feature of the poll (ie, that a fifth of the electorate has still not made up its mind) in his analysis piece for The Irish News he says…

Twenty per cent of the electorate can move more than 12 assembly seats across Northern Ireland. At the last election in 2017, eight seats were decided by less than 1,000 votes.

So many people think that our elections are done deals before the polls even open but this survey shows that is not the case. Moreover, our politicians still have not sealed the deal with vast swathes of the electorate.

This slack in the numbers of decided voters may be one key reason no one is pointing out that despite its troubles, political unionism appears to be outpolling political nationalism by 40 points to 33. If replicated at the actual polls, that’s a big gap.

And that’s just the start of the interesting stuff. As some of us have been saying for a while, the Alliance surge looks like a permanent feature of new Northern Ireland (and just not because of tactical voting as some have desperately tried to claim).

What takes us a little deeper is the measure of volatility in the electorate. Something most polls neglect to ask questions about, leaving pundits to guess at the possible dynamics driving the key changes in voter choices (and probably getting it wrong).

Without doubt the Sinn Féin vote is both highest and perhaps the most solid. 92% of those who say they voted for them in 2017 are planning to do so again. However in vote share they drop from 27.9% in 2017 to 23.2% of first preferences.

However, Nationalist rival the SDLP is rapidly heading for the bottom of the class. Whilst 68% of their voters are planning to support them again, bar a statistically insignificant 1% from SF, they’re not picking up support from anywhere else.

A result in May of just 9.9% would be a resumption of the pre Eastwood decline, but it also indicates that for all the (utterly previous IMHO) talk of the inevitability of Irish unity politically speaking nationalism overall is on the slide.

Even in what is in the middle of a major crisis of confidence for the DUP. More than half their support from 2017 is taking a distinctly second look at that party. They account for the majority of those who are undecided…

Churn towards undecided from 2017 in descending order is: DUP 24.1%; UUP 16.8%; Alliance 12.3%; SDLP 11.6%; and SF most stable at 6.1%. But in terms of inward churn the UUP is taking from both the DUP (7.5%) and Alliance (11.2%).

In contrast, the two nationalist parties are only taking voters from each other (largely SDLP to SF). That’s not much of a surprise since nationalism has been engrossed in a conversation amongst those already converted to the nationalist cause.

The DUP are the biggest losers, but since they are losing to Don’t Knows both they and their rivals do have something to play for. But seriously, how do you make a simultaneous play for Alliance and TUV defectors? An opportunity for the UUP?

With so many refusing to say who they will vote for but saying they will vote, May’s outcome is really not obvious. However Nationalism looks like a trawler stranded on a sandbank whose skipper confidently expects a high tide that may never come.

Perhaps this might snippet offer some tentative insight:

Constitutional matters figure highest for only 2.1 per cent of respondents, with 3.6 per cent of unionists prioritising them above all other issues and 2.1 per cent of nationalists doing likewise.

While the overall percentage of those surveyed who saw legacy as the most important issue was just 1.7 per cent, the proportion of nationalists (3.6 per cent) was greater than unionists (0.6 per cent).

Right now, these are the only things that that have been discussed in the public square for the last few years, but it turns out most people really don’t care (very much) about issues that derive largely from the old primary divide in politics.

What’s facing all parties (not least since Alliance now looks set to be a strong third in First Preferences to SF and the DUP) is the question: how to increase their vote in such a way that will enhance their constitutional ambitions (if they have them)?

Voter volatility (so much a feature of the rest of the western world) has finally arrived in Northern Ireland.

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