A watershed for Fine Gael?

Published by: Richard Colwell

2014.11.24

Having seen support fall last month against despite delivering the first non-austerity budget in years, Fine Gael were left wondering just how bad the water charge issue would affect the party. Now we know. A further drop of 4% in support this month can only be directly attributed to problems over water charges and how slowly the coalition has dealt with this during the past 4 weeks.

To lose 2% in one month is within margin of error and possibly no real cause for concern. To lose 6% in support in two months, at the same time as the country is emerging from recession and following the first non-austerity budget for years, is much more of a concern. It is clear that the proposed final solution to water charges, announced in the final day of fieldwork for the poll, needs to be accepted by voters if the party support is to rebound.

The falls in support over the past two months, combined with a general decline during the period in government, leave Fine Gael securing the lowest share of first preference vote since RED C began tracking back ten years ago in 2004. A 22% share now, represents a 14% decline in support since the last election, and is lower than that the party achieved in both the 2007 and the 2002 general election.

Worse still as far as party strategists are concerned, the declines this month leave Fine Gael securing exactly the same level of support as Sinn Fein, and that is despite the concerted efforts to point a spotlight at Sinn Fein, with a strong attack by the Taoiseach himself in regard to the Maria Cahill allegations, and negative media coverage of Mary Lou McDonald refusing to leave the Dail.

So who exactly has deserted Fine Gael since the last General Election, and how likely are they to return? Some declines are evident across all the different demographic groups. However, the largest decline in support is among those in the pre-retired lifestage, who had originally been the parties strongest supporters. Characterised by those who are probably also supporting grown up children through difficult times, at least 60% of these supporters have taken their support away from the party. They appear to have moved mostly to support Independent candidates, with some also moving support to Sinn Fein.

Outside of this key group, Fine Gael has also lost support among women, who had been another stronghold at the last election; and also those from more upmarket households.

The fact that the biggest losses have come from previous strongholds may give some cause for optimism, with regard to potentially being able to win these core supporters back. Also the fact that they have moved to Independent candidates rather than another party, potentially makes them easier to shift back to the party over the next 12-18 months before the next General Election.

Labour haven’t suffered to the same extent on the back of the water charges controversy, but neither have they made any gains after previous losses. Likewise Fianna Fail appears to be permanently stranded at 18% support, with no apparent ability to make any gains despite the woes of the government parties.

Sine Fein on the other hand appear to be benefiting from their rebellion against the establishment, despite disquiet among the political classes at their methods. The reality is that many normal everyday voters are more than happy to see someone stand up to the established parties who they often feel have failed them once again. Don’t forget it was Labours promise to stand up to Brussels and burn the bondholders, that was so instrumental in them winning support at the last election. So while some would see Mary Lou McDonald refusing to leave the Dail as an affront against democracy, for others this is exactly how they would have behaved, if someone avoided answering their questions about a topic they felt so strongly about. It also appears that the allegations against the party leadership by Maria Cahill is having little impact on the party support, unless of course they could be taking an even greater share of the vote without these.

While Sinn Fein are of course taking support from other parties, in particular Labour, the reality is that they are making the largest gains among both new voters and those that didn’t vote at the last election. Support for the party is twice as high among 18-24 year olds than among those over 45. The danger of course is that these voters are simply less likely to turn out to vote, and evidence from previous elections suggest that support may fall back on Election Day.

The other group in the ascendancy over the long-term trends are Independent candidates, and other smaller parties. They have doubled their support among the electorate since the last General Election, moving from 15% of the first preference vote in 2011 to 30% in this poll. Most of the support for Independent candidates has moved to them from the government parties, with particular gains among women and those in the 44-64 year old age groups. The real question is whether the Independent candidate groups can prove they can seriously represent voters after any General Election, and so make the most of this and secure that support in the polling booth, or if when the reality of an election looms this support seeps back to the parties.

Download full report below
SBP November 2014 Poll Report

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