Saturday 17 March 2018

Coalition will be very wary of surveys

John Downing

John Downing

OPINION polls have been refined to a point where they can pretty well predict a general election outcome as a campaign draws to a close.

But the same cannot be said of referendums - something which is uppermost in the minds of government ministers in both parties as they prepare for a referendum on same-sex marriage early next year. The government will not be relying upon a national survey in April which showed that seven out of 10 Irish people would vote 'Yes' and just two in 10 would vote 'No'.

The history of referendums over the past 20 years has been pretty complex and has puzzled the most seasoned and astute of our politicians. On EU and moral issues, such as abortion, a combination of right and left-wing forces have managed to combine and reject a referendum proposition.

An underlying problem is that voters vent their dissatisfaction with government on referendum day. Another is the legal insistence that each side of the argument get a 50:50 split in broadcast air time, irrespective of the status and representative standing of some groups.

But added to all that is the wonky nature of opinion poll predictions when it comes to referendums. Let's take a look at three recent cases.

Last year, voters decided by 52pc to 48pc to reject Taoiseach Enda Kenny's move to abolish Seanad Eireann, just two weeks after a Kenny 60:40 win was predicted. In 2011 surveys predicted a big win for government efforts to give TDs and Senators more powers of inquiry, but it was beaten. Surveys in 2012 had predicted just 5pc would vote against a children's referendum - but over 40 pc did so.

Turnout is a big issue in all of this. When it comes to referendums Irish voters find it difficult to contain their indifference.

Doubtless the survey companies are already working on this one. Meanwhile, the government is working on a vigorous campaign early next year, regardless of 70pc predicted support.

Irish Independent

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