In a former life, as a bookmaker, my job was to compile the original general election odds. For the forthcoming election and, in order to predict possible outcomes, my first instinct is to check the assessments of those whose money is on the line if they get it wrong. Who'll be next Taoiseach? How many seats for each party? Which parties will form the next administration? The most likely to be correct are the bookies, before political players (who are too biased and favour their own) and media hacks (who are too close to the Leinster House bubble).
For the uninitiated, a quick explainer about the modus operandi of bookmaking: with two possible outcomes, eg the toss of a coin - heads or tails, actual odds are evens each; to create a profit, marginal odds are 5/6 each, meaning in a perfectly balanced book for each €100 paid out, the bookie takes in €120; with three eventualities, odds of 7/4 on each means for every €7 of winnings paid out, you pocket €8. The weight of cash moves markets to keep the liabilities manageable.
Odds compilers assess the following form factors: the sum of the parts of 40 constituency battles - all politics are local in Ireland; the accuracy of current opinion polls; recent election results (local council/European May 14 and by-elections); revised constituency commission boundaries; election timing; transfer prospects; predominant issues where voters will determine the outcome; relative party momentum and leadership appeal.
Redrawing of constituencies means a smaller Dáil of 160 instead of 166 seats; three less constituencies; number of five-seaters is unchanged at 11, 16 four-seaters and 13 three-seaters (down from 17). County constituencies have been newly established for Donegal, Kerry, Offaly, Laois and Tipperary. Our PR multi-seat regime is reasonably fair, relative to the UK, where the Tories got 37pc of votes for more than 50pc of seats. However, there's a seat bonus for the bigger parties. Last time, Fine Gael got 36pc of first preference votes, but 76 seats (46pc). Labour's 19.4pc vote gave 22pc (37 TDs) seats. Fianna Fáil's 17.4pc vote meant only 12pc of seats - due to being transfer toxic. Sinn Féin's 9.9 pc vote meant 8.4pc seats (14 TDs). Converting poll ratings directly proportionate to seats in the next Dáil, a ready reckoner would be: 31pc equals 50 seats; 25pc equals 40 seats; 19pc equals 30 seats; 12pc equals 7 TDs. For smaller parties with less than 10pc in polls, the key issue is the concentration of firepower. PDs won 14 seats in 1987 with 8.4pc of the votes.
The latest polls, combined with revised constituencies in the 32nd Dáil, means Fine Gael is set to lose more than 20 of 76 seats won in 2011. They're hovering around 28pc, with internal strategists privately aiming for 60 TDs. I feel this is overoptimistic. Why? The lack of a same-seat bonus is inevitable on a declining vote; a constituency redraw virtually eliminates 10 seats, and due to gender quotas and excessive outgoing Oireachtas numbers, they're likely to run too many candidates (four in Galway West, three in Dublin Bay North is excessive), resulting in early eliminations and the loss of transfer opportunities.
Government parties overestimate the chances of sitting, big-name TDs resisting negative swings - Fianna Fáil was wiped out in 2011, high-profile was no refuge. Fine Gael to win between 48 and 54 seats is my present prediction. Fine Gael and Labour believe as the economic recovery deepens and widens it will automatically increase support in parallel with the growth in jobs and GDP.
That's based on "it's the economy stupid" perennial wisdom. This ignores 'exclusion' factors - those who don't benefit. These include: areas outside Dublin and large cities; long-term welfare recipients in poverty; legacy-distressed debtors (mortgages and small businesses). Governments are often victims of the demand for "change" for its own sake.
They tend to accumulate disaffected voters on single issues: teachers irked at Junior Cert reform, religious/traditionalists opposed to same-sex marriage, water protesters, public sector workers, victims of the hospital trolley crisis - they're all waiting in the long grass with their own particular grievance. The scars of austerity will hurt Labour, which could mean losses of between 7 and 14 seats - and more TDs may follow the retirement routes of Ruairi Quinn and Eamon Gilmore.
If Fianna Fáil repeats the 24pc performance in the local elections, they could bag up to 36 seats. Best case scenario, this still means Fine Gael will be the largest party in the next Dáil. Fianna Fáil has failed to break through in Dublin and in the East coast/commuter belt generally.
They should win one seat in each four and five-seat constituency which would yield 29 seats. It should win two seats in Cork South Central (out of four) and Carlow/Kilkenny; two in any of Kerry, Galway West, Donegal, Louth and Wexford. The likelihood is Sinn Féin will eat their lunch in critical marginals. It can win 28 seats, based on consistent polls and strategically well-placed local councillors as sole runners. It is set to be the largest party in the 10 Dublin constituencies. I understand private constituency polls commissioned by the larger parties confirm their individual's strength on the ground.
The dark horses are the new entrants of Shane Ross' s Independent Alliance, Renua, and the latest 'centre-left' fledgling party of Shorthall/Donnelly/Murphy and 'hard-left' of Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit/Wallace-Daly. Their challenges are horrendous, as they can't access any of the €12.6m annual state funding and are prohibited from receiving donations of more than €1000 per candidate, or €2500 per party.
The electoral appeal of an Independent is precisely because they are a free agent, not a compromised franchise. Without doubt, the failure of this Dáil's technical group to unite with a collective brand offering means fatal fragmentation and likely confusion. The likelihood is that they'll comprise handfuls of groups, totalling roughly 30 TDs.
My current overall guesstimate: Fine Gael 52; Fianna Fáil 33; Sinn Féin 29; Labour 12; new small parties 13; Independents 21. After successive abortive Dáil attempts to form a government, Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael may provide an historic coalition, as a sole viable entity with a working majority. But this catharsis could result in inter-generational leadership change for Kenny and/or Martin to assuage ancient internal hard-liners. They are my tips; so place your bets and take your chances.