From top; Dublin city centre; Dan Boyle
I have never really had a lot of time for opinion polls. This hasn’t been because I have often found myself on the wrong side of their prognostications. Rather I have come to form the belief that opinion polls can be used to lead, rather than reflect public opinion.
A requirement exists in some European countries that opinion polls cannot be publicly published within a set time of an election date. An attempt several years ago to introduce such a provision into Irish law, was defeated in Seanad Éireann, which then was displaying a rare display of independence.
As former member of the Seanad I would like to see the independence of the Upper House being asserted more frequently. However, in this instance I believe the view of the Seanad was wrong.
The influence of opinion polls is not in persuading voters favouring one candidate or proposition over another. They don’t telegraph an assumption that voters should get in line with a trending ‘winning’ candidate or proposition.
What they can do, and do do, is create an impact on likely turnout. Polls which show large margins, induce complacency and make it less likely that supporters of a candidate/proposition deemed to be ‘winning’ will come out to vote.
Polls on the upcoming referendum seeking to rescind the Eight Amendment to the Constitution, should be looked at in this light.
It is highly unlikely that the final results of the May 25 vote will be anything like what is currently being portrayed. The suggested Yes vote should be looked at as being particularly suspect. In no respect should a successful Yes vote be taken for granted.
Part of this would be because of the established trends over the past 35 years of constitutional debates in this country, debates that have taken place between liberal and conservative viewpoints. Experience shows that invariably conservative opinion strengthens and solidifies during the course of a referendum campaign.
The different criteria used by polling companies to weight the don’t know/don’t care responses received, often fail to catch the nuances of these responses. Follow through questions on whether those polled are very likely, less likely or not likely to vote do little to catch these nuances.
Allocating don’t know opinions in the proportion of those who have expressed an opinion, even with weightings on who is and who isn’t likely to vote, distorts rather than confirms the prevailing opinion.
These misgivings aside the declared intentions seem, at this remove, to favour the Yes side. Support, while receding, seems closer to the 50%+ level needed. The receding Yes vote does not seem to be translating into new No support. Indeed No support also seems to be receding, albeit at a slower rate than that of Yes.
What is being recorded is a growing number of don’t know voters. This doesn’t represent good news for the Yes campaign. That campaign has to produce the reasons for positive change. The more uncertainty that is created the less likely voters will be to vote Yes.
Turnout will be key. The higher the turnout the more likely a Yes vote will prevail. It can be done. I’m hopeful it still will be done. None of us can or should assume that it will happen.
Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle