A snapshot which favours FG, while FF must mind the gap
Our latest opinion poll comes at a happy time for the Government, and the headline figures are good for Fine Gael, says Paul Moran
This latest Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown opinion poll, conducted up until last Wednesday, coincides with a relatively happy time for the Government, and this is reflected in these results. The headline figure sees Fine Gael rise six points to 36pc since our last comparable poll in summer 2017.
This represents its highest outing so far in this series of opinion polls, and is a 10-point increase on its general election showing of two years ago. Of course, this is a snapshot, with no general election on the immediate horizon (even though these results may add impetus to the more hawkish elements in FG to call an early election). Remember the party had momentum going into the 2016 election, which dissipated quickly.
The backdrop to this poll is continuing positive economic indicators, Brexit (which in the short term is ironically proving to be a boon for the party), and the Project Ireland 2040 plan.
Brexit as a benefit to FG is largely down to the success of, and preparedness of, the Department of Foreign Affairs over the past two years. It has enabled us to play hard ball with the UK, safe in the knowledge that the EU is in our corner. Thus, time and time again, Leo Varadkar can don the green jersey and punch above his weight in negotiations. No doubt the UK government is rueing its lack of foresight on this front.
The 2040 plan, which was being drip-fed to the public during the course of interviewing, provides the mood music to this poll. Regardless of rural concerns, there is undeniably a feel-good factor generated by the proposals just announced. How much will be achieved is a moot point, and while it is both easy and understandable to be cynical (look no further than Bertie's Transport 21 Plan), there is still the undoubted attraction of being promised shiny new things.
Fianna Fail remains relatively steady at 28pc, which given the circumstances is not a bad result. However, just as FG backbenchers will be buoyant, there will be some within FF feeling edgy. Letting too much clear blue water develop between the parties is always a danger - remember, exactly one year ago, the party held an eight-point lead. It is now an eight-point deficit.
The issue is, how can the party resurrect its standing when there are no obvious bad news stories on the horizon for the Government (notwithstanding the ongoing housing, homeless and health storm, which, to a certain extent, the Government has weathered)? Coupled with a giveaway budget in October, time is running out for FF to bridge the gap.
Many have said that Micheal Martin's best opportunity to strike was when Enda Kenny was a lame duck Taoiseach. With Leo at the helm, the ground rules have changed. While British prime minister Theresa May going to the country on the back of poll results backfired spectacularly last year, one suspects that Leo would not make the same campaigning mistakes.
Sinn Fein remains stubbornly rooted on 20pc. The impact of Mary Lou McDonald's coronation at this stage has been negligible.
Labour will be bitterly disappointed to fall back to 4pc. Even though its TDs (and in particular Alan Kelly) have been effective more recently in the Dail, Labour is simply not gaining any traction. Come the next general election, it must pick its battles carefully. As it stands now, it is being squeezed by the electorate to the point of irrelevance, with other parties gladly picking up the slack.
The wane of Independents and smaller parties continues. It seems there is a large, and fickle, floating vote available within the electorate; Fine Gael "borrowed" these votes from Fianna Fail in 2011, "lost" them again in 2016, and now seems to be more attractive to them in 2018.
The rise in FG's popularity is mirrored in satisfaction with the Government. Nearly half (49pc) are happy with how the country is being run. This level of support is at its highest in this series of polls, and is at a level not seen since before the crash, 10 years ago. Support is highest among the party faithful (82pc of FG supporters), the farming community (76pc), more affluent ABs (62pc) and those over the age of 65 (57pc). Interestingly many of these cohorts are the most likely to turn out to vote on polling day. Dubliners and those living in Connacht/Ulster are also more complimentary in their appraisal.
Looking at party leaders, satisfaction with Leo Varadkar has surged nine points, and now stands at 58pc - more than twice the support that Enda Kenny received at any time from before the election in 2016. Micheal Martin hasn't fared too badly either - he is up three points to 48pc; his highest approval rating. His honest stance on the Eighth Amendment may well have boosted his ratings (albeit it was not to everybody's taste).
Mary Lou McDonald gains the nod from 39pc. This is a higher rating than Gerry Adams ever achieved, but it is still early days - she will need to stamp her own identity on the leadership amid a suspicious public questioning who is really pulling the strings.
The only leader to see a drop in support is Brendan Howlin, reflecting the general malaise that is associated with all things Labour. He is in the job for close on 18 months, and this (22pc) is his lowest rating so far. Like his party, he too is failing to gain traction with the electorate. One in four (24pc) of his own party's supporters, albeit off a small base, is dissatisfied with his performance, noticeably higher than other party leaders.
A final metric to suggest that the tailwinds are behind Fine Gael is the party toxicity question. That is, which party would the public not vote for? While Fianna Fail continues to be the least toxic party (just 17pc explicitly state they would not vote for them), a more interesting trend is that Fine Gael is also becoming more palatable. Exactly this time last year, a third of the electorate (32pc) would not vote for it. This dropped to 25pc during the summer, and now stands at 22pc. A 10-point reversal in 12 months. The omens again look good.
Moving away from party politics, the only show in town over the next few months will be the Eighth Amendment referendum. This referendum will be both Conservative and Liberal Ireland's equivalent of Stalingrad. The Same Sex Marriage Referendum was simply the curtain raiser - to paraphrase the late Seamus Brennan, we're playing senior hurling now.
For this latest poll, we gauged support of a repeal of the Eighth (in general terms), in what circumstances abortion is acceptable, and specifically attitudes towards the 12-week abortion proposal. On the face of it, support for reform seems to be holding up strongly. Nearly two in three (63pc) agree that repeal is desired, versus 24pc saying it is not, and 13pc not offering an opinion. Stripping out the 'don't knows', this equates to a 72:28 majority. Of course, as minds focus, there can be opposing motivations for wanting to hold a referendum.
It is more instructive to ask when abortion is considered acceptable. We have tracked distress scenarios (rape, suicide, mother's health and fatal foetal abnormalities) over the years, with our last data point being prior to the general election. On each occasion, and again in this latest poll, there has been a clear majority in each of these cases to allow abortion. It is interesting to note that in this latest poll, support on all such scenarios has softened slightly.
More importantly, in this most recent poll, we asked if the recommendation to allow abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks goes too far, not far enough or is about right. Four in 10 say it is about right, versus 33pc saying it goes too far. A further 8pc say it doesn't go far enough, with 19pc undecided. This equates to a ratio of 48:52 in favour of advocates of the plan versus those against/those not sure.
This suggests that the result may be not as clear-cut as the headline figures suggest. It is too simple to assume that Undecideds will break down evenly. We have seen in the past that in referenda, many who are unsure of a constitutional change simply revert to the comfort zone of the status quo. In addition, as we saw in the same sex marriage referendum, when the odds are stacked in favour of one argument, waverers may be reluctant to show their hand, even if they tend to the opposite direction.
These findings suggest that no side can take anything for granted. The wording of this plebiscite will be critical. Either way, it is going to be an emotive and aggressive campaign, which will define how we see ourselves as a nation.
Paul Moran is an Associate Director with Kantar Millward Brown