Uncertainty increased: the latest Irish News poll…

There is a golden rule in reporting opinion polls: the more dramatic the poll result, the more cautiously it should be interpreted. The front-page headline of today’s Irish News, “Alliance and DUP neck and neck”, leaves little doubt that the latest Liverpool University poll is dramatic.

SF 26.6%

DUP and Alliance 18.2% each

UUP 12.1%

SDLP 10.5%

TUV 5.7%

Green 2.7%

PBP 2.1%

Others 3.9%

The margin for error is 3.1%

It is more productive to compare the changes between polls from the same organisation, since different organisations will have differences in methodology.

According to Liverpool university in the first weeks of the election campaign Alliance has increased its share by 3.6% – the only change outside the margin of error. The DUP has dropped 2.0%, the Greens 1.6% and UUP 1.4%. Other parties have remained much the same.

If correct, SF’s strictly proportional share of seats would be 24 – given that the electoral system is not strictly proportional they would probably emerge between 22 and 26. Down from their current 27. SF have a number of very marginal seats and they probably have more downside risk – especially since all polls have put them below the 27.9% first preference votes they won in 2017.

The DUP’s strict share of seats would be 16, which would probably put them between 15 and 20. They have more upside opportunity due to the potential for transfers particularly from the TUV. This would represent a massive cull from their current 28.

Alliance would also have a strict seat share of 16 (double the 8 they took last time), which would likely put them between 15 and 18.

The UUP would be between their current 10 and 12; while the SDLP could well drop from 12 to between 9 and 11.

The TUV would be very disappointed by this result, strict proportionality would give them 5 seats, but the electoral system would likely leave Jim Allister seated alone, or at best with one or two companions. Several DUP MLA’s could be very grateful for all those transfers.

Projecting seat numbers for the smallest parties is particularly fraught. The Greens and PBP would each have enough votes to give them two seats if the results were strictly proportional. PBP would almost certainly retain West Belfast and might have a crack at gaining Foyle. The Greens vote would be up from 2.3% to 2.7% but that would not guarantee that they hold their two seats – it would all hang on the mix of party shares in those constituencies.

There is three other observations to be made.

Throughout this campaign Liverpool University and Lucid Talk have shown a consistently different relationship between the DUP and TUV shares. Liverpool have never put the TUV in a position to remotely pose a major threat to TUV seats. Lucid Talk have had them there consistently there, or thereabouts, since January last year. This is a fundamental difference.

Secondly the two pollsters disagree (largely within the margin of error) on the direction that party support has moved during the campaign – particularly Alliance and the DUP.

Thirdly, the Liverpool University polling has been more erratic – showing more movement in party shares. At this stage it is impossible to tell if that reflects sampling error, or the volatility that one would expect when a lot of people are making up – and changing – their minds.

All will be revealed on Friday – or at least most of it.

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