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James McCarthy-Morrogh: 'Known unknowns' will seal FF fate

SO it's make your mind up time and, happily, it seems, most of us have. Six Millward Brown Lansdowne opinion polls have tracked the views of voters since the end of January and the number of undecided voters has halved in that time.

During the last week in January, one in five voters was undecided, now it is just over one in 10.

The battle for hearts and minds has largely been won and Fine Gael has made most of the gains. But who are the uncommitted voters, and what influence might they have?

Since 1997, RTE exit polls have given us some insight as to how these voters can influence campaign momentum. Four years ago, just over one in four voters reported making up their minds on the week of polling and remarkably one in eight decided only "today or yesterday", when interviewed outside the polling station.

Crucially, one in three of those who switched their vote between 2002 and 2007 made their mind up in the last week of the campaign -- illustrating just how important that final stretch was.

Moreover, back then, all the momentum was with Fianna Fail. One in five of those who switched to Fianna Fail did so "today or yesterday"', while only one in 10 who switched to Fine Gael did so in the same time period -- revealing how the momentum of their campaign ebbed in the final week, as the Brian Cowen-inspired surge led Fianna Fail to the finish line.

Today, twice as many women as men have yet to make up their minds. But there is little difference by age or social group. Those in Connacht and Ulster are the most likely to have made up their minds while those in Munster are the least -- so there are clearly still votes to be won right up to the wire, in any given constituency.

The key to the undecided voter is knowing which party they voted for in 2007. Last month, two in three undecided voters were ex-Fianna Fail voters potentially looking for a new political home. By the final poll, on Wednesday, this had fallen to just over four in 10. The undecided FF voters from 2007 have been finding new allegiances -- but they haven't been returning 'home' in anything like sufficient numbers.

Civil war politics may be ending, but not in the way many would have thought; large numbers of ex-Fianna Fail voters have now opted for Fine Gael. Almost three in 10 Fianna Fail voters from 2007 are now opting for the 'old enemy'. Now, just 11pc of former Fianna Fail voters remain up for grabs. The party will be pinning its hopes on them staying loyal and giving the party a chance of a lead over Sinn Fein in opposition.

Labour might be concerned as well. Only six in 10 Labour supporters from 2007 have remained loyal, with many seeping away towards the plethora of independents.

Labour is attracting significant numbers of ex-FF and Green voters to more than make up the difference -- but if it had kept more of its 2007 vote, it could have been better positioned to deliver on its previously-hoped-for support levels. Labour's campaign has been a leaky bucket -- gaining voters, but also losing them.

So might the final debate have had an impact on the undecided voters? With no 'Dan Quayle' moment occurring, our evidence makes it unlikely that the three-way skirmish will have had a major impact on voters.

Midway through the 2011 campaign, Dublin voters were asked how influential TV debates were for them in making up their mind. Only one in 10 undecideds in the capital said 'very influential', with a further one in four saying 'quite influential', leaving a clear majority saying the debates had little or no influence.

The data from 2007 bears this out: those who made up their mind in the last two days were as likely to opt for Enda Kenny or Bertie Ahern as the winner as the rest of the voters. Voters who made up their mind following the debate differed little in their opinion to those who made up their minds before -- suggesting that the two-way encounter swayed few decisions overall.

So what might the final undecideds do?

These voters are the known unknowns -- in Donald Rumsfeld's parlance; we know they are there, but, until the boxes are opened tomorrow, we cannot know where they have gone.

If the remaining rump of undecideds still cannot say they are abandoning Fianna Fail, is it probable that they will stay loyal? If they do, they may well be the difference between a hammering and a humiliation.

James MacCarthy-Morrogh is account director with Millward Brown Lansdowne

Irish Independent