The latest Lucid Talk poll was published in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, but, as an experiment, I started writing this analysis the evening before. That way it was possible to think about what different results for each party might mean, free from any unconscious influence from knowing the actual figures; which are:
Sinn Féin 32% (+3 from last election)
DUP 27% (+6)
Alliance 15% (+1)
UUP 9% (-2)
SDLP 7% (-2)
TUV 5% (-3)
At the Assembly election they took 21.3% of the vote. Last August’s poll placed them up 2.3% (at 23.6%) mainly thanks to a 1.6% drop in TUV support.
To be ready to face an election with confidence they need to be polling at least at the same level, and ideally above, Sinn Féin. In 2017 they squeaked the First Minister position by 28 seats to SF’s 27 having achieved 28.1% of the vote – 0.2% more than SF.
On that occasion the combined DUP + TUV vote was 2.7% higher than SF. So, provided the combined DUP and TUV scores in this poll matched the SF’s result, the DUP could enter an election with the hope of squeezing the extra votes necessary from the UUP during the campaign
If the TUV score were still holding the DUP down in this poll, then Donaldson’s party would seem to have no room to manoeuvre themselves back into Stormont, even if the UK and EU achieved an agreement which significantly mitigated the impact of the NI Protocol.
If the best that they have achieved is to add a couple of points taken directly from the TUV then, while they might claim to have made progress, they would only be kidding themselves. Votes gained from the TUV do not translate into additional seats. Only votes gained from the UUP or a drop in Alliance and/or SF support can boost the DUP seat tally.
If they show no progress at all from August it may be only a matter of time before questions start to be asked about the effectiveness of Donaldson’s leadership.
Added this morning Jeffrey Donaldson will breathe a big sigh of relief. The DUP’s 27% in the poll ticks almost all of his boxes. The drift back from the DUP is not quite as strong as he would like – another 1%. But he knows that his party will get the lion’s share of TUV transfers anyway. The combined DUP/TUV support matches SF’s 32%. Still 2 to 3% short of where it needs to be, but enough to give the party a fighting chance of taking First Minister.
What will please Donaldson most of all is the 2% drop in the UUP vote. That could put Doug Beattie’s Upper Bann seat within the DUP grasp and positions the party well for a campaign which would be all about squeezing the UUP vote further. However, be in no doubt, apart from Upper Bann the UUP is very well dug-in to the other seats it holds. They will be a very hard nut to crack.
The fact that the TUV can still hold on to former DUP voters leaves Donaldson with little room for manoeuvre in his root and branch opposition to the NIP.
The August poll suggested that SF had held and slightly increased its support from 29.0% in the May election up to 29.6%.
Holding that level would place the party in a highly competitive position going into an election.
Its highest poll score was 32.8% in December 2017. If they get close to that figure it would be almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which they did not gain the most seats.
On the other hand, the current SF story is all about momentum. A drop of a couple of points could put a serious dent in that narrative and would obviously make the DUP’s task much easier.
Added this morning Michelle O’Neill will be chewing her cornflakes with a big smile on her face. 32% puts the party only a sliver behind its best ever opinion poll result, and well up on its highest ever election result of 29.4% at the 2017 Westminster election. True there is no room for complacency, with the DUP gathering strength, and the risk that the poll might now be overestimating SF strength as they underestimated it before the last election. But she really could not have hoped for a more encouraging backdrop to a possible election campaign.
The party won a 13.5% share in May. The August poll put them 2.9 % up on 16.4%.
A similar score in the November poll would offer them a very useful cushion against the risk of loss of seats that they won marginally in May. It might even hold out the prospect of one or two further gains.
Any significant drop below 13.5% would be painful for the party, since a number of the gains they made in May would likely be reversed.
Further progress beyond 16.4% however could suggest that the party was once again benefitting from the suspension of Stormont as it did in 2019 in the third year of the previous suspension.
Added this morning Naomi Long will be content that at 15% her party is still polling above its Assembly share. She may be disappointed that the party’s emphasis on the need to restore a working Executive is not so far translating into new levels of support.
An 11.2% share in the May election was held in the August poll at 11.0%
The party could possibly absorb a drop of a couple of points without the loss of any seats – although Doug Beattie’s would be at risk.
An improvement of a couple of points might be an early indication that the party’s more nuanced/ambiguous (chose your preferred adjective) position on the Protocol was gaining traction against the backdrop of a suspended Stormont coupled with economic and health crises.
Added this morning With a 2 point drop to 9% the party has burnt through much of its safety cushion. It can’t afford to drop further. Will this put pressure on Beattie’s leadership? Probably not after just one poor poll result, but local Councillors in particular will be worried. The party won 75 seats last time, with 14.1% of the vote. Although the party often performs better at Council elections this poll suggests that the party stands to lose around 20, or on a bad day about 30, of those seats. Since local councillors are often the backbone of local party organisation this would considerably weaken the party in the future.
The party’s all-time election low of 9.1% was followed by its all-time polling low of 6.6% in August.
An improvement of a couple of points would bring a huge sigh of relief from the party, even though it would still face a challenging environment in an election.
A near repeat of the 6.6% figure would be devastating for morale with Local Elections only six months away and an Assembly election still on the cards.
Anything below their August figure doesn’t bear thinking about if you are an SDLP supporter.
Added this morning Colum Eastwood will find nothing to cheer him in the party’s 7% poll. At this level under half of the party’s Assembly seats would be safe. They also face the same issue at Local Council level as the UUP. Although it is possible that the party could perform better in the Council elections than this indicates, there is no pattern of their Council results exceeding their other election performances. They might expect to lose around 20 of the 59 seats they won last time.
They dropped from their Assembly election level of 7.6% down to 6.0% in the August poll.
The current expectation seems to be that the TUV shot their bolt in the Assembly election and their support will continue to drain back towards the DUP.
But if they hold that level it will put a big question mark over that theory. Allister will still hold a sufficient base from which to threaten fire and brimstone on any DUP backsliding. Donaldson would remain his political prisoner.
A further two or three point drop would bring forth much rejoicing in DUP mansions at the return of so many prodigal sons and daughters. Ironically that might not diminish Allister’s hold over the DUP, where the conclusion would likely once again be drawn that the only way to beat the TUV was to be the TUV.
Heads Jim wins. Tails Jim wins.
Added this morning Jim Allister saw his party drop just 1 point from August. This is likely to be followed by further erosion – but he remains the DUP’s bogeyman.
Some further observations
The growth of the DUP and SF in this poll owes something to a reduction in measured support for smaller parties and independents who between them took 8.2% of the total vote in May. This poll reduces them to 5%. Opinion polls are not able to accurately measure support for individual independents, so it is best to make no assumptions on their prospect based on polls. So these may bounce back at an Assembly election, and would almost certainly do so in the Local Government elections.
Also because we do not know the breakdown of that missing 5% until the detailed tables are published by Lucid Talk in a few days’ time, we do not yet know the precise totals for unionist, nationalist and others.
Michael Hehir is a retired sales and marketing manager. He studied in Northern Ireland but now lives between England and Italy.