Belfast Telegraph

Poll: Arlene Foster rating plummets - DUP and Sinn Fein neck-and-neck

By Jonathan Bell

The public rate the DUP's Arlene Foster as the worst of any of the Northern Ireland political leaders while both the DUP and Sinn Fein are neck-and-neck in the polls, with the unionists tipped to come out of the election as the biggest party, but only just.

That's the latest finding by pollsters LucidTalk.  The Northern Ireland-based research company regularly carries out surveys of its over 6,000-strong opinion panel, with responses then boiled down to represent the Northern Ireland population.

Between January 26 and 28 almost 2,500 people responded to the survey with 1,580 taken into consideration in order to get a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population in order to extrapolate them out to predict voting patterns.

The company, which says its results are accurate to within 3%, is conducting a series of polls in the run up to the March 2 election.

And the latest results show that the DUP looks to take the biggest hit in the polls - although it may not lose any more seats than has been predicted with the overall reduction in MLAs from 108 to 90.

When asked which party people intend to vote for, the DUP's share dropped by just over 3% to 25.87%. That compares to Sinn Fein who sit on 25.1%, a 1.1% increase on last year's Assembly election.

UUP, Alliance and the Greens also gain over 1%, with Naomi Long's party looking to increase its vote share by almost 2% - the biggest gain of any party.

UKIP, the PUP and others, including independent, are all predicted to lose votes.

More: Poll: Arlene Foster's leadership rating plummets from 49% to 29%

Meanwhile, in terms of leadership ratings the DUP's Arlene Foster comes out bottom of the pile among the general population.

The former first minister has a leadership rating of 21.6%. That compares to a previous rating of 29% following the Renewable Heating Incentive revelations. Prior to that, before December 2016, it was 49%, the best of all the political leaders.

Mrs Foster's closest political opponent is the SDLP's Colum Eastwood, who came out with 44%. While Alliance's Naomi Long enjoys the highest rating on 52%, the latest poll suggests.

TUV leader Jim Allister comes out second with an approval rating of 48.8% with Sinn Fein's new leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill third on 46.1%.

When only unionists are included into the results Jim Alister comes out on top with Arlene Foster just half a percentage point above Michelle O'Neill who was bottom on 28.9%.

The UUP's Mike Nesbitt came out second on 49%.

The polling results however do still show Mrs Foster does still enjoy the support of her party.

She comes out with a 72% rating among DUP voters with Jim Allister second on 49% and Michelle O'Neill third on 30%.

The majority of people also feel that more will come out to vote in the snap election brought about after Sinn Fein refused to nominate for the deputy First Minister's post therefore collapsing the Executive.

And asked the factors behind their decision to vote. The health service was the main priority with the RHI scandal coming out second as most on voters minds closely followed by education and equality.

Among the public as a whole, polling showed Mrs Foster's leadership rating went from 49% to 29% in the days after she survived a vote of no confidence in the Assembly by way of a cross-community vote.

Before the RHI crisis, unionist voters rated Mrs Foster at six out of 10 for her leadership. After the green energy scandal hit the headlines, that dropped to four out of 10.

Previously, given the reduction in the number of seats from 108 to 90 in the new Assembly, it is thought most of the parties will lose seats.

LucidTalk managing director Bill White described the DUP's 3% decrease as "quite a drop".

He said: "But may not totally translate into dropping a similar relatively large number of seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. This is because it would take an even larger drop to really feed into the party losing the comparative number of seats.

"Though this drop could be the difference in terms of them losing one or two extra seats. That is above the number of seats they are expected to lose."

He added: "A large number of poll participants who said they voted DUP last May 2016, say they will switch this time to the UUP and other parties.

"This is a noticeable swing to the UUP, but at this stage in the campaign, is not overwhelming. The DUP can cope with this swing, in terms of not being damaged too much overall in terms of seats, but they can’t afford the swing to grow anymore over the course of the campaign.

"The Alliance poll increase of +1.9% compared to last May 2016 is a good healthy score, and should show that they are well on course to maintaining their current seat tally of eight, with maybe even a possible gain somewhere."

More: DUP likely to remain largest party, pollster suggests

The polling also suggests that there is an increasing number of SDLP voters considering putting a UUP candidate as second choice. While there may be a lowering of transfers between the UUP and DUP. Those UUP voters are more likely to consider tranfering their vote to Alliance, Greens or SDLP.

"This is a noticeable trend and could make a difference in terms of MLAs elected last in seats like South Belfast, North Down, and Strangford," Bill added.

"There has been a lowering of DUP to UUP transferring, and UUP to DUP transferring – with the latter being more noticeable than the former. DUP show higher transfer than before to TUV, and likewise so do the UUP - even more so. First preference UUP voters are tending now much more to Alliance, Green, and SDLP - in that order - with the DUP coming fourth in terms of second transfers for UUP first preference voters."

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