Fergus Finlay: Polls only suggest a likely election result. Your vote can guarantee it

I canvassed a bit last week and I’ll do a bit more this week. I was out with friends for a friend: Juliet O’Connell, of the Labour Party, who’s running in Dún Laoghaire.

Fergus Finlay: Polls only suggest a likely election result. Your vote can guarantee it

I canvassed a bit last week and I’ll do a bit more this week. I was out with friends for a friend: Juliet O’Connell, of the Labour Party, who’s running in Dún Laoghaire.

I’m never sure whether knocking on doors helps to inform you or whether it distorts the picture. It is certainly the case that at the start of this election, people were largely indifferent.

But, quickly, they have become engaged. I’m quite convinced that the more they’ve gotten to know our candidate, the better they like her.

But the canvass has also revealed a voter wariness about changing horses in midstream.

If I was relying on a few days’ canvassing in Dún Laoghaire, I’d be telling you that Fine Gael are a shoo-in in this election, and that the only change the electorate want is a return to old-style, two-party coalitions.

But the opinion polls are saying the opposite.

My first election was in 1981 — that’s almost 40 years ago. I worked full-time or part-time in a very large number of elections until relatively recently.

Nowadays, I’m more a spectator.

Some of the elections I’ve been involved in were joyous and life-changing. Some were gall and wormwood, as your man in the Bible (I think it was Moses, but I’m not an expert) said.

But every one of them taught me a lesson. And those lessons are set in stone.

The first one is never disbelieve the polls. When I worked in politics full-time, the news of an imminent poll almost had the same effect on me as the vomiting bug.

Until I got my hands on the data (and I used go to enormous lengths), I had a permanent cramp in my stomach.

And once I got hold of it, I instantly believed the good ones. Polls that were good for my party were based on impeccable science, I reckoned.

But polls that were bad for the party were always rogue. They were outliers that would be proved desperately wrong on the day.

Except, in forty years, that has never really happened. They can be wrong, of course, and they can be affected by turnout.

Especially differential turnout, whereby some constituencies have a large proportion of the population that is marginalised and alienated from the political system.

Voters like that will always tell pollsters they’re going to vote in huge numbers against the establishment.

But they don’t vote against the establishment, because they don’t vote at all.

But, in forty years, the polls have never got it utterly wrong. And especially if you follow trends carefully, and you watch gaps narrowing and opening, pollsters in Ireland have a very good record at calling the result.

Before I tell you what exactly the polls are predicting right now — and I don’t know if there is one more poll to go (I don’t have the stomach-churning need to go hunting for them any more) — there is another rule you need to know.

Even though polls are never wrong, they’re not always right.

To put that another way, if a poll is treated as a piece of useful intelligence by a political party, it tells them something important.

It tells them where they stand right now. It’s up to the political party to figure out how to change that.

You can bet that the strategists spent the weekend poring over the polls in as much detail as they could get and making decisions about where and how to change tack.

You might see the outcome of those decisions in the shape of the national campaign over the next few days.

But it’s more likely that there will be a host of local changes that are much less visible.

This is the moment where a party that’s running three candidates in a constituency has to make a final call on which is its best bet.

They may have been trying to “big up” all three candidates up to now, but if the polls say so, one of them — maybe even two of them — will disappear from view for the last week.

The last big push, if there is one, will be very heavily concentrated on the best prospect. The phrase “devil take the hindmost” comes very much into play.

So, when the votes are counted, the stories you’ll be reading in the immediate aftermath will be about how candidate X or Y has bucked the national trend in his or her constituency.

And they will also reflect, especially in the case of the smaller parties, how local factors came into play and proved the pollsters wrong.

There is a third rule about polls. They can self-fulfil if the parties and candidates don’t react correctly.

The people most affected by polls, for good or ill, are not the electorate, but the activists. Polls don’t dictate how people will behave: they reflect how people are thinking now.

But I’ve been involved in campaigns where you can see activists drifting away, giving up the ghost, after a couple of bad polls.

At precisely the point where they should be redoubling their efforts, morale gets so badly sapped by bad news that people abandon hope.

They forget that the bad news in an opinion poll is just today’s bad news. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow’s.

Because you’re reading this with four or five days of campaigning to go, I’m not going to make hard-and-fast predictions. But this much is clear.

Fine Gael will have a bad day nationally, but they will hold on to more seats than the polls are predicting.

Fianna Fáil will be able to say ‘we’re back’, but won’t have anything like enough to form a stable government, although Micheál Martin will be in a good position to be Taoiseach (if he can identify a Cabinet).

Sinn Féin will have a great day, but only if they invest heavily in getting the vote out

Labour and the Greens will both do okay, but neither will be in a position to go into government on their own.

The independents will find it difficult to form a cohesive group, and the hard left will struggle.

The bottom line is likely to be that no government will be possible (except the long-overdue, grand coalition between FF and FG) without the participation of Sinn Féin, probably with the addition of one of the smaller parties.

As the votes are counted, there’s going to have to be a lot of swallowing of previous commitments.

In the end of the day, one person gets to shape all that: You.

You need to get stuck in, just for 20 minutes or so, next Saturday.

The tighter the election, the more influence you have.

Whatever you’re doing on Saturday, set enough time aside to be really influential on the future of your country.

It’s a big decision, and you need to know that you really can make a hell of a difference.

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