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Assembly Election 2017: Sinn Fein always the winners - UUP always going to be hit hardest

'Sorry Jo-Anne Dobson, Danny Kennedy, Sandra Overend, it looks as if you were going to lose anyway'

By Bill White

Now the dust has settled on Assembly election '17, like all polling companies, pundits, and commentators, we review what we said - or rather our polls said - before the vote to what actually ended up happening.

One key point was that the drop from six to five seats would help the bigger parties like the DUP and Sinn Fein – no surprise as all the pundits said that. However, it was only as the campaign was progressing that it occurred to me that the seat drop was very much more in Sinn Fein’s favour than the DUP’s.

Sinn Fein had calculated that the DUP were more vulnerable than Sinn Fein in their big seats. That was where they held three out of six MLAs.

Sinn Fein were in a much stronger position in their own multi-MLA seats than the DUP, and they had also calculated that a weakened DUP (because of RHI and other issues) would put pressure on the DUP in their multi-MLA key seats. As it turned out the DUP held onto their three seats in only one constituency, Strangford. In this regard, undoubtedly Sinn Fein had done their homework.

Now Sinn Fein are looking at their next big challenge, the upcoming Dail election in the south, although that’s if there isn’t another election here first. Their latest poll ratings in the south have been rising and their Northern Ireland election success will no doubt boost morale further – the last RedC poll in February in the Republic showed a 4-6% jump in Sinn Fein support.

I said on the media several times that the bottom line, or the floor for the DUP, was 28 seats – basically saying that it was hard to see how they could fall below this no matter how the campaign went. The DUP ended up hitting that floor with a bump.

The key factor between the DUP and Sinn Fein election performances was the differential turnout. Proportionally more nationalists/republicans turned out to vote than unionists. Based on our pre-election polling, we had forecast this differential turnout would happen, but frankly we underestimated the extent of it.

What about the other parties?

The SDLP held their own coming back with 12 seats and got the ‘run of the ball’ or luck with two or three of those wins. There’s nothing wrong with luck – you need it in an election. You can do all the poll research, have the correct policies, and a good campaign, but elections have an element of a sports contest about them as well, and you need the right votes (particularly transfers) falling in the right constituencies to win seats on the day. The SDLP had the ball running for them on March 2.

So sorry Jo-Anne Dobson, Danny Kennedy, Sandra Overend, it looks as if you were going to lose anyway. Bill White

 

As expected, and as we had predicted, the Alliance Party had a very good election – we forecast their vote share to within 0.3%. Alliance returned with eight seats out of 90 – so the same number that they had in the previous 108-seat Assembly. So this in fact represented a gain for the Alliance party.

The Green party maintained their two seats, and perhaps suffered slightly by the increased vote for Alliance. Some Green party voters may have gone Alliance in some constituencies thinking the Alliance candidate had a better chance of winning, particularly in the likes of South Down and North Belfast.

What about the UUP?

When Mike Nesbitt said that his infamous remark about transferring to the SDLP hadn’t affected the UUP performance at the election, he could be right.

Our pre-election polling showed no strong support growth for the UUP either before his SDLP transferring remarks, or after. Yes, there was a bit of UUP growth in our polling, but not much.

So sorry Jo-Anne Dobson, Danny Kennedy, Sandra Overend, it looks as if you were going to lose anyway. Yes, UUP candidates may have heard on the doorsteps about Nesbitt's SDLP remarks – but I would suggest those were only excuses, and those people weren’t probably going to vote UUP anyway.

The drop to five seats per constituency was the killer for the UUP, and the UUP were always going to be hit badly by this (more than any other party).

This is regardless of what Mike Nesbitt had said, or what strategies the UUP followed. The key election for the UUP was May 2016 when the UUP should’ve made gains up to around 19-20 seats, in the old six-seater constituencies. That would’ve given them a buffer going into this recent five MLAs per constituency election, and then even if they dropped seats (which as I’ve said they couldn’t avoid anyway) they would still have had 14-15 seats which would’ve been a passable performance.

What worked against the UUP performance was the mixed messages over the past five years and particularly the 2015 general election pact – not the Fermanagh/South Tyrone deal, but specifically the deal in East Belfast against Naomi Long. That damaged the UUP in east Northern Ireland, and particularly in Belfast.

In any case, hold on to your hats, or perhaps it’s better to say polling station IDs, as we may be doing it all again in a couple of months.

Bill White, is Managing Director of Belfast based LucidTalk Polling and Market Research. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter at @LucidTalk.

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